Jesus Celebrates the Passover with His Disciples

“In your house,” Jesus says, “I shall celebrate the Passover with my disciples” (Matthew 26:18). In these words from today’s Gospel, Jesus points to the celebration of the Passover as the interpretive lens by which we are to see the meaning of his Passion, Death, and Resurrection that we will be commemorating in the days to come. Jesus has just said, “My appointed time draws near” (Matthew 26:18). This is the time of the accomplishment of God’s purpose. And that time is the Passover.

There are other events and prophesies in the Old Testament that are essential for understanding Jesus’ Passion, Death, and Resurrection. The near sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22, the Suffering Servant prophesy in Isaiah 52-53, and Psalm 22 are prominent examples. But the Passover is preeminent. The Passover is both the event that directly precipitated Israel’s exodus from Egypt and the liturgical feast that has been at the center of Israelite/Jewish life ever since. For Christians, it is the prototype of the mystery of Christ’s saving Passion, Death, and Resurrection, and the reason we call that mystery Paschal.

The Passover is a foundational event in the history of the Israelite people’s formation as the People of God. Through the Passover, the Lord God brought Israel out of slavery in Egypt. Per the Lord’s instruction to Moses and Aaron, every Israelite family was to procure an unblemished lamb, slaughter it, and, on the designated day, “take some of its blood and apply it to the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it” (Exodus 12:7). They were to roast it whole without breaking any bones and eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. That night, the Lord would inflict the last of the plagues upon Egypt, “striking down every firstborn in the land” (Exodus 12:12). However, “seeing the blood on the lintel and the two doorposts, the Lord will pass over that door and not let the destroyer come into your houses to strike you down” (Exodus 12:23). The Lord instructs the Israelites that they must eat this meal “with your loins girt, sandals on your feet and your staff in hand” (Exodus 12:11), ready to depart from Egypt. When, at midnight, the Lord proceeded to “strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 12:29), the Pharaoh commanded the Israelites to depart and thus began Israel’s great exodus from Egypt.

According to the Book of Exodus, when the Lord God gave these instruction to Israel through Moses and Aaron, He simultaneously instructed them to observe the Passover as a “day of remembrance for you, which your future generations will celebrate with pilgrimage to the Lord; you will celebrate it as a statute forever” (Exodus 12:14). The narrative goes back and forth between the event of the Passover as it took place in the land of Egypt and the celebration of the “Passover sacrifice” (Exodus 12:27) that was to take place during the years and centuries after “you have entered into the land which the Lord will give you” (Exodus 12:25). From the beginning, the Passover was both a singular formative event and an everlasting annual memorial.

There are numerous ways that the Passover is prototype for the Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ. Or, to put it the other way around, there are numerous ways the the Paschal Mystery of the Jesus Christ can be understood as the fulfillment of the Passover. Jesus is the unblemished Passover Lamb who is slain for the salvation of the people. The Lord’s Supper is the Passover meal at which the flesh of the Lamb is eaten. Jesus tells his disciples the “do this in memory of me” (Luke 22:19) so that the gift of his body and shedding of his blood are both a historical event and a perpetual memorial. Jesus’ Paschal Mystery brings about the liberation of the people from slavery to freedom. His Passover Sacrifice is a one-and-for-all act of redemption that is celebrated again and again by the people he has saved. In his Resurrection, Jesus passes over from death to life and brings all of humanity with him.

The Passover has always been essential to the way Christians have understood what Jesus has done for us in his suffering, dying of the cross, and rising from the tomb. But the Passover has a particular resonance for us as we celebrate these mysteries in 2020. Most of us are stuck in our houses while plagues have been unleashed and the “destroyer” is out inflicting death. It is important for us to remember that Blood of the Lamb is on our doorposts.

The Blood of the Lamb of God has saved us is a far greater way than the blood of the lamb of the Passover saved the firstborn of Israel. Jesus has saved us from death not just once but once and for all. That doesn’t mean, of course, that we are immune from the Coronavirus or guaranteed not to catch it. We do pray for protection from Coronavirus and from every other kind of illness to which we or our loved ones may be susceptible. We pray knowing that the Lamb of God has given health and granted protection to countless numbers of people and is certainly able to protect us now. But the “Lamb that was slain” (Revelation 5:12) has saved us in a much greater, much more enduring, much more certain way. He has freed us from sin and death and given us a life that is everlasting and invincible. He was slain but he lives. He is “the resurrection and the life” and he gives that life to “whoever believes in [him]” such that “even if he dies, [he] will live” (John 11:25).

You probably won’t be able to get to church this year to celebrate the Passover sacrifices in which the Church commemorates the saving mysteries of our Lord during our annual Paschal Triduum. But hear Jesus speaking to you in today’s Gospel reading, “In your house, I shall celebrate the Passover.”

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