Our Holy Meal
BY FR. DAVID J. ENDRES
Food is often linked to religious practice, whether as an offering to the divine, a form of remembrance, or a sign of the sacred. Jewish believers annually celebrate the Passover through a ritual meal called a Seder, a commemoration of the Exodus events when the Lord saved the Israelites.
The Jewish people had suffered under the Egyptians, but God intervened, sending a series of plagues upon their captors. On the night of the final plague, when the angel of death struck down the firstborn, the Israelites marked their doorposts with the blood of the lamb of sacrifice, and the angel “passed over” their homes, leaving them unharmed (see Exodus 11–12).
The Seder meal remembers the Israelites in flight when they were freed from the Egyptians and left in haste for the Promised Land. The meal includes wine, unleavened bread, and bitter herbs, with each, according to the ritual, connecting with the experience of the Israelites. Prescribed prayers are said, and a script is read, retelling the story. When one celebrates the Passover, it is as if each participant is being freed from slavery and offered freedom.
For Christians, the Passover is not a commemoration that is limited to Judaism. As a Jewish believer, Jesus celebrated this same Passover feast. At the Last Supper, on the night before his crucifixion, Jesus offered bread and wine in a parallel fashion as the Passover meal. Referring to the Passover, or the “day of preparation,” or the “first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread,” all three of the synoptic Gospels place the Last Supper in the context of the Passover.
Jesus, when gathered with his disciples, offered food and drink, instructing his followers to do so “in remembrance” — the same command that God gave the Israelites when he asked them to celebrate the Passover as a perpetual memorial.
This does not mean, however, that the Last Supper was an ordinary Passover meal. At the Last Supper, there is no mention of a lamb, though the lamb is a focal point of the Passover story (and was part of the Passover meal during the time of Jesus). The absence is puzzling unless one considers the role of Christ at the meal — he is to be the lamb of sacrifice.
Jesus foretells his death on the cross, saying: “This is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28). Only after Jesus’ resurrection does the significance of the Last Supper and Jesus as the lamb begin to be understood. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection offer believers a participation in the New Exodus, a transformation from slavery to freedom, from death to life.
The early Christians kept the Passover, and even when Easter became a distinct celebration, it coincided with the date of the Passover, no matter on which day of the week it fell. The connection was fitting since, on Easter, Jesus had “passed over” from death to life. Only after much dispute did a new formula for dating Easter emerge, fixing the celebration on the day of the Lord’s resurrection: Sunday.
Some Christian theologians believe that the Last Supper was a Passover meal celebrated early — before the Passover would have traditionally been celebrated — due to the circumstances of Jesus’ arrest. This would have allowed for his crucifixion before the celebration began. Other sources, likely because of the value of the symbolism, connect his death with the Passover itself, noting that he was crucified at the same time the lambs for Passover were slaughtered.
No matter which tradition is correct, the early Church clearly connected the two. St. Paul called Jesus “our Passover” (1 Corinthians 5:7, CEV), and St. Ephrem in the fourth century wrote, “Our Lord ate the Little Pascha (Passover) and became himself the great Pascha.”
The Last Supper continues to be commemorated whenever the Mass is celebrated. In imitation of the words of Jesus at the Last Supper, “Do this in memory of me,” the Mass is our holy meal in which we participate in the saving actions of Jesus.
In this New Exodus, Christ invites us to freedom and abundance of life. God’s promises and their fulfillment, once celebrated by our Jewish ancestors in the Passover, are accomplished finally in Jesus’ sacrifice. As a commemoration of death giving way to life, the Passover is a reminder of the common link between the Jewish and Christian faiths.