Passover Expectation of the Messiah and the Eucharist

Homily for the Nineteenth Sunday of Year C

by Fr. Tommy Lane

The introduction has been omitted

The first reading (Wis 18:6-9) looks back at the night of the Passover and Exodus from Egypt. The reading reminds us that the Jews had been looking forward to salvation and as they were led out of Egypt they experienced salvation from slavery in Egypt. This is anticipating the far greater salvation we experience when we leave the slavery of sin behind in baptism to experience the new life of Christ. As the Jews continued to celebrate the Passover every year they continued to hope for salvation; no longer for the salvation of escape from Egypt since they had already left Egypt, but now they hoped for the coming of the Messiah. Therefore after the third cup is consumed during the Passover a child was, and still is, sent to the door to see if Elijah has come to prepare for the Messiah. When Elijah is not waiting to be welcomed in then the Passover celebration continues.

Another interesting element of the Passover celebration is the Afikomen. One of the pieces of matzah (unleavened bread) is removed and broken in two and the larger piece is hidden and later the children are asked to find it and it is then consumed by everyone. While varying interpretations are offered for this ritual one is that the word “Afikomen” (is the Greek word ἀφικόμην meaning “I came” from ἀφικνέομαι and) refers to the coming of the Messiah.

This alertness for the coming of Elijah to prepare for the Messiah during the Passover, and the possibility of the Afikomen referring to the coming of the Messiah, naturally took on a different meaning as the early Christians, who were converts from Judaism, celebrated the Passover. For the early Christians the Messiah had already come so their hope during their celebration of the Passover was for the Second Coming of Jesus the Messiah (The Eucharistic Words of Jesus by Joachim Jeremias pp. 123, 206). Also gradually as the early Christians celebrated the Passover they replaced the Jewish rituals of the Passover with fasting, reading Scripture, singing and prayers, and concluded with the celebration of the Eucharist early the next morning. So in fact the Messiah did come during the Passover but in a way different to that expected by the Jews. He came in the Eucharist. The Eucharistic celebration at the conclusion of the early Christian celebration of the Passover is the fulfillment of the Jewish hopes for the coming of the Messiah. Later, the Christian celebration was changed with the introduction of a celebration of light and baptism, and became our Easter Vigil and the day of the celebration was changed from the date of the Passover to Easter Sunday. (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Kittel, Vol 5:903)

Many other elements of Judaism are also fulfilled in Christ. For example, there was a Jewish expectation that there would be a renewed gift of manna when the Messiah would come and in John 6 Jesus makes clear that he has replaced the manna in a far better way because those who ate the manna died while those who eat the bread of life that he will give will live forever. It was also the Jewish expectation that all sacrifices would cease when the Messiah would come except the thanksgiving offering called the Todah (Pesiqta 79a; Lev. Rabbah ix., xxvii) and we could say this expectation is fulfilled because the sacrifices have ceased and we celebrate the Eucharist and the word “Eucharist” means Thanksgiving, the same as Todah.

Being alert for the coming of Christ is also what Jesus teaches in the Gospel today (Luke 12:32-48).

Gird your loins and light your lamps and be like servants who await their master’s return from a wedding, ready to open immediately when he comes and knocks. (Luke 12:35-36)

You also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come. (Luke 12:40)

While Jesus is asking us to be ready for his Second Coming at the end of time, and indeed for the moment when he will call each of us from this life, in the context of the Jewish expectation of the coming of the Messiah fulfilled in the Eucharist perhaps we could also ask ourselves about our faith to see Christ when we celebrate the Eucharist together. One of the documents of Vatican II (Sacrosanctum Concilium 7) pointed out the presence of Christ in four ways when we celebrate the Eucharist.

  • When the Scripture readings are proclaimed, God is speaking to you. Although written by humans in a different language and culture we believe the books of the Bible are inspired, i.e. God is their author, and God speaks to us today through the Bible. Are your loins girt and your lamps lit to meet the Lord in his word?

  • In Holy Communion Jesus comes to you in the fullness of his body, blood, soul and divinity. It requires faith to believe that Jesus is present in this white bread but, on many occasions the bread or wine has physically changed so it actually looked like flesh and blood (Eucharistic miracles). Are your loins girt and your lamps lit to meet the Lord in Holy Communion?

  • Jesus is present in the congregation because where two or three are gathered in his name he is present in their midst (Matt 18:20). If we find it difficult to see Christ in someone in the congregation, think of Isaiah’s prophecy of Jesus:

“He had no form or charm to attract us,
No beauty to win our hearts;
He was despised, the lowest of men.” (Isa 53:2)

Are your loins girt and your lamps lit to meet the Lord in the congregation?

  • Jesus is present in the priest who offers Jesus to the Father just as Jesus offered himself to the Father on the cross. If it is difficult to see Jesus in the priest, remember what we read in the Letter to the Hebrews about Jesus the High Priest, “Since all the children shared the same human nature, it was essential that Jesus too shared in it…It was essential that Jesus should in this way be made completely like his brothers so that he could become a compassionate and trustworthy high priest” (Heb 2:14,17). Are your loins girt and your lamps lit to meet the Lord in the priest?

The Jewish celebration of the Passover was and still is linked with expectation of the salvation offered by the Messiah. This was fulfilled when the early Christians concluded their celebration of the Passover with the Eucharist. In the Gospel Jesus asks us to have our loins girt and our lamps lit for his return. We might ask if we have our loins girt and our lamps lit to welcome Christ in his word to us at Mass, in Holy Communion, in the congregation and in the priest.

Copyright © Fr. Tommy Lane 2013

This homily was delivered in a parish in Maryland near where I have joined the faculty of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, Emmitsburg, Maryland.

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