The Relationship between the Passover and the Mass: Catholic and Protestant Understandings.

D Peter Burrows FAITH Magazine May-June 2007

In recent times there has been a tendency in the Catholic Church towards a misunderstanding of the relationship between the Mass and the Jewish Feast of Passover. It is a tendency suggestive of a Protestant mind-set. I speak here of a misunderstanding of the relationship rather than the actual relationship of the two; unquestionably the Christian and the Jewish liturgies are related.

The Gospels and the testimonies of St. Paul, together with the ancient liturgical and theological recollections of the Church make it unmistakable that the events of Holy Week culminating in Easter happened at the Feast of the Passover with its attendant feasts of Unleavened Bread and the Pentecost coupled by the counting of the omer. This is not an historical accident, but a matter of divine plan. Yet we must ask just what about the Passover makes it the particular Jewish (or Judean) feast that offers the appropriate grounding for all that we Catholics understand about Jesus and the Sacrifice of the Mass.

No Sacrifice in Reformed Passover

This writer and family have had the great joy of celebrating the Passover some five or six times[1]. These were times of great mystery and profound joy. We "belonged" at those times to some life that transcended our ordinary and relatively short individual mundane life-experiences, as did everyone gathered at table,

The Passover table was always set with the usual and often only commemorative items: a dry lamb's shank, a boiled egg, parsley and salt water. There were also some comestibles: unleavened bread (stacked on a silver platter in abundance and covered with a beautiful cloth), sweet red wine (including a cup at the empty chair for Elijah the prophet), moror (very hot horseradish) and charoses (chopped fruits and nuts mixed with wine). These were ceremonial and taken before the normal meal, which was usually a brisket of beef and all manner of Jewish goodies, always mother's specialties and the family's favourites. The elder of the gathering, usually abba (papa) reclined in his large and comfortable chair and directed the events of the evening, events which included prayers, readings, funny andserious songs, a question and answer session, counting the plagues on the Egyptians, and children's games with prizes. The youngest got to ask the special question: "Why is this night different from all others?"

This table was laid according to Jewish and family traditions that date from some time after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE (or AD, if you're so minded). What is important for us Christians is that more than likely Jesus would not have recognised much about this modern table. The Passover table as a feature of the celebration arose many years after Jesus' Ascension and is a product of the later Rabbis' attempt to continue Jewish worship and life after the destruction of the Temple. Clearly, the table is in no way an altar, the meal in no way sacramental and the leader in no way a priest (unless his surname is Cohen or Levy)[2].

Development Further Away From Original Meaning

It was this very lack of sacrament, priest and altar that appealed to the founders of the Reformation and its scholarship, especially its biblical scholarship. They were bound to be rid of priests and their altars and sacraments - and most of all, the whole notion of sacrifice, all of which they found so repugnant in the Roman Catholic Church. Thus the Passover associations of Holy Week and Easter were to them clear evidence that the Catholic Church had perverted the true intention of Scripture (for them, the sole authority).

The sacrificial cults of the Temple with its priests and festivals, also to be found in abundance in Scripture, were naturally a difficulty for these reformers. But not to be frustrated with these facts of Scripture, Reformation scholarship, especially 19th century German scholarship, began a new study of the Old Testament, especially the five books of Moses. It claimed that these scriptures were not a single narrative but a patchwork of literatures from various sources put in the mouths of Moses and the prophets. They called it the Documentary Hypothesis of higher (literary) criticism[3].

Their next step was to lump all of those sources mentioning sacrifice, priests, altars, and liturgies together into a single strand which they called the Priestly document, or "P". Then they discerned that the Priestly document was written during Israel's Exile in Babylon and represented the pale and empty shell of Israel's religion, a humanly-devised religion with no divine authority or substance. This "bankrupt" religion, these scholars showed, was a kind of religious wasteland through which God prepared for an entirely new religion, discontinuous with Israel's former religious glories, rejective of the Jews and their covenants and something entirely different - Christianity[4]. But the Catholic Church (and this was the actual empty cultwhich the Protestant reformers wished to attack) was then judged to have kept the old and useless ways of priests, altars, sacrifice and the entire old and meaningless Temple cult - after all, had God not brought about the destruction of the Temple and all its works? Had not the priests crucified Jesus? St. Paul, the un-priestly Rabbi suited them perfectly. Of course, John's Gospel and the Epistles of St. James and to the Hebrews were somewhat suspect, but New Testament scholarship could (and did) handle the discrepancies.

Passover without Sacrifice: the Protestant Solution

Passover triumphed as the reformer's "Feast of choice", even though Israel had only celebrated the Passover once in Egypt, once just before the beginning of the 40 years in the wilderness[5], once at Gilgal after they had crossed the Jordan into the promised land at the end of the 40 years[6], and probably again only during the great reformation of King Josiah in Jerusalem hundreds of years later[7] . Assuredly, we have little idea how it was celebrated or kept in Jesus' day at all. But for the reformers, the Passover table-feast was a God-send.

Consider the advantages for Protestant liturgy and worship. No more priests, no more talk of sacrifice, no more altars, only plain and unadorned crosses, no vestments or strange rites and languages, no order, pure democracy, political correctness and every man doing what is right in his own eyes. One might argue that the "make-it-up-as-you-go" and entertainment factors have become the order of the day. The altar has become a table, with candlesticks (or not, as you wish - but they are like the candles on the banquet table at any rate) with (or without) a nice tablecloth. Without sacraments it is possible to use anything for the meal, grape juice is the favourite of abstemious folk. A Methodist minister friend once used Ritz crackers and orange juice for a eucharist. Since there are nopriests any more (even though you might want to call someone a "priest") for sacrifice, anyone who is head of family can preside at the Christian Passover table - even mother, has v'shalom! And certainly there is no suggestion of sacrifice and of giving something up.

Problems with this Interpretation of Passover

One boulder could not be pulled out of this new-ploughed field, however. And it is a boulder put there by St. Paul himself. In I Corinthians 5:7 he declares: "As Christians you are unleavened Passover bread; for indeed our Passover has begun; the sacrifice is offered - Christ himself," or "Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us, therefore let us keep the feast."

The usual Protestant solution to this problem is put this way: "This leads Paul to speak of Christ as the lamb sacrificed at Passover.[8]" Alas, this will not do!" The lambs slaughtered at the first Passover were not sacrifices. Their blood was smeared on the doorposts to keep the angel of death out of Hebrew houses[9] and their roasted flesh was to be eaten and the leftovers to be burnt. Nowhere is it suggested that these lambs were sacrifices, much less offerings for sin. Nor does the smearing of blood on the lintels seem to ever extend as a feature of the keeping of Passover in the future.[10] Furthermore, the "lamb" could be a goat or, later, acalf. There is no avoiding the fact that the Passover table celebration, from the very beginning, has nothing in its celebration to suggest, even remotely, the forgiveness of sin. Nor do any of the commandments of how Passover is to be kept ever imply that by doing them sin is affected. In fact, originally there was not even a table, as the meat was to be roasted and eaten standing and dressed for immediate travel.

Another stumbling block in the field for those of the Protestant persuasion is the Epistle to the Hebrews which insists on talking about priests and the high priest as a central feature of Christianity, whether it be according to the traditions of Aaron, of the wilderness, or of Melchizedek in the Solomonic Temple.

Sacrifice and priesthood, together with all their accoutrements belong at the heart of Christianity from the beginning and pertain directly to Holy Week and the Mass.

The Mass

How does the Passover, in its traditional meaning, fit in with the Mass? The relationship between the Mass as sacrifice and Holy Week with Passover requires first a proper understanding of what Passover is all about. It is not about the table and the meal; these are only the framework upon which is hung the real purpose of keeping Passover. The Hebrew name for the liturgy of Passover is Haggadah, the Story or the Recollection - Catholic liturgy calls it the anamnesis. The real purpose of the Passover is to re-iterate the entire story of everything from Israel's first Passover in Egypt[11] all the way to the entry into the Promised Land, and the hope for the future expressed in the acclamation "Next year in Jerusalem". The story is found inExodus through the first chapters of the Book of Joshua. And it is why Israel did not keep the Passover in the time of Judges and Kings - they were making a new Story of the Promised Land and their life in it. Yet when that story began to pale in the latter days of the kingdom with constant threats of invasion and destruction, King Josiah ordained that they go back to the old Story of the wilderness and search for maps of renewal and restoration of the purity of the wilderness. Josiah was clearly seeking a "back to basics" retrospective, and Jesus, confronted by the same threats of Israel's destruction by the Romans, is equally retrospective concerning the events of the Wilderness Story.

Following Josiah's reformation we hear nothing of Passover until the exiles returned from Babylon, almost 100 years after Josiah's reign. When the new Temple was finished, a great Passover celebration was held in the time of Ezra the Scribe with the eating of the Passover lambs. Then they kept the Feast of Unleavened Bread for seven days. Beyond this occasion, Scripture is silent.

From the beginning Israel is required by God to re-tell the Story regularly (in earlier times it was less frequently - perhaps every seven years) as though the story were a current event, so that every generation of children might become a part of the event.[12] Therefore, we must ask, "What happens in the Story that is significant for our everyday lives and how does this relate to Jesus the Christ and the Mass?" It is helpful I suggest to consider that Jesus revealed his Father's understanding of the wilderness narrative in the Lord's Prayer.

The Lord's Prayer: Summary of the Wilderness Experience Narrative

Everything in the wilderness revolves around the Ark of the Covenant in the Tabernacle. On the top of the Ark was the Mercy Seat, the very throne of God, with the cherubim as armrests. Thus the Ark is the very presence of God on earth, the holy place and residence of His Name. It is God's throne, for He is the King of all the earth.

Our Father Who art (really) in heaven,
hallowed be Thy Name.
Thy kingdom come.

The presence of God on earth and His concern for Israel are truly the first and primary issue of the wilderness tradition. These are not a motley of nomadic folk but a nation with their God as King, the Holy One of Israel. And He is approachable at His Seat of Mercy on the Ark, for He is also Israel's Father and adopted them in the wilderness.

Thy will be done, on earth as in heaven.

In the wilderness, unencumbered by the details of urban or farming life, Israel is able to receive God's Law, His will, on Mt. Sinai and through the explication of His servant Moses. "We will hearken to it and do it!" In the Ark were kept the tablets of the Law, the written testimony of the will of God and the agreement to keep it.

Give us this day our daily bread .

In the Ark was kept some of the manna which sustained Israel for one day at a time and taught them faith in God. Don't worry about tomorrow's bread; as God gave it to you today, trust Him that He will provide again tomorrow.

And forgive us our sins as we forgive each other when they offend us.

In the Ark was also kept the almond staff of Aaron, the anointed High Priest (the Messiah) whose task it was to bring the forgiveness of sin through the sacrifice of the atonement lamb. Israel cannot live without regular reconciliation with God.

Lead us not into ways of temptation and deliver us from the hands of the evil inclination.

The movement of the Ark was the indication of God's leadership and invitation to follow Him. Because of the sin of the golden calf, God at first refused to go with His people; He offered, rather, to send an angel, "for I fear that I will annihilate you on the way, for you are a stubborn people." Moses intervened: "Indeed, if thou dost not go in person, do not send us up from here!" God relented: "All right, I will go with you in person and show you the way." God promises to be "Emmanu-el". Thus we read in Psalm 132: "Arise, O Lord, and come to thy resting place, thou and the Ark of thy power (presence)." "The priests (Levites) carrying the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord stood firm on the dry bed in the middle of the Jordan; and all Israel passed over on dry ground until the whole nationhad crossed over." (Joshua 3:17) It was at this place in the Jordan that Jesus was baptised by John.

Passover and the Sacrifice for Sin

What of sin and sacrifice? "Forgive us our sins" is a part of the Passover narrative indeed. The great and fundamental (original) Sin of the wilderness story occurs at the very moment that Moses is receiving the law but before he gives it to the people (and therefore has nothing to do with law-breaking!) It is SIN, not sins. Moses has led the people to the foot of Sinai and commands them to wait while he goes up the mountain to consult God. However, the people become afraid, (Jesus says more often "Do not be afraid" than even "Love one another" in the New Testament). Their fear leads them to make a calf of gold and to worship it as God, led by Moses' brother Aaron. The fundamental and original Sin of Israel (and indeed humankind generally), then, is clearly idolatry and replacing God withthe God of Self and the fabrications of self. It is addressed by the First Great Commandment: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart."

God hears their liturgy of the calf and is furious, offering to wipe the people out and make a new people arise from Moses. Moses stands before God's wrath and pleads for time so that he can fix things, suggesting to God that wiping out a people whom He had just taken so much trouble in saving from Egypt would be very bad public relations in Egypt. God is temporarily assuaged. Moses rushes down the mountain, calls his brother Levites to himself, and begins to clean up the chaos of the idolatry in the camp. The Levites are at this point made the guardians of the Law and the order of God's people - they become the priests (sacrifice was not a major function of the levitical priests at the beginning).

Knowing that God is only on hold, Moses rushes back up the mountain and confronts God's anger again. He says: "This people have committed a great sin, making a god of gold." Now God already knows this, but the beginning of reconciliation is always confession of the actual sin and sorrow for it. Then Moses says: "If You will forgive them, please forgive (for they were afraid and didn't know what they were doing). But if You will not, if there is still an outstanding debt, take my life in the stead of theirs." God replies that He likes the formula, one life for the many, but it will be the one who led the people who will make this sacrifice, namely Moses' brother Aaron. This is the atonement sacrifice that restores the relationship with God, Aaron's life for the people's. Aaron becomes theHigh Priest of Israel at this point, whose major function is the offering of his life for the ransom of the people. Moses anoints him and pours the oil on his head so that it runs down his beard. Aaron is the Anointed One, the Messiah who suffers (allows) his life to be given annually for the people[13] - the Suffering Servant.

The King Messiah of the House of David is a much later, non-wilderness institution which after Solomon applied only to the two tribes of Judah and Benjamin, and while God made an everlasting covenant with David's house, the kings were, for the most part, more trouble than they were worth in Israel's tradition, and certainly only secondary.

What of the lamb? The liturgy of the High Priest on the Day of Atonement in the wilderness Passover narrative is that spelled out in Genesis 22 and the sacrifice of Isaac. God calls upon Abraham to return his son Isaac by sacrificing him, a clear invitation to Abraham to offer God his life in the future - "give me your son, your only son, the one who will be you in the next generation (whom you love)." As they travel to the mountain of sacrifice, Isaac says to his father: "Papa, I see the fire and the knife - and I'm carrying the wood of the sacrifice on my back (as Jesus later carried the cross) - but where is the young lamb for the sacrifice, Papa?" And Abraham replies, "God provides for Himself the young lamb for the sacrifice - my son." Isaac is the God-provided lamb, the Lamb of God!Because he is born when Abraham was 100 and the barren Sarah 90, he is truly the God-provided son also. And when, after Abraham proves to God his fidelity concerning his future and Isaac suffers his life to be offered, God provides a substitute for the life of Isaac, a lamb caught by its horns in the thicket (which assures that it is unblemished). Abraham lays his hands on it and declares that the life of the lamb is in fact the extension of the life of Isaac - who is himself the extension of Abraham's life in the next generation. It is called "substitution" - "in the stead of" and is accomplished through the laying on of hands. We would call it ordination.

Later in Israel's tradition, the High Priest uses the casting of lots to choose the lamb of (for) God upon which he will lay his hands to make the lamb's life an extension of his own and, in the breaking of its body and the shedding of its blood be able to lay down his life in sacrifice for the atonement of the people's sin annually. All of this is a part of the Passover narrative and belongs to the tradition.

Jesus the High Priest

Jesus does fulfil the promise of God to David regarding the throne, but this through his adoptive father Joseph. Yet kings, even in Israel, do not suffer their lives to be sacrificed, and of Jesus' kingly Messiahship it says in John's Gospel, "Jesus, aware that they meant to come and seize him to proclaim him king, withdrew again to the hills by himself." (John 6:15). If I am a king, says he, "my kingdom is certainly not of this world." There is no "messianic secret" here[14] - he simply rejects this kingly messianic formulation.

Jewish males are always defined by their mother's pedigree anyway. In Luke's Gospel is the solution to the mystery. Mary, it says, is the cousin of Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist. Elizabeth (and thus Mary) is identified as a daughter of Aaron (and thus of the Tribe of Levi also). To Aaron's grandson Phineas, God made the following promise: "He (Phineas) and his descendants after him shall enjoy the (high) priesthood under a covenant for all time - I grant him my security of tenure." (Numbers 25:11-13). On his mother's side, Jesus is truly the ancient Messiah of the House of Aaron, truly the great High Priest. And in the breaking of his body and the shedding of his blood he deals with sin, not just for Israel alone any longer, but for the whole world!

Jesus laid his hands on Peter, Peter upon his descendants; the Pope extends himself to his Bishops and they to their priests. The Sacrifice of the Mass is truly a part of Passover and is first worked, not at the table of the Last Supper, but on the altar of the cross on Good Friday. In John's Gospel Jesus' discourse at the Last Supper is called "the High Priestly prayer". At table Jesus in effect said, [15] "This, my body, will be broken (in sacrifice) tomorrow on the cross; this, my blood (life) will be poured out (my willing sacrifice which I suffer or permit or offer) for the forgiveness of sin, tomorrow on the cross." The Catholic Sacrifice of the Mass is the work of Jesus the messianic High Priest on the cross at Passover, and, byextension/ordination the work of the priest at an altar, re-iterating that Sacrifice for the whole world at every time and place.

It is not a table and presidential thing; these are not enough.

[1]This was with my beloved teacher, the noted Jewish liturgist and scholar Rabbi Jakob J. Petuchowski of sacred memory, and his family, and with my precious friends Miki and Sam November, peace upon them. They were associated with the US rabbinical seminary (HUC-JIR) where I did my doctoral studies.

[2]The great Anglican liturgist, Dom Gregory Dix in his The Shape of the Liturgy (Dacre Press of A. & C. Black, Ltd.: London, 1945), proposes that Jesus celebrated a "Fellowship Meal" rather than a Passover meal with his disciples, but he knows this chaburah meal from the writings of the rabbis some 125 years after the destruction of the Temple. And in effect Dix cuts off the Passover meal from the Eucharist in order to accommodate John's Gospel's lack of a Passover meal.

[3]A brief but fulsome and readable summary of the Documentary Hypothesis may be found online in an article "Did Moses Write the Pentateuch" by Don Closson of the Probe Ministries of Richardson, Texas - Closson lists a few of the many criticisms of this hypothesis over the years, though this approach to biblical scholarship continues to be normative teaching in protestant seminaries and sadly, in many Catholic seminaries as well. Many respected Jewish biblical scholars for over a century have called it the "higher anti-Semitism"!

[4]Thus giving rise to Jewish identification of this scholarship as anti-Semitic.

[5]Numbers 9 - and then, some kept it on the wrong month.

[6]Joshua 10:5ff

[7]"No such Passover had been kept either when the judges were ruling Israel or during the times of the kings of Israel and Judah", II Kings 23:21f

[8]Explanatory note on verse 7 by John C. Hurd, Trinity College, Toronto in The New English Bible; Oxford Study Edition, Samuel Sandmel, gen. ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

[9]An apotropaic and prophylactic use of the life blood of the animal to ward off the angel of death from Hebrew homes as it passed through Egypt taking their first-born just as Pharaoh had taken the lives of the first-born of Israel earlier.

[10] Exodus 12:21-25 might be interpreted as a ritual requirement that future celebrations of Passover might also include some re-iteration of the sprinkling of blood on the lintel, but this is very uncertain.

[11]This first Passover is described in Exodus 12. It speaks of the angel of death "passing over" the homes of the Israelites as well as the hasty meal of roast meat, unleavened bread and bitter herbs eaten just before Moses leads the people out of Egypt through the Red Sea. Great stress is later placed on ridding every household of all leaven and fermentation before the feast.

[12] A primitive Passover narrative is to be found in Deuteronomy 26:1-11.

[13] See below for the extension of Aaron's life to the sacrificial lamb through the laying on of hands

[14] The idea that Jesus kept his messiahship a secret from everyone until the Resurrection in Mark’s Gospel was first proposed by William Wrede in 1901. In fact, Jesus denies rather than keeps secret any attempt to attribute to him a political messiahship and role simply because he is the High Priestly Messiah of the House of Aaron, not a king but a self-sacrifice for sin.

[15] In Galilean Aramaic (as in Hebrew) which was probably the language of the Lord, there is no present tense of the verb “to be”. Thus, “This is my body/cup of my blood” is unlikely.

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