by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
This week, I continue reflections on St. Matthew’s Passion narrative (Mt 26: 14 – 27:66). I encourage everyone during the Lenten season to read prayerfully, at least once, the Passion narrative.
If The Leaven was to run a contest offering free tickets for a trip to the Holy Land, I think that we would receive a few applicants. We have something even better being offered to us every Sunday in our parishes, but I am afraid that many do not realize it.
Imbedded in St. Matthew’s Passion narrative (as well as St. Mark’s and St. Luke’s accounts of the Passion) is the institution of the Eucharist (Mt 26: 26-30). It is important to note that the setting in which Jesus gives the church the Eucharist is the Passover meal.
The Passover meal commemorated the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt. It was the blood of lambs sprinkled on the lintel and doorposts of Jewish homes that signaled the angel of death to spare the lives of the Israelite children. The flesh of those same lambs became the main course for the meal that nourished the Israelites for their flight from Egypt.
Partaking in the Passover meal was not just a recalling of the historical liberation of Israel from Egypt. Participating in the Passover meal made one a member of the people that God had rescued from slavery and with whom he formed a covenant on Mount Sinai.
It is in this context that Jesus instructs the apostles to eat the bread that he identifies as his body and to drink the wine that he refers to as “my blood of the covenant which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt 26:28). In St. Luke’s account, Jesus says, “This is my body, which will be given for you; do this in memory of me” (Lk 22:19). “Do this in remembrance of me” (1 Cor 11: 23-26) is also found in St. Paul’s recounting of the institution of the Eucharist.
We cannot understand the full meaning of the Eucharist apart from Calvary. Jesus is the lamb of the New Covenant, whose blood was shed to save us from sin and death. When we eat his flesh and drink his blood, we receive the life of Jesus — eternal life.
In recent years, there has been a diminished appreciation of the Mass as the sacrifice of Calvary made present today. Yet, we cannot understand the importance and the full meaning of the Eucharist apart from its essential connection to the cross of Jesus.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church provides the following instruction on the Mass as a sacrifice:
“The Eucharist is the memorial of Christ’s Passover, the making present and the sacramental offering of his unique sacrifice, in the liturgy of the Church which is his Body. In all the Eucharistic Prayers we find after the words of institution a prayer called the anamnesis or memorial” (no. 1362).
“In the sense of Sacred Scripture, the memorial is not merely a recollection of past events but the proclamation of the mighty works wrought by God for men. In the liturgical celebration of these events, they become in a certain way present and real. This is how Israel understands its liberation from Egypt: every time Passover is celebrated, the Exodus events are made present to the memory of believers so that they may conform their lives to them” (no. 1363).
“In the New Testament, the memorial takes on a new meaning. When the Church celebrates the Eucharist, she commemorates Christ’s Passover, and it is made present: the sacrifice Christ offered once for all on the cross remains ever present. As often as the sacrifice of the Cross by which ‘Christ our Pasch (Lamb) has been sacrificed’ is celebrated on the altar, the work of our redemption is carried out” (no.1364).
“Because it is the memorial of Christ’s Passover, the Eucharist is also a sacrifice. The sacrificial character of the Eucharist is manifested in the very words of institution: ‘This is my body which is given for you’ and ‘This cup which is poured out for you is the New Covenant in my blood.’ In the Eucharist, Christ gives us the very body which he gave up for us on the cross, the very blood which he ‘poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’” (no. 1365).
If someone offered us a free trip to the Holy Land, giving us the opportunity to visit the places of our Lord’s passion and death, I think most of us would eagerly accept it. Or better still, if someone with a “time machine” offered to take us back to be present for the Last Supper, we would be thrilled for such an opportunity.
This is offered to us at each and every Mass. Every Eucharist gives us something even more than a free trip to the Holy Land. The Mass places us in the Upper Room of the Last Supper and at the foot of the cross on Calvary.
Those who find the Mass boring simply do not understand it. Those who question the need to go to Mass every week are frankly clueless about the priceless gift that is being offered to them.
While we may only read the Passion text in our liturgies during Holy Week, every Mass makes Calvary present for us. A good preparation for participation in any Mass is a prayerful reading of the Passion, because it helps to make us more aware of the miracle of God’s love that is being made present to us.
We cannot understand the Eucharist apart from the passion and cross of Jesus. Without the Eucharist, we cannot so immediately and powerfully experience the grace and mercy offered to us by the crucified Christ.