From the Passover Seder to the Eucharist

The Mass wasn’t an invention of the apostles or something Jesus created out of nowhere. A long tradition says it was a transformation of a Jewish liturgy: The Passover meal, or Seder, as it later became known.

“While there’s debate about this point, there’s been a long tradition that [this was the case],” said Dr. Mark Giszczak Biblical scholar and professor at the Augustine Institute in Denver. “An attentive Jew would hear a lot of references to the Passover [at Mass].”

How did Jesus bring this about? With the help of Dr. Giszczak and Dr. Brant Pitre’s book, Jesus and the Jewish roots of the Eucharist, we try to illustrate the basic aspects of this tradition by describing the Passover meal, how Jesus kept it and how he transformed it during the Last Supper.

THE PASSOVER MEAL

It’s important to highlight some of the main characteristics outlined by God for his people in Exodus 12, where he commanded them to have a meal before freeing them from the land of Egypt. Some practices that were popular at the time of Jesus are also considered.

Sacrifice a lamb and spread its blood

The lamb had to be free of defects and had to be killed in such a way as to not break any of its bones. At the time of Jesus, the lambs had to be sacrificed at the Jerusalem Temple because sacrifice became a right reserved to the Levite priests. Thus, the Passover had to be celebrated in Jerusalem.

In Exodus 12, the Israelites had to spread its blood on the wooden lentils of the door, so when God passed through Egypt taking the lives of the first-born sons, he would “pass over” their house.

Eat the lamb with unleavened bread

The Israelites had to eat the flesh of the sacrifice, whose blood was spread to saved them from the death of their first-born child. Having unleavened bread was a sign of the haste with which they left Egypt – they had no time to let it rise.

Keep this day of remembrance forever

God commanded the Israelites to remember this day generation after generation. It was seen not only as a remembrance but also a sharing in the very mystery of the Passover. The father of the family would explain to his children the story and the symbolism behind the bread and other foods.

Passover of the Messiah

At the time of Jesus, a new theory had developed among many Jews, believing that the Messiah would deliver them on the night of the Passover and bring about a new covenant and new exodus, as God had delivered their ancestors from the land of Egypt.

The four cups

The Jewish Seder meal is divided into the blessing of four cups. Scholars aren’t exactly sure if this practice was already established at the time of Jesus, but there are reasons to believe so. This structure also called for the reading of the Hebrew Scriptures and closing hymns.

WHAT JESUS KEPT

Matthew, Mark and Luke say that the Last Supper was a Passover meal: “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you,” (Lk 22: 14-15). They also say that it was done in the evening and in Jerusalem, as was required. The Gospels also include an explanation of the meaning of the bread by Jesus and the conclusion with a hymn.

Theory of the four cups

Luke mentions that Jesus had more than one cup: “A cup” and then “the cup after supper” (Lk 22:14-20). Dr. Pitre explains that, although more speculative, there are reasons to think that a form of the four-cup tradition was already present, especially because it helps explain other allusions to a “fourth cup” by Jesus. Based on clues from the Gospel narrative, the cups mentioned must have been the second and third out of the four.

The first cup was for an introduction of the meal; the second was tied to the explanation of the bread and food symbols; the third was drank at the end of the supper; and the fourth was the closing cup after the final hymn.

WHAT JESUS CHANGED

Jesus shifts the focus from the remembrance of the old covenant to the “New Covenant” to be brought about by the Messiah at the Last Supper: “This chalice which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Lk 22:20). He establishes the new Passover in the following way.

The Passover lamb

The Passover liturgy revolved around the body and blood of the lamb. Jesus now focuses on his own body and blood, placing himself as the sacrificial lamb. He takes the bread and explains it in a new light: “This is my body.”

He then takes the wine and says, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt 26:27-28). Dr. Pitre says that a Jew would have understood Jesus saying, “I am the new Passover lamb… This is the Passover of the Messiah, and I am the new sacrifice.”

The missing cup

Instead of drinking what would’ve been the fourth cup of the Passover, Jesus says he will not drink wine again until he drinks it in the kingdom. In its place, after singing the final hymn, he goes straight to the Mount of Olives with his disciples (Mt 26:27-30). Dr. Pitre assures that this would’ve puzzled the apostles because it meant leaving the Passover meal unfinished.

Jesus’ fourth cup

The fourth cup is his sacrifice. In Gethsemane he prays to the Father three times about the cup of his death he must drink… “Let this cup pass from me” (Mt 26:36-46).

It is not until he is about to die on the cross that he asks for the last cup, saying, “I thirst.” After he drinks from the sponge full of wine, he exclaims, “It is finished.” Dr. Pitre states that it was then that he finished the Last Supper – on the cross right before he died. Jesus interwove his own sacrifice into the Passover mystery, as the sacrificial lamb, to bring about the Passover of the Messiah for the salvation all.

THE MASS

This New Passover is the Eucharistic celebration, the Mass. “He instituted a new Passover liturgy that was tied to his death,” Dr. Pitre says. We eat the flesh of the new Passover lamb, Jesus himself, and drink his blood. It’s the new covenant that brings about a new exodus, not from Egyptian slavery, but from the slavery of sin, and takes us to the Promised Land.

COMING UP: A caveat on the great Tom Wolfe

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When the great Tom Wolfe died on May 14 — he of the white suits, the spats, and the prose style as exuberant as his wardrobe — I, like millions of others, remembered the many moments of pleasure I had gotten from his work.

My Wolfe-addiction began on a cross-country flight in 1979, shortly after The Right Stuff was published. Always an airplane and space nut, I was fascinated by Wolfe’s re-creation of the culture of America’s test pilots and astronauts at the height of the Cold War. And there was that extraordinarily vivid writing. At one point I burst out laughing, scaring the daylights of the elderly lady sitting next to me but not daring to show her the passage — it must have involved Pancho Barnes’ Happy Bottom Riding Club, a saloon outside Edwards Air Force Base — that set me off.

After The Right Stuff got me going on Tom Wolfe, it was impossible to stop. The first half of Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers — Wolfe’s scathing account of a reception thrown for the Black Panthers by Leonard and Felicia Bernstein — remains the quintessential smack-down of political correctness among the 1% cultural elites. From Bauhaus to Our House explains why anyone with an aesthetic sense thinks something is seriously wrong with modernist architecture, and does so in a way that makes you laugh rather than cry.

Then there was Wolfe’s first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities. One of its chapters, “The Masque of the Red Death,” takes its title from Edgar Allan Poe and with mordant humor dissects the vacuity of Manhattanites consumed (and in some cases destroyed) by their grotesque, over-the-top consumerism. I recently re-read that stunning set-piece and the thought occurred, as it had before, that it was a far more effective polemic against materialism than anything ever issued by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Bonfire was also brilliant in skewering the destructiveness of New York’s race hustlers, the obtuseness of a values-free media, and the fecklessness of too many politicians.

Asked once by monks who run a prestigious prep school what they might do to disabuse parents of the notion that their sons were doomed if they didn’t get into Harvard, Duke, Stanford, and the like, I suggested giving a copy of I Am Charlotte Simmons to the parents of every incoming senior. Wolfe’s fictional tale of life on elite American university campuses in the 21st century is a sometimes-jarring exercise in the social realism practiced (a bit less brutally) by Dickens and Balzac. But Charlotte Simmons, like Wolfe’s other fiction, has a serious moral core and an important cultural message. The young innocent, the brightest girl in town who makes it to an elite university, gets corrupted by stages: and her moral corruption is preceded by intellectual corruption — the class in which she’s taught that there’s really nothing properly called “the truth.”

I do have one post-mortem caveat to register about Tom Wolfe’s oeuvre, which takes me back to The Right Stuff (and while we’re on that subject again, forget the inane movie). The central figure in Wolfe’s tale of aeronautical daring-do is Chuck Yeager, the man who first broke the “sound barrier” in the Bell X-1, and did so with a couple of broken ribs, which he managed in flight with the aid of a sawed-off broom handle. Yeager was an extraordinary figure who never became a national celebrity because of the (absurd) news blackout surrounding the X-1 project, and Wolfe clearly wanted to pay tribute to him as an unsung American hero.

To do so, however, Tom Wolfe seemed to think he needed a foil, and he cast astronaut Gus Grissom in that role: “L’il Gus,” the Hoosier grit lampooned as a bumbler to make Yeager look even better. And that was a grave disservice to the memory of Virgil I. Grissom, who did not mess up the second Mercury space flight (Wolfe’s account notwithstanding), and who gave his life for his country in the launch pad fire that consumed Apollo 1 — which Grissom knew to be a deeply flawed spacecraft and had urged NASA to improve.

So now that Tom Wolfe and Gus Grissom have both crossed what Wolfe once called the Halusian Gulp, I hope these two American patriots are reconciled. Both had the right stuff.