The Eucharist – Christ as Our Passover Lamb

“Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them.”  (Matthew 5:17)

In my last post I reviewed how the story of the exodus of the Jewish people from Egyptian slavery is a foreshadowing of our own salvation journey.  Moses was a “type” of Christ, and Christ is the fulfillment of Moses.  Deeply embedded within this story are many aspects which point us to the Catholic understanding of Eucharist.  And one of the most prominent is an understanding of how Christ is the fulfillment of the Passover lamb.  It is the sacrifice of the Passover Lamb that freed the Israelites from bondage, and it is the sacrifice of Christ our Passover Lamb that frees us from the bondage of sin.  And if Christ is going to lead a new exodus, there will also be a new Passover.

The apostle John records that when John the Baptist first saw Jesus he proclaimed “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”  (John 1:29).  St.  John also recorded the vision of Christ in the book of Revelation where he appears as “a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain,” (Revelation 5:6) and the praise resounding in heaven “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!”  (Revelation 5:12).  In fact, St. John referred to Christ as the lamb in the book of Revelation 29 times. 

St. Paul and St. Peter have even more direct references to Christ as our Passover Lamb.  St. Paul referred to Christ as our “pascal lamb” who has been sacrificed in 1 Corinthians 5:7.  And in 1 Peter 1:19 St. Peter referred to “the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.”

Most of us are familiar with the story of the Passover lamb as described in Exodus.  God gave specific instructions to Moses – “Tell all the congregation of Israel that on the tenth day of this month they shall take every man a lamb according to their fathers’ houses, a lamb for a household; and if the household is too small for a lamb, then a man and his neighbor next to his house shall take according to the number of persons; according to what each can eat you shall make your count for the lamb.  Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male a year old; you shall take it from the sheep or from the goats; and you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month, when the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill their lambs in the evening.  Then they shall take some of the blood, and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat them.  They shall eat the flesh that night, roasted; with unleavened bread and bitter herbs they shall eat it…..  Then Moses called all the elders of Israel, and said to them, ‘Select lambs for yourselves according to your families, and kill the passover lamb.  Take a bunch of hyssop and dip it in the blood which is in the basin, and touch the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood which is in the basin; and none of you shall go out of the door of his house until the morning.  For the Lord will pass through to slay the Egyptians; and when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the Lord will pass over the door, and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to slay you.’” (Exodus 12:3-8, 21-23)

The hyssop used to dip in the blood to mark the doorpost is an important detail.  We see in John’s Gospel that when Jesus is on the cross and says “I thirst,” it is hyssop that is used to raise a sponge to his lips (John 19:28-29).  But perhaps the most important detail of the story that is often missed is that the Israelites are not just commanded to sacrifice the lamb and mark the doorposts of their homes (just as the wooden cross of Christ will be marked with his blood).  They also had to eat the flesh of the lamb.  It was not optional.  Therefore the Passover as ordained by God was not only a sacrifice.  It was a singular event that was both a sacrifice and a covenantal family meal. 

God established the rite of the Passover celebration to be celebrated annually (Exodus 12:24).  Throughout the centuries there were some changes as the Jewish people developed the liturgical rite associated with the Passover celebration.  For example, the original Passover meal was to be eaten with “your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it in haste.”  (Exodus 12:11).  This was modified in the Passover liturgy so that people sat, or “reclined” at the table.  This was to accentuate the fact they were now free people, as in ancient times only free people experienced such a luxury.  Even though the lambs were still sacrificed, the Jewish people no longer spread the blood of the lamb on their doorpost.  Four distinct cups of wine were added to the ritual, each with its own meaning.  And at the time of Christ, the lambs were all sacrificed in the temple.  People brought their lamb to the temple, sacrificed it, and then gave the priests the blood of the lamb to offer, which was poured out on the altar.  Each family then took the lamb and prepared the Passover meal, which had to be eaten in Jerusalem. 

The synoptic Gospels are clear that the Last Supper that Jesus celebrated with the apostles before he died was the Passover meal (Matthew 26:17-19, Mark 14:12-16, Luke 22:7-13).  But this Passover celebration was not simply the keeping of the annual memorial.  As Jesus is beginning the new exodus, he institutes the New Covenant to fulfill the Old.  Through this action Jesus demonstrates that he is the long awaited Messiah, and he is the new Passover Lamb of the new exodus.  He himself is the sacrifice.  And by his actions he transforms his death from a bloody and brutal execution to a sacrificial offering.  At the Last Supper he offers to the apostles his body to be broken and his blood to be poured out before the Roman executioners take it. 

At an earlier Passover, Jesus taught his followers that “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”  The question of those who struggled with this teaching was “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”  (John 6:52-53).  At the Last Supper he demonstrates how this will be possible.  ”Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.’” (Matthew 26:26-28) So Jesus does truly give us his flesh to eat and his blood to drink, under the appearance of bread and wine.  The ancient Catholic and Orthodox churches have always taken these words of Christ literally.  We truly do believe and profess that while the physical properties of bread and wine remain, the substance is Christ, truly present to us in the Eucharist.   The Eucharist is the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ.

Shortly after the time of Martin Luther, various Protestant sects began to reject this view.  One of the more common objections is that Sacred Scripture still refers to the Eucharist as “bread” and “wine.”  From the Catholic perspective, this would not be unusual.  The Bible can indeed refer to things by their outward appearance, even if that is not in reality what they are.  Reference for example Genesis 8:2,22 and 19:1 where angels who appear to be men are referred to as “men.”  And even though St. Paul refers to the Eucharist as “bread” and “the cup,” he has some very strong words of warning for us if we fail to discern that this is truly the body and blood of Christ.  “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord.  Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.  For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself.  That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.”  (1 Corinthians 11:27-30)

Others will point to times in Sacred Scripture that Christ clearly used metaphors to describe himself, and that his reference to “this is my body” and “this is my blood” is simply another metaphor.  For example, in John 10:7 Jesus said “I am the door” of the sheep.  We may be asked – did Jesus mean he is literally a door?  Few would think that, but in this case Jesus does leave no doubt.  He told us in John 10:6 that it was a figure of speech.  The same is true for when Christ said that “I am the vine” in John 15:5.  It is part of the discussion St. John recorded that happened at the Last Supper.  And close to the end, he told them he had been speaking to them in figures (John 16:25). 

But we can often miss the point that the form is quite different from these metaphors and what Christ says at the Last Supper.  For in these examples, Christ is using an object to tell us something about himself – “I am.”  At the Last Supper, Christ instead tells us what the bread and wine become — “This is my body,” and “This is my blood.”  The focus is not on himself, but on the bread and wine.  This difference in form indicates to us Christ is not using the bread and wine as a metaphor to describe himself as in the other examples.  In addition, this is not a “teaching moment” at all.  It is the transformation of the Passover of the Old Covenant into the Passover of the New Covenant. And just as the flesh of the lamb was to be eaten as part of a covenantal family meal in the Old Covenant, so it is in the New. The book of Hebrews tells us that these things of the Old Testament are but a “shadow” of the good things to come (Hebrews 8:5, 10:1). The Passover was the most sacred feast of the Jewish year. The fulfilment of these shadows will always be superior in every way, which is why the Mass is a sacred celebration that cannot be replaced by any other type of religious observance. And indeed, Christ as our Passover lamb is far superior to the lamb of the Old Covenant.

So as Catholics we would ask, why would anyone assume here that Christ is speaking only symbolically?  In the original Passover sacrifice, the lamb had to be both sacrificed and then shared as a communal meal.  They had to eat the flesh of the lamb (Exodus 12:8).   Why would we expect anything different in the Passover sacrifice of the New Covenant?  The sacrifice of the Passover lamb in the Old Covenant was certainly a literal sacrifice.  I think few would argue that sacrifice was not fulfilled quite literally by Christ as he shed his blood on the cross.  Why would one conclude that the sacrifice would be fulfilled literally by Christ on the cross but the requirement to eat the flesh of the lamb would be just symbolic?

The Passover of the Old Covenant was a singular event that was both a sacrifice and a covenantal family meal.  At the Last Supper, Christ also begins the action of a singular event that is both a sacrifice and a covenantal family meal.  In my next post I will explore how Christ unites in one event the offering of his body and blood to us in the Eucharist at the Last Supper with his offering of his body and blood in his passion on the cross. 

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