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The Passover Rhyme of the Mass & The Altar of Holy Trinity Church, Georgetown

by Fr. G. Ronald Murphy, SJ

Distinguished Professor Emeritus of German, Georgetown University

Sunday, April 28, 2024

I. The Passover Rhyme of the Mass

What did he mean when he said, "Do this"?

It was simple and direct question when my brother-in-law asked it: What did Jesus mean by “this” when he said, “do this in memory of me"? What exactly did he mean by this? Why did he say about the bread, "Take this all of you and eat it"? And about the wine, "Take this all of you and drink it"? What did he mean? Were there human feelings that urged him to say and do these things? Was it maybe because he was afraid of dying and of separation from those he loved and he wanted somehow for them to remain close to him? Moreover, when he did it, was there also possibly something he was trying to get his followers to realize, something about his passing, his Exodus?

The ritual of Passover supper obliged him to break the bread, and custom obliges all at the table to spill drops of wine from their cups, but nothing, neither custom or law, obliged him to say of the broken pieces of unleavened bread, "This is my body," or to say of the wine poured into his cup, "This is my blood." Why did he do it? What did he mean?

St Paul is the earliest person who writes an account of what Jesus said with an interpretation of what Jesus meant. He does it in a context of a sharp reprimand addressed to the early Christians in Corinth, accusing them of eating their own suppers while at the Lord's supper, and of eating and drinking to excess as they watched the poorer members of the assembled congregation go hungry. Ignoring the poor in other words and acting as if they are not really aware of what they are eating and drinking when at the Lord's supper.

"When you come together it is not really to eat the Lord's supper, For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in?...In this matter I do not commend you! For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, 'This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.' In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, 'This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.' For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. Whoever, therefore eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord." (ICor 11:20-27 NRSV) Paul is assuring the Corinthian Christians that eating the Lord's supper in such a blind and gluttonous way disgraces them and makes them co-responsible for the Lord's Passion and death, for his Crucifixion, the very thing which they are commemorating by eating the broken bread and drinking the poured wine. A very severe charge.

"In another way," en hetera morphe says St. Mark in his Gospel (16:12), almost in passing, of the difference between the post-Resurrection presence and appearance of Jesus to Mary Magdalen and his presence and appearance to the two disciples walking toward the village of Emmaus. Both appearances however are characterized by personal warmth and by eventual recognition of Jesus being there but to the men on the way to Emmaus the warmth and the recognition are “in a different way." This different way or form is very important for us, since it is without the admonitory severity of St. Paul and given in the form of a traveler's tale. At first, Mary Magdalene sees but does not recognize him, nor do the two disciples on the way to Emmaus. Mary initially believes he is the gardener (which, if you think of the Garden of Eden, ironically, he is) and as she stands there weeping outside of the tomb, she asks him, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away." (Jn 20:15)

Then realizes that the gardener is Jesus when she hears him call her by her name, "Mary," in a voice which she must have heard many times before his death on the cross. She clings to him whom she has now recognized as Jesus when she heard him say, "Mary." With familiar affection she calls him her teacher, “Rabboni.”

On the way to Emmaus (Lk 24:13-35) the two disciples hear him as well, and as they confess to each other later, were moved with heartfelt feelings as he explained to them how the death of the Messiah is in perfect harmony with what was said by the prophets and written in the law of Moses. "He had to suffer these things and then enter into his glory." They are obviously enthusiastic about this rabbi's words and his interpretations of the Old Testament, but they fail to see who it is who is teaching them. They invite and even urge him to stay with them because it is late and evening was coming. There, within the building, they recognize him, realizing who he is, not by hearing him say their names or by recognizing his features, but at supper by seeing and hearing him as he says the blessing, breaks the bread and gives it to them to eat. Unlike Mary Magdalene, their eyes cannot keep him in their sight, because, at the moment they are holding the bread in their hands and eating it, drinking the wine, and suddenly realizing who their supper companion is, he disappears and is no longer visible. It is in the form of the ritual of the bread and wine itself, in doing it, that Jesus is there and can be recognized, but not seen with the eyes.

He, Jesus risen from the dead, was as present to the two disciples at the supper table in

Emmaus as he was to Mary Magdalene outside the tomb but "in another form" en hetera morphe. This 'other form' is one in which he himself interprets the rhyme between the ancient scriptures and what happened to himself, and then blesses, breaks, and gives the bread to his followers, a two-part form that is well known to all of us later travelers as the service of the Word and the Eucharistic part of the Mass. Our road is a bit more distant from Jerusalem than that of the 7 miles of the two disciples but we still travel with them and on the first day of the week, Sunday, and go into the building. We listen to the ancient scriptures and hear interpretations of how they pertain to him, then stay with him as he blesses the bread, breaks it and gives it to us to eat. This story of recognition of the presence of Jesus at the ritual moment when disciples see and hear the taking and blessing of the bread, the breaking, and its distribution to them, is for me a mystical message from the early church in Jerusalem from 2,000 years ago, telling us the mystery of when, where and how to recognize the real presence of Christ. After eating and drinking the bread and wine he has blessed, we realize he is there but invisible, he is present and acting, but cannot be seen, for he has risen and entered into his glory and is now both with the Father and within us.

This 1st century biblical depiction of the mystery of the active presence of Christ in "the breaking of the bread" at Emmaus rhymes with the 13th century European description of Christ's presence as being really there in the nature of the bread but invisible, because the eyes pick up only the appearances of bread and wine. The essence of the bread changes but cannot be seen; the accidentals of color, texture, taste, still remain, or: in St. Luke's language, at the moment of the taking, blessing, breaking and giving of the bread, he disappears. "Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him and he vanished from their sight." (Lk 24:31) In Luke's story form, in their faithfulness they momentarily glimpse enough to recognize who is doing the blessing, and as they glimpse, he disappears.

The Emmaus story ends with the two disciples getting up at that same hour and returning to Jerusalem to tell the rest. Luke has done this with a fine and thoughtful play on words. That same hour, late though it may have been, "they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together.... Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.” (24:33-35) The two do not just quickly get on the road to return to Jerusalem but they first stood up, they "got up" (24:33). Why include that small and seemingly insignificant detail? "Got up" is anastantes, a past participle ordinary enough, but here possibly significant because it is the word used for Resurrection, anastasis — thus suggesting that Jesus invisibly shares his glorified life after the tomb with them. Those who have shared the Messiah's blessed and broken bread with him have also risen with him and are walking to Jerusalem.

We return to Jerusalem to examine the rhyming context of Jesus's words at the last supper with the Passover supper, the Seder. Jesus's words rhyme in the first place with those of the Passover meal. And so when he said, "Do this," it is in its Seder context. We are to do Passover, we are to eat it. But are we to eat the meal in its context of celebrating the Exodus from Egypt? This is the main thrust of the Passover supper. Jesus changed it. He saw his own coming Exodus from this world as a "Passover," and so from now on, "Do this" as remembering his death and return to life as being in rhyme with the freeing of Israel from its unbearably deadly life of slavery in Egypt to its return to the enjoyment of life in the Promised Land.

Jesus had told his disciples Peter and John (Lk 22:7-14) to go into Jerusalem, find a man carrying water who will lend us a room furnished for us to have the supper, and go and get everything that we need to eat Passover. Peter and John would then have bought the unleavened bread and wine, bitter herbs, and acquired a lamb blessed and slaughtered in the temple to be eaten at the Seder. They then brought everything required to the upper room. When everything was set up on the table each item reminded the participants of their forefathers' suffering in Egypt which they had to eat: the unleavened bread that had not had time to rise because of the speed of the Jews' exit from Egypt, the bitter herbs to bring to mind the suffering of forced labor and the overseer's whip, the reddish-brown haroseth to recall the clay for making bricks without straw, and above all the Passover lamb. On the eve of the Exodus, the lamb's blood had to be smeared on the lintel and the doorpost of every Jewish household in Egypt. The blood of the lamb would cause the Passing-over that would make the Exodus possible: when the angel of death came to strike down the firstborn son of every Egyptian household, death would "pass over" every Jewish house clearly marked and identified in the bright moonlight of the full moon of Nisan by the shining red blood of the lamb on the door.

For years of Seders later, imagining the cross of Christ in the twilight of that Friday evening, and seeing his blood smeared on its crossbar and down its upright beam, no Jewish Christian could fail to remember the first Passover lamb's blood and its saving function for the eldest son of every Jewish household. On the front door of the house the blood of the sacrificed Passover lamb smeared on the lintel and the doorpost, rhymes with the blood of Christ on the crossbar and the upright beam of the cross, making it too a doorway of safety. The cross will protect his own and many others from the finality of death and become the saving doorway to heaven. On this night Jesus recognizes and eats his task given to him by God the Father of the Exodus: to be what John the Baptist first called him (with foreboding?) when he pointed Jesus out to his disciples near the Jordan: the Lamb of God.

When he came into the upper room Jesus made a remark remembered in Luke's gospel, "l have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you I will not eat it again until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” (22:15) He then took a cup of wine and said, "Divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes." (Lk 22:17-18) For him this will be his last supper before the kingdom of God (which he spoke of all his life and taught us to pray for ("thy kingdom come") has come to pass, and all of them will be within it, eating and drinking his divine and glorified life, with him present, as did the two disciples at Emmaus. The Mass will have come, fulfilling the Rhyme with the Passover and bringing the kingdom.

As the head of the household, Jesus picked up the unleavened bread of the Seder, broke it in half, and said the blessing. "Blessed are you, Lord our God, king of the universe, who bring forth bread from the earth." The ritual formula then identifies the broken bread, "This is the bread of suffering which our forefathers ate in the land of Egypt." He looked at the bread and changed the words of the ritual in line with his own feelings and forebodings. He had seen Judas's nervous urge to leave the table. He broke more pieces for all and said, "Take this all of you and eat it, for this is my body, given up for you. Do this in remembrance of me. And he did the same with the cup after supper." (Lk 22:19-20) Quiet consternation. What did he mean? Did he think that he himself would be broken apart like Passover bread for them? And were they supposed to accept this, swallow it? He answered quietly, "One of you will betray me." The Gospel writer quietly comments in three words, "It was night." En de nux. (Jn 13:30)

The story of the Jews in Egypt begins. First the Covenant was made between the Hebrews and God in the blood of twelve oxen sprinkled by Abraham on the people and on the altar. (Ex 24:8) Then the story of Joseph sold by his brothers to passing traders who took him down to Egypt. Joseph's success as the Pharaoh's vizier in averting the famine from Egypt and their neighbors, brings Jacob, Joseph's father, his brothers and their families into Egypt where they too sojourn and are successful until Joseph and the Pharaoh die. Then after being settled in Goshen, they are reduced to slavery. Egyptian fear of their eventual increase in numbers brought about a decree that Hebrew boys were to be killed, from which Moses was saved by being 'drawn out' of the basket of rushes in the Nile. (Gn 37 — 51)

Jesus was probably the one who read this scriptural account to the Twelve at the Seder just ahead of the meal of Passover. Did it help him realize that he too had to be sold like Joseph by his brothers for a few pieces of silver (he had already told one of his Twelve to go do what he intends), -and like the newborn Hebrew boys had to face death (in the Nile) and like Moses, eventually be drawn out of it; and, unlike Moses, after death. The high point of the story comes as everyone at the table chants or recites the 10 Plagues which eventually forced the stubbornness of the Pharaoh to bend and to let the Hebrew people go. Moses and Aaron begged and pleaded with the king to let the Israelites go free but he would not agree. He remained determined and said no; and so he was threatened by a series of 10 plagues which God brought upon the Egyptians: blood (the river ran red), frogs, lice, beasts, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, and the death of the firstborn son. Jesus must have been stirred as he recited the last plague. It was the 10th plague that was the only one that worked to persuade the Pharaoh: the death of the firstborn son. That was himself. And now he realized fully what would be necessary for success in forcing the far greater power of death itself, human mortality, to yield: the death of the firstborn son of God.

He looked down at the roasted Passover lamb on the Seder table, the lamb whose blood on the doorpost was alone what had saved the Jewish households in Egypt. He was eating it, swallowing what it implied for him, accepting it. He looked around at all of them. Were they worth it? Almost soundlessly he got up and went around knelt and washed their feet. This incident is not found in the synoptic gospels, but is recorded in John's version (13: 1-17), and is now part of the liturgy of the Lord's Supper on Holy Thursday evening. He loved them and he loved them to the end.

When the supper was ended he reached for the third cup of wine, he said the blessing, "Blessed are you Lord our God creator of the fruit of the vine,” and gave it to them, saying, "This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood." (Lk 22:20) His blood on the doorpost and lintel of the cross, would do what the Passover lamb had done for their forefathers and more, it would shield them from death and from sinfulness, would do more than the blood of twelve oxen had done to establish a covenant between God and the people of Israel. His personal blood covenant would guarantee them a place at his right and left in the kingdom of God. "And I confer on you just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom." (Lk 22:29-30)

This must have startled them. It was absolutely forbidden to eat the blood of any living thing. In the blood of anything alive was its life (Lv 17: 10-14) and the divinely-given life, blood, of any animal was not to be consumed by any human being. Hunters were exhorted to drain the blood of any animal that they had slain into the ground, then cover the spot with soil. (Lv 17:13-14) For Jesus to offer his blood to be drunk is frightening it would mean he was not sprinkling them with the blood of oxen, but having them imbibe his own life. A near-prohibited action. He is offering himself, his own divine-human life, his blood, to be the covenant, to be a family blood-connection, between God and his own in Israel – raising ordinary people to be not just sinful and mortal but to be of divine blood and by divine decree — and by divine sacrifice. "This is my blood of the covenant...l will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes." (Lk 22:17-18)

And then they went out into the Garden of Olives where he began to sweat and even go into a bloody sweat, and prayed for his Father to take away from him the cup of the actual suffering that he now realized he was about to endure for us. The bloody whipping and nailing, the crown of thorns, the pulling himself up on the nails in his wrists to breathe, pushing on the nail in his feet, to take another breath, none of this had yet taken place; but already in anticipation of those horrible experiences, he is going into agony, and in his mind he can ask his Father if this cup of suffering could pass over.

This is good for us to think about, not only from the point of view of fear and how much pain he bore, but from the point of view of "this is my blood which will be shed for you." A doctor once reproached me skeptically, “lf this really is Christ's blood that we receive from the chalice at Mass, we should be able to take a sample of it and see if it is type A- or O- , etc. without any trouble." What a strange way to approach Christ's offering of himself to be the sacrificial Lamb. This is the blood of crucifixion agony, of a person being tortured, you won't be able to detect the pain that is being suffered for you by observing a drop or two of it under the microscope. Nor can you see the death of the Messiah that was coming. Christ did not just say, 'this is my blood,' he said "this is my blood shed for you." What is captured at Mass is Christ's blood and its having been poured out for others, the great deed performed with it. He is offering his Crucifixion, not a blood sample. The same is true of his body, sweating in fear of what it will feel both under the Roman whip with lead balls and hooks of bone at the ends of each leather strap, and then carrying the weight of the crossbar afterward that causes him to collapse. At the last supper he did not say just 'this is my body,' he said "This is my body given, broken for you." Take it! He is giving us his Crucifixion (as St. Paul warned the Corinthians), with rescue from sin and death, his saving body and blood now given to us by his risen, glorified self— without any need for us to feel the physical and mental pain he underwent.

The Passover supper ends with thanksgiving for God's deeds in the Exodus and by singing the Hallelujah psalms, and finishes with the wish for the restoration (as St Peter once asked) of the kingdom to Israel, and in our times with: "Next Year in Jerusalem!" le shanah haba-ah biyerushalayim! The Mass rhymes more distantly with this ending, perhaps remembering the heavenly Jerusalem.

After telling the story of Jesus and the transformation of the bread and wine at the supper and aware of his command, "Do this in memory of me," the Mass continues by relating the events of the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus to the right hand of the Father. The Mass prayers ask that the sacrifice of Jesus himself, presented now by us and for us in un-bloody and pain-free way, may be accepted and received in heaven. Then the saints are remembered, the church is prayed for, as well as for the dead, especially those of the community.

This Eucharistic prayer is concluded with a doxology which gives thanks and praise to God, not for deeds done, but for Christ. "Through him, and with him, and in him, O God, almighty Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor is yours forever and ever. Amen. “Thus Jesus, the Messiah, is treated as having entered his glory (as he explained to the two at Emmaus), and his glory is that of the Father and the Holy Spirit; he takes his place in the glory of the Holy Trinity. He entered his glory by entering the Sabbath. The sun was going down and they had to rush to the tomb with his corpse before the Sabbath came when all work was forbidden. For that was the day when the Word of God, the Son, had finished all the work of the six days of Creation. Now on Good Friday he had completed all the work of the Redemption. They rolled the stone against the entrance of the tomb. He rested on the Sabbath.

On Sunday He rose again, spoke to Mary, Peter, and the Eleven, and returning to the glory of the Father, gave to his brothers and sisters who followed him, the right as his family relatives to address God as "Father," as he did. At this part of the Mass, being with him and in him in the Kingdom, all rise on earth and in heaven and say the prayer Jesus Christ taught us all:

Our Father in heaven,

Hallowed be your name.

Your kingdom come.

Your will be done,

On earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread,

And forgive us our debts,

As we also have forgiven our debtors.

And do not bring us to the time of trial,

But rescue us from the evil one. (Mt 6:9-12) NRSV

The prayer also alludes to the bread given and broken which will soon be distributed as Holy Communion. But first the peace and forgiveness of the holy Spirit of God should be present and the Kiss of Peace is exchanged among the congregation.

Then the moment arrives. The unleavened bread transformed by divine will into the body of Christ given in sacrifice for all is held up and broken into pieces for the participants, and the whole time the bread of the body of Christ is being broken for distribution, the following verses are sung by all in recognition of what is happening. The wine transformed into the blood of his Crucifixion, is not smeared on each one's doorway, or sprinkled on the people, but is drunk by each person him- or herself, while standing beneath Christ's crucifix and hearing and chanting the verses:

"Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.

Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us,

Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, grant us peace."

Verses rhyming with a hymn descending from heaven sung by thousands of angels and elders:

"Worthy is the Lamb that was slain

To receive power and wealth and wisdom and might

And honor and glory and blessing!" (Rev 5:12) (and Händel)

Then from every creature in heaven and on earth:

"To the One seated on the throne and to the Lamb

Be blessing and honor and glory and might

Forever and ever." (Rev 5:13)

Thanks to him, we are Passing over from here and now to his eternal home and his eternal Father, whom he is making our Father in the present by making us a mystical part of himself the Son. Our Passover is Jesus's, from earth to heaven, from time to eternity, from troubles to peace, from sickness to health, from obedience to God to familiarity with him, to happiness forever in enjoyment of the grace and fondness of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and constant Communion in the Holy Spirit.


II. The Altar of Holy Trinity Church, Georgetown

The first photograph shows the front of the main altar. The lower photo is a more detailed view of the inserted sculptural relief in the middle of the front face of the altar. The relief gives a Christian interpretation of the function of the altar by identifying the sacrifice enacted on the altar as that of Christ's crucifixion, the slaying of the Passover lamb.

The background of the relief is, on acanthus leaves, a classical sarcophagus, recalling the death and the burial of Christ in the tomb. Immediately in front of the sarcophagus is the sacrificed Passover Lamb holding the cross of Calvary on its right side. The Lamb is resting on the book [scroll) of seven seals from Revelation: "Worthy is the Lamb that was take the book and to open its seals." (Rev 5) Both the book and the Lamb are supported by an angel, the world of heaven. Emerging from beneath the Lamb and the book are two bunches of grapes and four stalks of wheat, the bread and wine, Christ's Body and Blood, received from the altar of the Lamb in holy Communion.

The communicant is thus participating in the Lamb's own Passover from death to life, from bloody sacrifice to glorification in heaven

The high cross in the apse of Holy Trinity Church features Christ in heaven is depicted as the glorified Passover Lamb of God.

He is at the focus of the now radiant cross, and is shown with head raised and with eyes looking down in serenity and peace at the activities of his people whom he has saved. The Lamb who has passed through death into glory rhymes with the suffering Lamb with lowered head on the altar below.

Grünewald's Isenheim Altarpiece, central part and altar frontal:

On the left, Mary is near fainting and is being supported by John. Kneeling at the base of the cross is the sinful woman who washed Jesus's feet at the dinner, when the host did not, and dried them with her hair, anointing his feet with precious ointment. Jesus defended her and said she is anointing me for my burial. Her ointment jar is in front of her near his feet.

To the right, John the Baptist is pointing to Christ on the cross. To identify the crucified Jesus as the Passover Lamb of God John holds the scripture open in his left hand and at his feet is the sacrificed lamb for Passover holding a cross in its right leg. The lamb has been slain and is shedding its blood into a chalice.

The altar frontal below depicts the dead Jesus down from the cross, the women mourning, with the open sepulcher waiting for him to be placed in it.

Dahlgren Chapel, from the Stations of the Cross

Jesus is taken down from the cross and placed on the ground with his head in the lap of his mother.



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