New Passover for a New Exodus
Continuing our series on the Eucharist, Catholics understand Jesus to be a new Moses, and what kind of new Moses would he be if he did not inaugurate a new Exodus? And of course, what was it that launched the first Exodus but the celebration of the Passover? A new Exodus under the leadership of a new Moses, then, calls for a new Passover to kick things off.
St. Paul clearly understood this typology. He wrote to the Corinthians in his first letter, 5:7-8:
For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. Therefore, let us celebrate the festival. . . .
When did Jesus institute this new Passover? The answer is the in the upper room on the night he was betrayed. Rather than just following the standard Passover liturgy, according to which the events of the original Exodus were made present to the lives of the celebrants, Jesus began talking about a different offering than the old Passover lamb. It would be by means of this sacrifice, this offering of his body and blood, that the new Exodus would be inaugurated.
As Brant Pitre has noted in his book, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist, the dramatic act of spreading the lamb’s blood often overshadows an arguably even more important element of the rite: The Passover sacrifice was not complete until the sacrificial lamb had been eaten by the worshiper. He writes:
The reason Jesus’ identification with the lamb matters is that, in both the Old Testament and ancient Jewish tradition, the sacrifice of the Passover lamb was not completed by its death. It was completed by a meal, by eating the flesh of the lamb that had been slain. Therefore, if Jesus saw himself as the new lamb, then it makes sense that he would speak of his blood being poured out and command the disciples to eat his flesh.
Lastly, just as the old Passover feast was to be kept as a day of remembrance for all Israelites, so with the new Passover celebration of the Eucharist:
This command to renew the sacrifice every year shows that for ancient Israel, Passover was not just a one-time event. It did not happen once and then pass away. The Passover was to be observed forever, until the end of time.
By “memorial” or “commemoration” is meant more than a mere cognitive reminder, but an actual participation in the ancient saving act of God. This is why the Mishnah says that
In every generation a man must so regard himself as if he came forth out of Egypt, for it is written, “It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt” (Exod. 13:8).
The old Passover, then, was not just a reminder of what God had done in times past, but an actualization of and participation in those events. And if such was the case with the old, much more is it the case with the new: In setting in motion the new Exodus by instituting a new Passover, Jesus is inaugurating a “new and living way” by which we can, 2000 years later, participate in that Passover sacrifice by offering the Lamb and then consuming him from the altar.
Lastly, I consider it obvious that since Jesus instituted the Eucharist in the context of the Jewish Passover, he was doing something overtly sacrificial in the upper room. And since he commanded us to “do this” in memory of him, when we celebrate the new Passover feast of the Eucharist, we are doing something sacrificial as well. In the same way that Israelites of old ate nothing less than a sacrificed lamb, so we, in the new Passover feast, eat nothing less than that which we have just offered upon the altar: Jesus the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.