Eucharist as Passover Sacrifice

[This is a slight modification on a post made in a Being Frank thread]

Pope Benedict XVI in a homily at the closing Mass for the 49th International Eucharistic Congress said, “the Eucharist is not a meal among friends. It is a mystery of covenant.” What exactly does this mean?

The Eucharist: Source and Summit of the Life and Mission of the Church states that, “Sacrifice is the primary act; afterwards, comes the meal in which we take as food the Lamb immolated on the Cross.”

It is a meal, but first of all a passover meal, in which we seal the covenant by consuming the sacrifice. I think when we examine the “mystery of covenant”, it would be obvious that “a meal among friends” is not an apt description.

This mystery of the new covenant is prefigured by the original passover, when Moses led the people of Israel out of the Egyptian captivity. The institution of the passover can be seen in Exodus 12 (reading this chapter in full in view of the Eucharist may be of benefit for most of us).

At the passover, they were required to take a lamb: “[the] lamb shall be without blemish, a male a year old; you shall take it from the sheep or from the goats”. Its blood would be used to cover the door posts and the lintel of the house (12:7), and the lamb would be roasted and eaten with unleavened bread:”They shall eat the flesh that night, roasted; with unleavened bread and bitter herbs they shall eat it” (12:8).

This was part of sealing the covenant, through which the people of Israel would be saved from the coming smiting of the first-born: “For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will smite all the first-born in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD. The blood shall be a sign for you, upon the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall fall upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 12:12-13)

Significantly, the passover served also as a sign of communion of the circumcised, united and incorporated into the people of God: “And the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “This is the ordinance of the passover: no foreigner shall eat of it; but every slave that is bought for money may eat of it after you have circumcised him. No sojourner or hired servant may eat of it. In one house shall it be eaten; you shall not carry forth any of the flesh outside the house; and you shall not break a bone of it. All the congregation of Israel shall keep it. And when a stranger shall sojourn with you and would keep the passover to the LORD, let all his males be circumcised, then he may come near and keep it; he shall be as a native of the land. But no uncircumcised person shall eat of it. There shall be one law for the native and for the stranger who sojourns among you.” (Exodus 12:43–49 RSV)

Through this, they were brought out of Egypt and sustained in a journey toward the promised land: “Thus did all the people of Israel; as the LORD commanded Moses and Aaron, so they did. And on that very day the LORD brought the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt by their hosts.” (Exodus 12:50-51)

“Mystery of the covenant” then is more apt a title, since the above drama foreshadowing the new covenant is fulfilled in Christ: The unblemished lamb and unleavened bread find their fulfilment in “the Lord immolated and lying upon the altar”, which we consume in the solemnity of one preparing for the Exodus (12:11). Its ‘meal’ aspect must be seen in this light, and in recognition of the fact that, though strangers we may be, we are brought into a holy communion within the Body of Christ. In this sense, we are more than friends; we are made, ontologically, a people of God closer to one another even than to our biological kin. Through this communion, we are hauled aboard the Ark of salvation.

Here then is the Bible’s own “Eucharistic Catechises”, showing also the manner in which we ought to respond: “And when your children say to you, `What do you mean by this service?’ you shall say, `It is the sacrifice of the LORD’s passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he slew the Egyptians but spared our houses.’” And the people bowed their heads and worshiped. (Exodus 12:26-27)

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