"Go into the city and you will meet a man carrying a pitcher of water. Follow him, and say to the owner of the house which he enters, 'the master says: where is my dining room in which I can eat the Passover with my disciples?" (Mk. 14: 13f)
Beloved in Christ, the Passover which we saw Christ celebrating in the Upper room with his disciples in the gospel passage which we have just had read out to us was both a commemoration of something old as well as an inauguration of something new. The incarnation of Christ brought him into the Jewish race. The consciousness of being a member of this race inspired some of his activities. He was proud to share with them their cultural heritage and allowed himself to be governed by the dictates of their culture.
When we contemplate the fact that at the heart of the Jewish cultural heritage was the consciousness of their being the Chosen People of God, we might then understand that their ultimate striving was to see that God took a central position in their lives, as is evidenced in their traditional festivities. This was especially the case with the feast of the Passover. It was a feast instituted to commemorate God's extraordinary act of mercy on the people of Israel in Egypt when he killed the first male issues of the Egyptians and spared those of the Israelites.
Prior to and in preparation for the original Passover, every household of the people of Israel in Egypt at that time had been instructed to slaughter a lamb and mark their doorposts with the blood of the lamb. As the Angel of Death went about his mission, he was made to spare all the people in every household whose doorpost was marked with the blood of the lamb. In gratitude to God for this saving intervention the feast of the Passover was made mandatory for all succeeding generations of the race of Israel.
The purpose of this celebration was threefold: to remind the succeeding generations how precious they were in the sight of God; to awaken a sense of gratitude in them - gratitude to God for his jealous love for them; and, finally, to call them to fidelity. We may want to know why God preferred the people of Israel to the people of Egypt. The answer to this question would help us realise that it was not any form of prejudice or preferential treatment that moved God to take side with the people of Israel.
He did not champion their cause just because he loved their race over and above every other race in the world and hated all other races. His taking of sides with them was symbolic rather than discriminatory. He took side with them because they were an oppressed people. His taking of sides with them is a demonstration of his preparedness to champion the cause of every oppressed people as we shall see it effectively demonstrated in the new paschal feast which was instituted by Christ. So it is not the people of Israel as such that God regards as his special treasure but all peoples, particularly all oppressed people.
We said that the reason why the people of Israel repeatedly returned to the Passover was to render gratitude to God for making them his favourites. This was further continued in their offering of their first male issues to God. This was the ritual which the parents of Jesus came to perform in Jerusalem when Simeon took him in the hand and sung his Nunc Dimittis. It was their most impressive way of rendering gratitude to God - by showing him their preparedness to give him in return what was most precious to them.
The third element of the Passover celebration for the people of Israel as we have seen is the element of fidelity. The Passover feast remained a call to fidelity to them. How else should it have been? Isn't it a sign of stupidity for anybody to abandon someone who has demonstrated his preparedness to do everything that would ensure his welfare? This is the reason the people of Israel never tired of coming back, year after year, to the celebration of the paschal feast - to ensure that they do not abandon the God who did so much for them, who loved them so much that he took side with them in their most difficult moment.
We have said that Christ's participation in the Passover celebration on the eve of his death was both a commemoration as well as a new event. We have seen what commemoration it was - a commemoration of God's intervention in the history of his people. The commemoration aspect of Christ's participation in the Passover was to indicate his full participation in human history; to show that his incarnation did not pick and choose; that his incarnation brought him into a realistic sharing in all human ups and downs. As something new, however, it remains an assurance that God is not consigned to the pages of history. Christ's paschal meal was a leap into the future. With it Christ wanted to tell his disciples that God was not done with their history; that what he did in the past he was prepared to do again. This time around, it was not the blood of a lamb that was going to be sacrificed for the liberation of his people, but the blood of Christ himself.
The new paschal celebration therefore retains the threefold elements of the Passover event. We celebrate the new Passover to remind ourselves of how unique and precious we are in the eyes of God - so precious that he gave his only Son for us. The new paschal celebration brings out the symbolic nature of the first paschal event glaringly. This time, it is not for one single race that the lamb was slain, but for all humanity: "this is my blood, the blood of the covenant, which is to be poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins" (MT 26:28). When we realise the enormity of God's sacrifice, we cannot but remain grateful to him for demonstrating his love for us in the manner in which he did it. And really our greatest act of gratitude to God must remain our fidelity to him. We must not leave him to enslave ourselves to other created things.
The feast we celebrate today, the feast of the Corpus Christi, the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, is therefore a reminder of the original paschal mystery. Just as the blood of the lamb which was smeared on the doorpost of every Jewish household brought salvation to the members of those households, so would the blood of Christ offered to us in the Eucharist bring salvation to all who share in it, all who share in it in a readiness akin to that of the exodus Israelites, a readiness to leave their old life behind and sojourn into a future dictated by God. Participation in the Eucharist must also represent our readiness to leave our vain ways, our love-bereft ways, our sinful ways of life, behind us and also sojourn into a life of virtue dictated by God, a life where love dominates and dictates everything we do.