Friday, April 06, 2007

Pope Benedict's Homily for the Mass of the Lord's Supper

~translated by the Papa Ratzinger Forum

Dear brothers and sisters,

The reading from the Book of Exodus that we just heard describes the celebration of the Jewish Passover in its definitive form as laid down in Mosaic law.

Its origin could have been a spring feast among nomads. But for Israel, it was transformed into a feast of commemoration, of thanksgiving, and at the same, time, of hope.

At the center of the Paschal supper, prescribed by liturgical rules, was the lamb as the symbol of liberation from slavery in Egypt. That is why the Paschal Haggadah was an integral part of the supper of the lamb - (the Haggadah is) the narrative record of the fact that it was God Himself who liberated Israel 'with raised hands.'

He, the mysterious and hidden God, showed Himself stronger than the Pharaoh, with all the forces that the latter had at his disposition. So Israel should not forget that God personally took the story of her people into His hands and that this story was continuously based on communion with God. Israel should not forget God.

The words of commemoration are surrounded by words of praise and thanksgiving taken from the Psalms. Thanking and blessing God reached its culmination in the berakha, which in Greek is called eulogy or eucharist: blessing God becomes a blessing for those who bless Him. The offering given to God returns blessed to man. All this erected a bridge from the past to the present and towards the future: the liberation of Israel was not yet complete.

The nation still suffered as a small entity caught in the conflicts among great powers. Therefore to remember with gratitude how God acted in the past was at the same time, supplication and hope: "Bring to fulfillment what You have begun. Give us the final freedom!"

Jesus celebrated this supper of multiple meanings with His disciples the night before His passion. It is in this context that we should understand the new Passover that He gave us in the Holy Eucharist.

In the accounts of the evangelists, there is an apparent contradiction between the Gospel of John, on the one hand, and what Matthew, Mark and Luke tell us.

According to John, Jesus died on the Cross precisely at that moment when, in the Temple, the Paschal lambs were immolated. His death and the sacrifice of the lambs coincided.

But this would mean that He died on the eve of Passover and therefore, could not have personally celebrated the Paschal supper - that, at least, is what it would appear to be (according to John).

According to the three synoptic Gospels, however, the Last Supper was a Paschal supper, into which traditional form Christ introduced the novelty of offering His Body and Blood.

This contradiction seemed insolvable until quite recently. Most of the exegetes thought that John did not wish to communicate the true historic date of the death of Jesus, but chose a symbolic date to make evident the most profound truth: that Jesus is the new and true Lamb who shed His blood for all of us.

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in Qumran has meanwhile led us to a possible convincing solution which, although not yet accepted by all (Biblical scholars), does have a high degree of probability.

We can now say that what John said was historically precise. Jesus really did shed His blood on the eve of Passover at the moment of the immolation of the lambs. However He probably celebrated Passover with His disciples according to the calendar of Qumran, namely, at least a day earlier - and He celebrated it without a lamb, as did the Qumran community* who did not recognize the Temple of Herod and who were awaiting the new Temple.

So, Jesus celebrated Passover without a lamb - but not really without a lamb, because in place of the lamb, He gave Himself, His body and Blood. And so he anticipated His death consistent with His own words: "No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down on my own" (Jn 10,18).

At the moment when He offered His disciples His Body and His Blood, He carried out the true fulfillment of that statement. He Himself offered His life. Only that way would the ancient Passover achieve its real sense.

St. John Chrysostom, in his eucharistic catecheses, once wrote: "What are you saying, Moses? That the blood of a lamb can purify men? That it can save them from death? How can the blood of an animal purify men, save men, have power over death? In fact," he continued, "the lamb could only be a symbolic gesture, and therefore, the expression of waiting and hope for Someone who would be able to fulfill that which the sacrifice of an animal could not."

Jesus celebrated Passover without a lamb and without a temple, but nevertheless, not without a lamb or without a temple. He Himself was the awaited Lamb, the true one, as John the Baptist had announced at the beginning of Jesus's public ministry: "Behold the Lamb of God, behold Him who will take away the sins of the world!" (Jn 1,29).

And He Himself is the true Temple, the living Temple, in which God dwells and in which we can encounter God and adore Him. His Blood, the love of Him who is at the same time Son of God and true man, one of us - that Blood can save. His love, that love in which He gave Himself freely for us, is that which saves us.

The nostalgic gesture, somewhat devoid of effectiveness, which was the immolation of an innocent and immaculate lamb, found its answer in Him who for us became at the same time Lamb and Temple.

Therefore, at the center of Jesus's new Passover was the Cross. From it came the new gift that He brought us. And so, the Cross remains always in the Holy Eucharist, in which, with the Apostles, we can celebrate the new Passover through the course of time.

The gift comes from the Cross of Christ. "No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down on my own". Now He offers it to us.

The Paschal Haggadah, the commemoration of God's saving action, has become the memory of the Cross and the Resurrection of Christ - a memory that does not only remember the past but draws us into the presence of Christ's love.

And therefore the berakha, Israel's prayer of benediction and thanksgiving, has become our Eucharistic celebration, in which the Lord blesses our offerings - bread and wine - to give us Himself in them.

Let us pray to Him to help us not to live our life for our own self, but to give it to Him and so work together with Him, so that men may find life - the true life that can only come from Him who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Amen.

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