On this great night, Christ does something old, something traditional. He gathers with his Apostles for the celebration of the Passover feast. They prepare and eat this supper according to the precise instructions given centuries before by Moses. For the Jews, this was not merely a memorial meal, but actually made the Passover present to them. For that night, they were really present with their ancestors who prepared to flee Egypt.
But then, after the meal, Christ does something entirely new and different. He takes bread and invites them to eat, saying, “This is my body.” And likewise he takes a chalice of wine and invites them to drink, saying, “This is my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant, which will be shed for you and for many.” Christ made clear to them that the sacrificial lamb whose blood saved the Hebrews from the plague of death and delivered them from Pharaoh’s grasp was just a shadow of Himself, the true Lamb of God who would deliver them not from the power of Egypt or of Rome, but from the power of sin and death itself.
Four days earlier, after His triumphant entry into Jerusalem, Christ also did something old, something traditional. He went up to the Temple to pray, to be present for the offering of sacrifice. But when He was there, he did something new, something shocking. He overturned the tables of the money changers and drove out those selling sheep and oxen. The money changers were there to facilitate the payment of the Temple tax, which “serve[d] through the coming year to provide the public daily whole offerings, in the name of the community.” When the Lord does this, He rejects the most important rite of ancient Israel’s worship of almighty God, the daily whole offering. This offering, the sacrifice of a whole animal every day on behalf of the whole nation of Israel, was for atonement for sins. When Christ overturns the tables of the money changers, the clear meaning to Jews, then, was and is: the daily sacrifice of atonement is no longer necessary.
Why, then? Why is this sacrifice of the Jews no longer necessary? Because the Lord will set up a new sacrifice in its place: the Eucharist, a new daily offering where a whole and immaculate victim will be given to the Lord. The tables of the money changers are now replaced by the altars of the church. What our Lord begins today is not just a meal, but a sacrificial meal, a sacrifice in which He is both the victim offered in sacrifice and also the priest who makes the offering.
So tonight is a night of rejoicing, because we recognize that the night before He was to suffer, the Lord instituted this new, daily sacrifice and invited us to share in its fruits by partaking of this divine gift. But the events of this night also have their shadow. One who is at the meal will betray Him, the one of whom the Lord says it would be better if he had never been born. At Matins this morning, the Church sang: “The vile trader Judas came to the Lord to kiss Him, and He, as a guileless Lamb, refused not a kiss to Judas, * Who, for a certain number of pence, betrayed Christ to the Jews. It had been good for that man if he had not been born. Who, for a certain number of pence, betrayed Christ to the Jews.”
Because tonight Judas gave the Lord the kiss of betrayal, by an ancient tradition the sign of peace is not given at this Mass, because there can be no peace until Christ is risen from the dead and Judas’s betrayal is left behind with the Resurrection. Having completed the Gloria, the bells now will be silent until Saturday night, replaced by the eery sound of the wooden clapper. The shadow of betrayal hangs over this night, but not for long.
It is a night of rejoicing and a night of longing, a night of joy and a night of sorrow – “my soul is sorrowful, even unto death,” the Lord will tell Peter, James, and John. It is a night of sacrifice – the sacrifice of the Eucharist, offered for the first time, the sacrifice of betrayal, the sacrifice of the Cross that is to come. The Mass – the whole-offering of the immaculate victim offered even unto this very day and even unto the end of the world – is a sacrifice because it makes present that great atonement for sin of Christ on the Cross.
As we gather on this holy night, we too do something old, something traditional. We commemorate this great event with the solemn rites handed onto us by Holy Mother Church. In order to connect us more richly to that tradition, and because in bilingual celebrations the hardest determination to make is in which language the Eucharistic Prayer ought to be prayed, the Canon of the Mass – the Eucharistic Prayer – will be in Latin. You are welcome to follow the translation into English in your missalettes, or simply to listen and unite your prayer to the prayer offered by Jesus Himself in silent adoration, recognizing the essentially incomprehensible mystery of the sacrifice we offer.
But we also do something new. Christ’s sacrifice supersedes the sacrifices of the Jews, totally replaces the whole offerings of the Temple. And so too it should be new for us. Christ’s last supper is meant to replace whatever incomplete offerings there are in your own heart, just as it replaced the incomplete offerings of lambs, oxen, and doves. Stay awake and keep watch with the Lord tonight, offering Him the greatest gift you can: His Body and Blood, made present for us the first time this night.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Apostle and Evangelist, Goshen
Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper, A.D. MMXVIII