On Holy or Pesaha Thursday we commemorate with Jesus, the old and new Passovers. In the original Passover, Israel recalls her liberation from Egyptian slavery by sacrificing an unblemished lamb. In the new Passover, we commemorate Jesus’ action of saving all humanity from Satan’s clutches by offering himself as the sacrificial lamb. The rite of circumcision that involved the shedding of human blood was a sign of the Abrahamic covenant. God confirmed that covenant by asking Moses to sprinkle animal blood on the Israelites at Mount Sinai. Jesus sealed a new covenant in his blood and asks us to partake of it by drinking it.
The celebration of Pesaha Thursday is a combination of several remembrances:
(1) Jesus washing the feet of his disciples and teaching the importance of servant leadership in the Church,
(2) Institution of the Holy Eucharist as the new covenantal relationship whereby we receive the precious body and blood of Jesus,
(3) Establishment of the priesthood by way of asking the apostles to continue the Holy Eucharist in Jesus’ memory, and
(4) Jesus going to the Garden of Gethsemane for prayer in distress. Let us learn from these examples and teachings of Jesus.
BIBLE TEXT (LUKE 22:15-21)
The Last Supper & Institution of Holy Qurbana
(Lk 22:15) And he said to them, “How much I have longed to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; (16) for, I tell you, I shall not eat it again until it finds its completion in the kingdom of God.” (17) Then he took a cup and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this and share it among yourselves: (18) for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” (19) Then Jesus took the bread, and after giving thanks, he broke it and gave it to them saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” (20) And he did the same with the cup after the meal, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood which is poured out for you. (21) But the hand of the traitor is with me on the table.
The Last Supper
Jesus instituted the Holy Eucharist (Qurbana) while he celebrated the Passover with his disciples in an upper room in Jerusalem. So, we need to understand the Last Supper against the background of the Jewish Passover. The Israelites celebrated the Passover, one of the three pilgrim feasts, in Jerusalem (Lev 23:4-14, Deut 16:18). They sacrificed a lamb in the Temple and took its meat home to eat as a part of the Passover meal. They followed Seder, which means an “order” for the procedure of the Paschal feast. This procedure has 15 steps with prayers given in a book known as Haggadah, the ‘15’ corresponding with the 15th day of Nissan when the Passover starts or the 15 semi-circular steps from the Court of Women to the Court of Israel in the Temple. Levites sang the fifteen “Psalms of the Steps” (Ps 120-134 of Degrees or Ascents) with musical instruments there.
THE 15 STEPS OF THE PASSOVER MEAL
Step 1- Kadeish (Sanctification): The head of the family who sits in the place of honour would take the first of the four wine cups and fill it with wine mixed with water (grape juice for children) and pronounce a thanksgiving over it. He would taste it first and then pass it to all present. The four cups of wine stand for the four “I will,” in Exodus 6:6-7: “I will free you from the burden of the Egyptians (The Cup of Sanctification) and I will deliver you from their bondage (The Cup of Deliverance); I will redeem you with the blows of my powerful hand and my mighty acts of judgement (The Cup of Redemption). I will take you for my people and I will be your God (The Cup of Restoration); you will realize that I am the LORD your God who delivered you from the burden of the Egyptians” (Ex 6:6-7).
Step 2- Urchatz (Washing of Hands): Participants wash their hands by pouring water on the right hand three times and then the left hand three times to prepare for eating the herbs dipped in saltwater. This was necessary because they were eating without using utensils and cutlery like the spoon and fork.
Step 3 – Karpas or Bitter Herbs (parsley): People eat karpas after dipping it in saltwater. The vegetable is symbolic of the Israelites’ poor background, and the saltwater represents their tears shed in Egypt during slavery and throughout their history. The saltwater also reminds them of the crossing of the Red Sea with God’s providence while leaving Egypt. Then they pour wine into the second cup.
Step 4 – Yachatz (Breaking of middle matzo bread): The family places three loaves of matzo bread in three pockets of matzo cover. Matzo bread is an unleavened flatbread with stripes and piercings on it, symbolic of the scourging and nailing of the Messiah according to the Christian interpretation. These three loaves of bread, according to the Christian interpretation, stand for the Most Holy Trinity. The head of the family breaks the middle bread standing for the Messiah into two pieces, as a reminder of the breaking of the body of Christ for our sins. The leader returns the smaller piece symbolic of the “bread of affliction” to the pocket and keeps the larger one representing Pesach Sacrifice in a hidden place in another cover. For Christians, this stands for the burial of Jesus.
Step 5 – Magid (Storytelling) of Exodus from Egypt as a question-answer session. The youngest son, or the least significant person, would ask four questions about why that night differs from the banquet of other nights. The head of the family would give answers and clarify the significance of the special food items. Participants then drink the second cup of wine. They then recite the first half of the Hallel, Psalm 113-114.
Step 6 – Rachtzah (Second hand-washing): The participants wash their hands a second time with a blessing to prepare for eating the matzah, the unleavened bread. The family then serve the Paschal Lamb, charoseth (a paste of nuts and fruits) with vegetables, and two of the unleavened bread wafers.
Step 7 – Motzi: The blessing for bread holding the remaining matzah bread.
Step 8 – Matzah (Unleavened Bread): Everyone eats a part of the top and the middle matzah. They lean to the left when they eat.
Step 9 – Maror (Bitter Herbs): The participants eat bitter vegetable-like raw horseradish or romaine lettuce after reciting a blessing over it. Bitter Herbs remind them of the bitterness of slavery. They dip the bitter herb in charoset, a sweet dark-coloured paste made from mixing apples, nuts, cinnamon, and wine. They signify the mortar Israelites used for the construction work in Egypt during their slavery.
Step 10 – Koresh (Matzah Sandwich): The participants fill two pieces of Matzah with Maror and Romaine lettuce. They recite a special prayer and eat the Koresh while leaning to the left.
Step 11 – Shulchan Orech (Dinner): The head of the family cuts the Pascal lamb into pieces and gives a part to each family member with unleavened bread and bitter herbs dipped in sauce.
Step 12 – Tzafun / Afikoman (Half-piece Matzo bread): The head of the family asks children to find the piece of matzah bread that he hid earlier. Its finding, according to Christian interpretation, represents the resurrection of Jesus. Once recovered, they break that into pieces and eat, saying, “This is the bread of affliction that our fathers ate in Egypt” (Ex 13:3). At this moment, Jesus established the Holy Eucharist using the Afikoman bread. “While they were eating, Jesus took bread, said the blessing and broke it, and gave it to
his disciples saying, ‘Take and eat; this is my body’” (Mt 26:26).
Step 13 – Barech (The Cup of Redemption): The head of the family then serves the third cup of wine, saying a blessing over the cup. All the participants share it. Jesus instituted the second part of the Holy Eucharist at this part of the Passover observance. “Then he took a cup and gave thanks, and passed it to them saying, ‘Drink from this, all of you, for this is my blood, the blood of the Covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’” (Mt 26:2728). Jesus and his apostles left the room at this instant for the Garden of Gethsemane at this instant. The rest of the Passover continued through his sacrifice as the Lamb of God on the Cross. Then the participants pour wine into the fourth cup. They set aside an additional cup for the prophet Elijah, who would announce the Messiah on a Pesach day. Then one of them opens a door to invite the prophet into the house.
Step 14 – Hallel (Praises): The participants recite the rest of the Psalms (Hallel) (Ps 115-118) followed by a blessing over the fourth cup of wine and drink it. Jesus considered the fourth cup as his suffering, and prayed at the Garden of Gethsemane, “Father, if it is your will, remove this cup from me; yet not my will but yours be done” (Lk 22:42). However, Jesus accepted and tasted this fourth cup when he was on the cross.
Step 15 – Nirtzah (Closing): The Passover concludes with the utterance of the words, “It is finished” and with the prayer of hope, “Next Year in Jerusalem” in anticipation of celebration the Pesach the following year in Jerusalem with the Messiah. Jesus also said, “It is finished” after tasting the fourth cup on the cross just before his death.
(Lk 22:15) And he said to them, “How much I have longed to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; …”
Though the enemies had attempted to kill Jesus in the past, he did not let them do it before he could accomplish all he had planned to do. He longed to eat his last Passover meal with the apostles before his crucifixion because he had to:
1. Give them his last discourse so they would not get scandalized and depressed at his arrest, sentencing, painful passion, and humiliating death.
2. Jesus wanted to teach the disciples the lesson on servant leadership by washing their feet.
3. He had to establish the Holy Eucharist that they needed to continue in remembrance of his deliverance of humanity from the original sin. He was the new Pascal lamb slain for all humanity instead of the lambs sacrificed for the deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt. So, the Holy Eucharistic celebration is our renewed Passover meal.
(16) “… for, I tell you, I shall not eat it again until it finds its completion in the kingdom of God.”
The Passover Jesus observed with his apostles was the commemoration of the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage for their later entry into the Promised Land. During the Last Supper, Jesus replaced that Passover with a new one, which is the Holy Eucharist, where he is the Lamb. Along with it, he replaced the Levitical priesthood with another one for the reconstituted Israel, the Church. That new kingdom of God would be inaugurated on the day of Pentecost with the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles. So, after the Last Supper, his next Passover with the apostles would be after the completion of his mission on the cross and the establishment of the new kingdom. The renewed Passover he would share with them would be the Holy Eucharist.
Jesus compared the joy of the Kingdom of Heaven to a banquet that is enjoyable, relaxed, and involves wonderful friendship. He applied the metaphor of a wedding banquet to the kingdom of God that would happen in its fullness at his Second Coming. John documents his vision in the Island of Patmos: “Then the angel said to me, ‘Write this: Blessed are those who have been called to the wedding feast of the Lamb.’ And he said to me, ‘These words are true; they come from God’” (Rev 19:9). While teaching the apostles on ‘servant leadership’, Jesus said, “It is you who have stood by me in my trials; and I confer a kingdom on you, just as my Father has conferred one on me, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom; and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Lk 22:28-30). Until Jesus’ Second Coming, the disciples must diligently work for the Church by way of fulfilling their respective responsibilities. “Gird your loins and light your lamps and be like servants who await their master’s return from a wedding, ready to open immediately when he comes and knocks. Blessed are those servants whom the master finds vigilant on his arrival. Amen, I say to you, he will gird himself, have them recline at table, and proceed to wait on them” (Lk 12:35-37).
(17) Then he took a cup and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this and share it among yourselves: …”
In this Passover meal, Jesus acted as the head of the family. Out of the four cups of wine drunk during the Passover, this could be the first cup, the Cup of Sanctification, in which case, the head of the family would fill the cup with wine mixed with water and pronounce a thanksgiving over it, taste it first and then pass it to all present. So, this was not the establishment of the sacramental cup. That came later, after supper (Lk 22:20), using the third cup.
(18) “… for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”
Wine and banquet are representations of the spiritual joy in heaven. Jesus promised that he would share the spiritual wine in the kingdom of God with his faithful disciples. Then, “many will come from east and west and sit down with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob at the feast in the Kingdom of Heaven” (Mt 8:11).
(19) Then Jesus took the bread, and after giving thanks, he broke it and gave it to them saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
Melchizedek offered bread and wine to God. He was the king and priest of Salem, which is Jerusalem (Gen 14:18). Jesus became the High Priest after the order of Melchizedek (Ps 110:4) because Jesus was born in the royal tribe of David and not a Levite like John the Baptist. Jesus revived Melchizedek’s offering and replaced the animal sacrifice in the Temple with the Holy Eucharist.
Jesus took the bread
While Jesus and his apostles were eating the Paschal meal, and before drinking the third cup of wine, Jesus took the bread. This specially cooked unleavened bread symbolized sinlessness.
After giving thanks, he broke it
According to Matthew 26:26 and Mark 14:22, Jesus said a blessing over the bread before he broke it. He did that over the unleavened bread to transubstantiate it into his body. Breaking the bread was symbolic of the endurance of suffering the Israelites underwent in the past. When Jesus instituted the Holy Eucharist, it became representative of his passion and death. Jesus broke the bread and passed the pieces to his apostles.
Gave it to them saying, “This is my body, which is given for you”
Jesus calls the bread his body and not a symbol of his body. Jesus fulfilled his promise: “I am the bread of life. Though your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, they died. But here you have the bread which comes down from heaven so that you may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which has come down from heaven; whoever eats of this bread will live forever. The bread I shall give is my own flesh and I will give it for the life of the world” (Jn 6:48-51)
Do this in remembrance of me
By these words, Jesus gave the authority to his apostles to officiate at his Eucharistic meal in the Church until his Second Coming. Thus, he established priesthood and assured the spiritual nourishment of his followers with his body and blood. That will also become a memorial of his sacrifice with his spiritual presence among the faithful. So, the Christian Passover is no longer a remembrance of deliverance from Egypt but the liberation of us from the bondage of Satan by Jesus. Just celebrating the Holy Eucharist is not enough. Like Jesus, who continued his sacrifice and shedding of blood on the cross, we should continue the same in our daily lives as our humble service for the family and others entrusted to our care.
(20) And he did the same with the cup after the meal, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood which is poured out for you.”
He did the same with the cup after the meal
The blood of the sacrificial animal was separated from the body to prepare for the sacrifice. No human was supposed to drink the blood that represented life. The priests poured the blood of the sacrificial animal on the altar in the Temple as an offering to God. At the institution of the Holy Eucharist, Jesus also considered his body and blood separate. He blessed the bread representing his body and wine representing the blood of his life and gave both to his disciples to consume.
Jesus used the third cup known as “The cup of Redemption” to institute the Holy Eucharist. This cup had wine mixed with a little water called “the cup of blessing” (1 Cor 10:16) because of a special blessing said over it thanking God for the wine and food the Israelites could produce by God’s grace. It was the principal cup, which they consumed after the Pascal meal. The red represented the Passover lamb’s blood marked on the doorposts of the Israelites in Egypt when the angel of death passed over their houses. Similarly, Christ’s blood marked on the cross saved the people.
This cup is the new covenant in my blood
Shedding of blood was part of making a covenant like animal sacrifices or the Abrahamic covenant of circumcision (Gen 17:814). Jesus here applied the same phrase used for the Old Covenant that God made with the Israelites through Moses at Mount Sinai as given in Exodus 24:3-8. People agreed to all the ordinances of the Lord when Moses came down from the mountain and reported to them. Moses then built an altar at the foot of the mountain. The Israelites offered burnt offerings of young bulls. Moses took half of the blood in large bowls and splashed it on the altar. He read aloud from the book of the covenant to the people who responded, “All that the LORD has said we shall do and obey.” Moses splashed the other half of blood on the people, saying, “Here is the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.”
Just as Moses was the mediator of the old covenant, Jesus became the mediator of the New Covenant established at the Last Supper and fulfilled on Calvary. After using wine for his blood, Jesus shed his blood for humanity through the torture and crucifixion he underwent. This was the fulfilment of the new covenant Jeremiah prophesied (31:31-33).
Jesus asked his apostles to drink his “blood” of the new covenant. The Jews could not drink any blood because it represented the life of the person or animal. Unlike Moses sprinkling the people with the animal blood (Ex 24:6) Jesus gives his own sacramental blood for his believers to drink because his covenant is not external, but internal. When a believer drinks the sacramental blood of Jesus, he receives the very life of Jesus with which he unites his own life.
Which is poured out for you
Within hours of Jesus blessing the cup, he shed his blood on precisely the same date according to the Hebrew Calendar. Instead of the animal blood poured on the altar of the Temple, Jesus shed his own blood, replacing all the past animal sacrifices that could take away only personal sins. Jesus poured out his blood not for his own sake, but for the sake of all humanity, so as to take the stain of Original Sin off our lives forever! That shedding of blood was completed on the cross when Longinus pierced the heart of Jesus with a lance after his death on the cross (Jn 19:34).
(21) But the hand of the traitor is with me on the table.
Jesus’ imminent betrayal by Judas troubled Jesus deeply, as he himself testified, “Amen, amen, I say to you, one of you will betray me” (Jn 13:21). The spiritual downfall of one of his apostles was bothering Jesus. In John 13:18, Jesus said it is the fulfilment of Psalm 41:10: “Even my trusted friend, who ate my bread, has raised his heel against me.” The disciples were perplexed by this (Jn 13:22). Jesus was aware of who was the traitor and indirectly identified him.
The revelation of the betrayal by Judas after the institution of the Holy Eucharist is proof that Judas received the Holy Eucharist and also received the ordination to the priesthood after he had agreed to a deal with the Jewish leaders to betray Jesus.
The End of the Passover Meal on the Cross
Jesus skipped the fourth cup of the Passover so he could complete it at the crucifixion. After the second part of the songs of praise called “Hallel,” he left to offer his life as the sacrificial lamb. When Jesus was near death on the cross, “Jesus knew that all was now finished and he said, ‘I am thirsty,’ in fulfilment of Scripture.
A jar full of bitter wine stood there; so, putting a sponge soaked in the wine on a hyssop stalk, they raised it to his lips. Jesus took the wine and said, ‘It is now fulfilled.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up the spirit” (Jn 19:28-30). When Jesus said “It is finished,” he was not referring to his life’s end but to the 15th step of the Passover celebration. Thus, on the cross, Jesus finished his Passover meal by drinking the fourth cup and declaring the end of his Passover observance.
1. The Holy Eucharist that Jesus established and commanded us to continue in the Church is his greatest gift for us to keep up our covenantal relationship with him. Let us make use of every opportunity to take part in the Holy Mass in Church.
2. As we remember the establishment of the priesthood in the Church, let us pray for all our priests and pledge our cooperation with them in the building up of the Church.
3. Judas, along with the other apostles, had received baptism, washing of feet, the Holy Eucharist, and even ordination from Jesus. Still, he failed, not because of any deficiency on Jesus’ part, but because he was gripped by the love of money that Jesus had warned against. Judas even ignored the warnings Jesus gave at the Last Supper. Satan gamely accosts holy people with tempting offers of wealth and temporal glory. Such people will repel the Word of God if worldly desires become their priority.
4. The Passover was a feast of unleavened bread. Leaven was symbolic of sin, and the family removed it thoroughly from the home before the Passover. Our mothers, remembering this, have been using new utensils and vessels to prepare the Passover food. This also reminds us of our need for spiritual cleanliness, especially during Holy Week.
5. During the Passover in Egypt, the angel of death spared the first-born sons of only those who obeyed the commandment of God through Moses to sacrifice the lamb and mark the doorposts of their houses with its blood. The Israelites had to continue keeping the ordinances of the Lord to occupy the Promised Land. Though Jesus washed away our Original Sin through Baptism, we need to practise the teachings of Jesus to inherit the Kingdom of God.