Saint Thomas of Canterbury, Bolton

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Together at Mass

Together at Mass 10

“Do this in memory of me”

With this note we come to the very heart of our celebration of Mass. We speak of the Mass as a sacrifice, indeed as making present the unique sacrifice of Christ on the cross on Calvary. We speak of the Mass also as a meal, a paschal banquet, and as a memorial. See how the Vatican Council document on the Liturgy describes the Mass:
“At the Last Supper, on the night when he was betrayed, our Saviour instituted the Eucharistic Sacrifice of His Body and Blood. He did this in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the Cross throughout the centuries until He should come again, and so to entrust to His beloved spouse, the Church a memorial of His death and resurrection: a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity, a paschal banquet in which Christ is consumed, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us.” (Constitution on the Liturgy paragraph 47)

To understand the significance of what happened at the Last Supper we need to get into the minds of those who shared it. Jesus and his companions were Jews, and for them the meal they were sharing was already full of meaning, for it was the Passover meal, a feast of commemoration and thanksgiving.

In the following pages we will explore the meaning of ‘commemoration’ as it was understood in the Passover Meal. Then we will see how Jesus built on this understanding when, at the Last Supper, he commanded “Do this in memory of me”. We will want to see what this means as the memorial of his death and resurrection, and what is our part in it.

Plenty here to reflect on. It may demand some patience, time and effort. If the approach is new to you, try to take one page at a time — and ponder it.

 

 

The Passover Meal

The most important event of the Old Testament was the Exodus, when the people of Israel ‘passed over’ from slavery to freedom. For them this was the great saving act of God. It was God himself who brought them out of the land of Egypt. In doing so he rescued them from slavery and gave them freedom in a land of their own - a land which he had given to them. But even more than this, what God specifically offered them was something utterly unique: that they should be his People and He their God. He had rescued them with a view to establishing with them a Covenant relationship. The full significance of the Passover, includes all of this — God's saving action in the Exodus, rescuing them from slavery to freedom, granting them a special relationship of intimacy with himself, and bringing them to the Promised Land where he would dwell in their midst.

The Israelites were led from Egypt and slavery, to a new land and a so-totally-new existence as God's People, that they looked upon this event as the birth of their nation. Now all of this happened about twelve hundred and fifty years before the time of Christ. It was a once-and-for-all historical event, never to be repeated. But the inner saving act of God, at work in that event, is for ever. Future generations of Jews may not need to be rescued from slavery in Egypt; but they would for ever be members of the people brought out of Egypt, the People of the Covenant. They too would be people of the Passover.

But how could this be achieved? God gave them the institution of a sacred rite, a special meal of commemoration, the Passover Meal. Through the rituals of this special meal, with the narrative of the Exodus accompanied with the eating of unleavened bread and bitter herbs, and the eating of the paschal lamb, the Jewish People relived this marvellous event of the past. It was not an empty memorial in words and ritual. It was not a mere reminder of a past historical event, nor just a prayer of thanksgiving for what that event has meant to them.

In the context of the Passover Meal, to “commemorate” was not simply to call to mind or to remember that event of the past but to make it present here and now so that they could share in it. Later generations do not have to walk dry-shod through the Red Sea or wearily wander through the desert. Through the commemoration in the Passover Meal God's saving act is made present, and through their sharing in that meal they became part of it.

To this day, we read in the rite of the Passover Meal: “It is therefore the duty of each one of us to look upon ourselves as if we ourselves had actually gone forth from Egypt, as it is written ‘This is done because of what the Lord did for me, when I came forth from Egypt’. Not our ancestors only did the Holy One redeem, but us also He redeemed with them”.

 

 

The Last Supper

On the night before he died Jesus shared the Passover Meal with his apostles. From midday the paschal lambs were sacrificed at the Temple, the only place where sacrifice could take place. The blood was gathered in bowls and poured out before the altar. Then each family would take the lamb to cook it to be shared during the Passover Meal. At sunset the shofar (horn) would sound out from the Temple and every family would begin the Passover.

The mood in the Upper Room was an odd mixture of festivity and tension. Even before the meal began, Jesus had intimated that this would be his last Passover with them. Nonetheless, the ritual began as normal, following the usual pattern, with Jesus singing or saying the prayers of blessing, pouring the cups of wine, breaking the unleavened bread, narrating the story of his People's liberation from slavery. The narrative would have concluded as usual, with the explanation of the Passover symbols - the unleavened bread and the bitter herbs, the Passover Lamb.

Then, in preparation for the sharing of the unleavened bread, everyone would wash their hands. It is likely that this was when Jesus showed the meaning of the loving service he demanded of his followers by washing their feet. “What I have done to you, do to one another”

After this, taking the bread, he said the blessing, broke the bread and gave it to them. It was probably at this point that Jesus added a new and utterly unexpected element: “Take this and eat it; this is my body which is given up for you”. This must have shocked, puzzled and even frightened the disciples. The Passover lamb had just been sacrificed and they were about to have their share in the sacrifice by eating it, and here was Jesus talking of eating “my body given up for you”.

During the meal that followed, there was a chance to ask for explanation. Instead of the usual jovial chatter of the occasion, Jesus spoke of his command of love, of betrayal and death, of not leaving them orphans, and of the Spirit who would be with them. He prayed to his Father now that his ‘hour’ of passion and glory had come, and he prayed for the unity of all his followers. As the meal was drawing to an end, they each received and ate a piece of the Paschal Lamb which had been sacrificed in their name.

Finally, when supper was ended, and all had been cleared away, Jesus said the concluding prayer of blessing and, poured the third cup of wine - called the Cup of Redemption. As he passed this to them he again added words that were utterly new: “Take this and drink from it, all of you; this is the cup of my blood … the blood of the New and everlasting Covenant …blood that will be shed for you and for all…so that sins may be forgiven”. Visions of the endless pools of blood of the sacrificed lambs at the Temple must have risen before their eyes, and as they were trying to take in all that Jesus was saying, he spoke again.

In a word of command, he said, "Do this in memory of me".

 

 

 

“... in memory of me”

Jesus had celebrated this ancient and sacred ritual of his People, with all that it meant: making present the central event of their past history so that they in their own time may be part of that event. Then, with these words, “Do this in memory of me”, he has given the rite a completely new significance for his disciples. In effect, what he said is: “From now on, when you celebrate this rite, you will do so, not in memory of the Exodus of old, but as a commemoration of my Exodus, in memory of my sacrifice. In doing so, it is not Israel’s escape from slavery in Egypt that is to be made present, but mankind’s escape from the slavery of sin.”

The old rite, with all its significance, has been used as the basis for a new rite to be celebrated by the followers of Jesus “in memory of him”, a commemoration of (and so a making present of) his unique saving sacrifice in which he gave up his body and shed his blood for all. From now on this rite will commemorate a new event in which the new Covenant was established. Through this rite the sacrifice of Christ is made present so that Christians, through sharing in the rite, may be one with him in his act of sacrifice.

The word sacrifice comes from two Latin words: sacrum - sacred or holy; facere - to make. Sacrifice is not primarily destroying or killing, but ‘making something holy or sacred’ by handing it over completely to God. This is how Jesus looked upon his own acceptance of death. During the meal he announced “I consecrate myself” (Jn 17.19) — I offer myself wholly and completely to my Father; I leave this earthly existence to enter the holy, immortal life of God. In his prayer at the Last Supper, Jesus sees the ‘hour’ of his passion as the time also of his glory: “Father, the hour has come; … It is time for you to glorify me with that glory I had with you … now I am coming to you.” (Jn 17.5,11)

The Israelites had passed over from slavery in Egypt, through the Red Sea, to a land of freedom. Now Jesus was to pass over from this sinful world, through his death on Calvary, into the glory of God. The sacrifice of Christ is not just his death on the cross, but his death/resurrection; his passion/glorification; his Passover from a world of sin into the full glory of the holy, immortal life of God.

 

Through the death/resurrection of Jesus, a fellow human being, one of us, has left this sinful world and entered into a new existence. In his “going to the Father” the redemption of mankind has taken place. Through his death, Jesus has broken the barrier of sin that holds us back from the God. Now exalted in glory, Jesus has become the source of life for all of us. Through contact with the risen humanity of Christ we have access to the Father. Christian life is a sharing in his risen life. We celebrate our paschal banquet, the making present of his saving sacrifice, so that with him we may die to self, and in him rise to new life.

“Dying you destroyed our death, rising you restored our life …”

“Lord, by your cross and resurrection you have set us free …”