Palm Sunday

My Dear People,

Jesus reclines at table with the apostles. He gives a farewell address which begins with the announcement of his upcoming suffering and death and the institution of the Eucharist. All this is part of an unfolding plan that “has been determined” and “must be fulfilled.” However, Jesus is not passively resigned to his destiny but actively takes the initiative to accomplish his purpose.

His comment-I have eagerly desired to eat (literally, “with desire I have desired to eat,” reflecting an underlying Hebrew expression)—is another indication that he acts with intention. The significance of what he says and does here can be examined by focusing on three interrelated key words.

Passover: this Passover night is different from all others: the Jewish Passover through the exodus. Those who observe the annual Passover feast do not simply recall the exodus as a past event but, in a sense, relive it now and thus experience the Lord’s saving power. However, at this Passover, Jesus instituted his memorial, saying in memory of me. Likewise, he is about to accomplish his “exodus”—his death and resurrection—which will bring to those who believe in him a different kind of liberation: forgiveness of their sins. Thus, his apostles who observe the new Passover memorial in obedience to his command will experience the saving power of this new exodus.

In the institution of the new Passover, which was prefigured at the multiplication of the loaves, Jesus took the bread, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to the apostles. His accompanying words provide the interpretation. The bread is not the expected “bread of affliction” of the exodus but becomes his very self: This is my body. In the new Passover, it will be Jesus’ body, not that of the lamb, that will be given in sacrifice. Like the sacrifice of the lamb, this will be done for you, he tells the apostles—in other words, on their behalf and for their benefit. Moreover, this body is eaten, as was the lamb. Bread that has become the Eucharist through these words is not merely a symbol. Just as the lamb is real, so the Eucharist is really his body, as indeed Christians have understood from the beginning.

Likewise, Jesus’ words provide the interpretation of the cup taken after supper, the third of the four cups of wine in the Passover meal, the “cup of blessing”: the wine in the cup becomes my blood. By drinking the cup, his apostles thus have communion in his blood. Jesus is referring to his imminent, violent death: “his blood will be shed like ‘the blood of all prophets shed since the foundation of the world’.” However, “he transforms his violent death into a free act of giving for others and to others.” His death becomes a sacrifice, offered for you, for the purpose of atonement. A better translation is that his blood is not just “shed” but “poured out.” Indeed, the blood of the Passover lamb and of sacrifices in general was poured out at the base of the altar.

Kingdom: Prior to the two statements about his body and blood, Jesus announces his imminent death. After this meal, he will thus not eat the Passover meal nor drink its cups of wine until the time of fulfillment of the coming kingdom of God.  With these words, Jesus looks ahead to his resurrection and entrance into kingly glory. After his resurrection, he will once again eat and drink with his disciples, a sign of the kingdom banquet. Certainly, the kingdom has already come among them in Jesus, yet its future coming in power has not yet occurred. Thus, just as the Jewish Passover not only looked back to the exodus, but also towards God’s saving action in the future, so too whenever his disciples celebrate the Eucharist they will do so not only in memory of Jesus’ death but also in anticipation as a foretaste of the kingdom banquet.

Covenant: Following the first Passover and the exodus, Moses at Mount Sinai had thrown the blood of sacrifices against the altar when God established the covenant with the twelve tribes of Israel. He also “splashed it on the people,” saying, “this is the blood of the covenant” (exodus 24:8), before taking part in a sacred meal in which “they ate and drank.” Here in the context of the Last Supper with the twelve apostles, Jesus’ reference to a covenant in his blood recalls this event. However, it also indicates something new. Indeed, if there is a new Passover and a new exodus, there will also be a “new covenant” (1 Cor 11:25), as Jeremiah had prophesized: “See, days are coming…when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah” (Jer. 31:31).

Moreover, under the Mosaic covenant, the bread of the presence was offered and not just set out each sabbath (Lev. 24:7) by the Levitical priests as  kind of grain offering. It was a bloodless sacrifice. There, unleavened loaves were a “memorial” of the covenant made at Sinai. Here, Jesus’ command to his apostles to do this in “memory” of him means that the eucharistic bread that the apostles will offer will serve as a memorial that represents the New Covenant established by Jesus through his bloody sacrifice. Thus, the role of the apostles in the New Covenant was in a sense prefigured by that of the Levitical priests in the Mosaic covenant. Because of Jesus’ command, the Church understands the Last Supper as the Institution of the Eucharist and the institution of the New Covenant priesthood. 

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Fr. Vincent Clemente





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