From the Passover Seder to the Eucharist

Vladimir Mauricio-Perez

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: For Love of Country: A Catholic Patriotism

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Our country has been through a lot this last year, as we all know. As many people have reacted against the founding and history of the United States, I have found myself drawn towards greater patriotism. By this, I simply mean a deeper appreciation of what I’ve been given by my country and also a growing realization of the duty I have to work for the common good, here and now. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of this duty under the fourth commandment that enjoins honor not only to parents but also to anyone in authority.   

It is the duty of citizens to contribute along with the civil authorities to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom. The love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity. Submission to legitimate authorities and service of the common good require citizens to fulfill their roles in the life of the political community (2239). 

Catholics, and all people of good will, are called to a love and service of country in order to work for the common good.  

Eric Metaxas argues that the future of our country depends precisely upon the active role of Christians in his book, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty (Penguin, 2017). He describes something called the Golden Triangle, an idea he borrowed from Os Guinness, but which ultimately comes from the Founding Fathers. “The Golden Triangle of Freedom is, when reduced to its most basic form, that freedom requires virtue; virtue requires faith; and faith requires freedom. The three go round and round, supporting one another ad infinitum. If any one of the three legs of the triangle is removed, the whole structure ceases to exist” (54). John Adams, for example, related very clearly, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other” (quoted on 61). Metaxas comments, looking to specific examples around the world, “if you take God and faith and morality out of the equation, everything inevitably falls apart. It cannot be otherwise” (48). It cannot be otherwise. That may sound extreme, but we have many examples from Communist and Fascist countries and now even from movements within our country that aggressive secularism parallels a collapse of real freedom.  

The Constitution established an ordered liberty that requires responsibility and a determined effort of preservation. Hence the title of the book, taken from Benjamin Franklin, a republic “if you can keep it.” We are called to actively preserve our country: entering into a deeper understanding of the “idea” of America that undergirds the Republic as well as showing a loving determination to overcome challenges and threats to its continuance. This is not to whitewash the past, as we all know the injustices of our history. Metaxas argues that we can be grateful for the good and unique blessings of our heritage while also working to overcome failures. “To truly love America, one must somehow see both sides simultaneously” (226). Furthermore, by loving our country we are willing her good, drawing our own selves into the work for her good and helping her to be true to herself. “So that in loving America we are embodying her original intentions — we are indeed being America at her best — and in doing so we are calling her to her best, to be focused on doing all she can to fulfill the great promise which God has called her in bringing her into existence and shepherding her through trials and tribulations all these and centuries — and now” (235).  

As Catholics, we have a lot to offer our country by drawing from our rich intellectual and spiritual heritage. Michael Krom, a philosopher at St. Vincent College, provides us with a great resource in his new book, Justice and Charity: An Introduction to Aquinas’s Moral, Economic, and Political Thought (Baker, 2020). In an age of confusion, Catholics can bring greater clarity in our national discourse on the nature of human life, virtue, and politics. “We live in a time of ideological conflicts, in which the citizens of the nations of the modern world seem incapable of agreeing upon even the most basic of moral, economic, or political principles. Civil discourse has been replaced with violent protest, and reasoned dialogue with character assassination” (2). As Catholics, we should be able to look above all of this, literally: “While the Church does not force us to reject political citizenship, she demands that we direct it to the heavenly, and we can do that by heeding her call to engage the world rather than conform to it. I wrote this book out of the conviction that those who want to heed the Church’s call to engage our culture need to look to the past” (ibid.).  

Dr. Krom shows us that St. Thomas Aquinas has much to teach us about living the good life, in pursuit of a genuine freedom and happiness, and that this should inform a Catholic approach to economics and politics. It is hard to work for virtue if you don’t know what virtue really is, and difficult to act justly toward others if you don’t understand the nature of duty. Aquinas can help us to judge the direction of our country, as “a government cannot be called ‘good’ unless it promotes just moral and economic relationships between its citizens” (121). This is precisely the purpose of government — to promote right order and peace. We can’t just dispense with politics because, “the fact that humans find their fulfillment in political community means that situating their own good with the good of the community as a whole is central to happiness” (125). We are not isolated individuals and can’t attain a good and complete life on our own.  

Our ultimate good, however, is God, not the political life. Everything — all of our choices, including economic and political ones — must be directed to our ultimate goal. There are not “two ends to human existence, the earthly and the heavenly … [T]here is only one end, the beatific vision” (162). In this way the Church informs our citizenship. Krom explains “how inadequate this human law is as a teacher in the virtues, for it is limited in scope to the prevention of those vices from which even the wicked can refrain, and thus leaves those who seek after perfect virtue to their own devices … [H]uman law is in need of a higher law to truly bring about a just community” (155). Unfortunately, we’re seeing that our society is no longer even trying to prevent serious vice. Catholics and all believers have an important role to play, because “the lack of religion in the citizenry leads it down the path of totalitarianism. It Is absolutely critical that a people maintain a strong commitment to a transcendent measure of the common good in order to protect the true flourishing of its members” (171). Krom’s important work on justice and charity can teach us how a Catholic can exercise a proper patriotism, a true love of country.