The Jewish roots of the Mass
Mike Aquilina: The Last Supper was the last Passover meal; it fulfills the Passover . . .
The Mass is the fulfillment of many of the Israelite rituals of the Old Testament. The Passover is probably the most important of these. The Last Supper was a Passover meal. For Christians, it was the last Passover meal because it fulfills the Passover.
Every year the Israelites were to sacrifice a lamb the way they had done at the first Passover. They would eat unleavened bread to remember the haste with which they left their bondage in Egypt. From one generation to the next, the people would pass down the story of how God had redeemed them.
Our Mass makes our own redemption present to us but, unlike the Passover, in a real and complete way. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross completed the work of redemption. The Exodus released only one small group of people from their physical slavery. It did not release them from their bondage to sin, and it did not release the rest of the nations of the world from anything.
Sin offerings were also an important part of Israelite ritual. This ritual did not overcome sin. It forgave one sin of the past; it could not defeat sin itself. Only Christ’s sacrifice could release anyone from sin. This is the sacrifice that is present to us at every Mass.
The “sacrifice of thanksgiving,” which is prescribed in Leviticus but not mentioned again until the time of David, is another important precursor of our Mass. The word Eucharist, in fact, comes from the Greek word that was often used as a translation for “sacrifice of thanksgiving.”
All these sacrifices come together in our Mass because Christ’s sacrifice fulfilled all the sacrifices of the Old Testament. Christians no longer sacrifice animals or grain, because we know that Christ’s sacrifice is complete — one perfect sacrifice for all time.
Finally, our Liturgy of the Word — in which we hear the scripture readings and the homily and say the prayers for everyone in need — seems to be based on the synagogue liturgy that was current at the time of Christ. In the synagogue, the Scriptures were read by a lector, and then there was a kind of homily or interpretation. Jesus himself, visiting the synagogue at Nazareth, is asked to read and interpret the scripture (Lk 4:16-22).
What we see from all these comparisons, then, is that Christian worship was a continuation of Jewish worship. This is no surprise. The early Christians never thought they were founding a new religion. They believed they were practicing the religion of Abraham, Moses and David — but now with the knowledge that they were living in the time of the Messiah.
MIKE AQUILINA is the author or editor of more than 40 books on Catholic history, doctrine and devotion. This column is reprinted with permission from his book “Understanding the Mass: 100 Questions, 100 Answers” (Servant Books, Cincinnati, 2011)
By celebrating the Last Supper with his apostles in the course of the Passover meal, Jesus gave the Jewish Passover its definitive meaning. Jesus’ passing over to his Father by his death and resurrection, the new Passover, is anticipated in the Supper and celebrated in the Eucharist, which fulfills the Jewish Passover and anticipates the final Passover of the Church in the glory of the kingdom.
A better knowledge of the Jewish people’s faith and religious life as professed and lived even now can help our better understanding of certain aspects of Christian liturgy. The relationship between Jewish liturgy and Christian liturgy, but also their differences in content, are particularly evident in the great feasts of the liturgical year, such as Passover.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, # 1340, 1096