Friday, April 06, 2007

The Lamb and the Temple

At last evening's Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord's Supper, celebrated in the Basilica of St John Lateran, the Pope carried out the custom of the washing of the feet. In a departure from the past, when priests were selected to participate in the ritual, this year's honors fell to 12 laymen, representing the various ecclesial movements and associations of the diocese of Rome.

In its entirety, the following is the Whispers translation of Benedict XVI's homily from the annual liturgy commemorating the institution of the Eucharist, the opening of the Paschal Triduum.

* * *

Dear brothers and sisters,

The reading from the Book of Exodus we’ve just heard describes the Paschal celebration of Israel as the Mosaic law established its binding form. In the beginning it could be that it was a spring feast of nomads. For Israel, though, it transformed itself into a feast of commemoration, of gratitude and, at the same time, of hope. At the center of the Paschal meal, ordered according to strict liturgical regulations, was the lamb as symbol of the liberation from slavery in Egypt. For this, the Passover haggadah was an integral part of the meal on top of the lamb: the narrative recounting of the fact that it was God himself who liberated Israel “by his uplifted hand.” He, the mysterious and hidden God, revealed himself to be stronger than the pharaoh with all the power he had at his disposal. Israel did not forget that God personally took into his hand the story of his people and that this story was continually rooted in communion with God. Israel did not forget God.

The reading of the commemoration was surrounded by words of praise and thanks taken from the Psalms. The thanksgiving and blessing of God reached its culmination in the berakha, which in Greek is termed eulogia or eucaristia: blessing God becomes a blessing for those who bless him. The offering given God returns to bless man. All this raises a bridge between the past and present and toward the future: the liberation of Israel was still incomplete. The nation also suffered as a small people in the area of tensions amidst great powers. Its recalling with gratitude the act of God in the past, it became at the same time a petition and hope: Bring to completion what you’ve begun! Give us lasting freedom!

This significant meal of the masses Jesus celebrated with his own on the evening before his Passion. At the outset of this context we must understand the new Passover, which He has given us in the Holy Eucharist. In the accounts of the evangelists there exists an apparent contradiction between the Gospel of John, on one hand, and that which, on the other, Matthew, Mark and Luke communicate to us. According to John, Jesus died on the cross precisely in the moment in which, in time, the paschal lambs were slaughtered. His death and the sacrifice of the lambs coincided. This means, however, that He died on the vigil of Passover and thus wasn’t able to celebrate the paschal meal – this, at least, is how it appears. According to the three synoptic Gospels, then, the Last Supper of Jesus was a paschal meal, in which traditional form He inserted the novelty of the gift of his body and blood. Until some years ago, this contradiction seemed unsolvable. The majority of exegetes were of the mind that John did not wish to communicate to us the true historic date of the death of Jesus, but chose a symbolic date to make evident the most profound truth: Jesus is the new and true lamb who shed his blood for us all.

The discovery of the writings of Qumran has in the meantime found a convincing and possible solution that, while not accepted by all, could still have a high level of probability. We’re now in a place to say that what John related is historically precise. Jesus really spared his blood on the vigil of the Pasch in the hour of the slaughter of the lambs. However, he celebrated Passover with his disciples probably according to the calendar of Qumran, so at least a day prior – it was celebrated without a lamb, as the community of Qumran didn’t recognize the temple of Herod and kept vigil for the new temple. Jesus therefore celebrated the Pasch without a lamb – no, not without a lamb: in place of the lamb he gave himself, his body and his blood. And so he anticipated his death in a way coherent with his word: “No one will take my life from me, but I myself will offer it” (Jn 10:18). In the moment when he offered his body and blood, He gave real completion to this affirmation. He Himself offered his life. Only so did the ancient Pasch obtain its true sense.

St John Chrysostom, in his Eucharistic catechesis, once wrote: What are you saying, Moses? The blood of a lamb purifies men? Saves them from death? How could the blood of an animal purifiy men, save men, have power over death? In fact – Chrysostom continues – the lamb was able to constitute only a symbolic gesture and thus the expression of wait and hope in One who would be able to complete it that by which the sacrifice of an animal was not capable. Jesus celebrated the Pasch without a lamb and without a temple and, still, not without a lamb and without a temple. He himself was the awaited Lamb, the true one, as John the Baptist foresaw at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry: “Behold the lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sin of the world!” (Jn 1:29). And He himself is the true temple, the living temple, in which God lives and in which we can find God and worship him. His blood, the love of Him who is simultaneously Son of God and true man, one of us, that blood is able to save. His love, that love in which He gave himself freely for us, is that which saves us. The nostalgic rite, in some ways lacking efficacy, that was the slaughter of the innocent and immaculate lamb, found its response in Him who has become for us both Lamb and Temple.

So at the center of the new Passover of Jesus, there was the Cross. From it came the new gift brought by Him. And so this remains always in the Holy Eucharist, in which we can celebrate the new Pasch with the Apostles along the course of time. From the cross of Christ came the gift. “No one takes my life, but I myself offer it.” Now he offers it to us. The paschal haggadah, the commemoration of the saving act of God, has become a memorial of the cross and resurrection of Christ – a memory that doesn’t simply recall the past, but attracts us into the presence of the love of Christ. And so the berakha, the prayer of blessing and thanksgiving of Israel, has become our Eucharistic celebration, in which the Lord blesses our gifts – bread and wine – to give himself in them. Let us pray the Lord to help us understand always more profoundly this marvelous mystery, to love it more always and in this to love Himself more always. Let us pray for help that we not hold back our lives for ourselves, but to give them to Him and so work together with Him, that men might find life – the true life that can come only from He who, Himself, is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Amen.

AP/Plinio Lepri