What took place there, in that room, is the mystery at the heart of every Mass.
The night before he died, Jesus gathered his apostles with him to celebrate the Passover meal, a traditional Jewish sacrificial meal. The Passover was a solemn feast dedicated to the remembrance of Israel's deliverance from slavery in Egypt. As God prepared the nation of Israel for the Exodus, he sent a plague that claimed the life of every firstborn son in Egypt. The firstborn sons of Israel were spared because they observed the ritual prescribed by God through Moses.
Each household sacrificed a lamb and consumed it with other foods (all rich in symbolism), including unleavened bread and wine. The lamb was offered to God in place of the life God had demanded, the life of the firstborn son.
When Israel became established in the land promised by God, they customarily marked the Passover in Jerusalem, the nation's capital and holy city.
In the time of Jesus, devout Jews came, by the hundreds of thousands, from all over the known world to mark the day in Jerusalem. In the prescribed prayers and readings of Passover, the family recalled the Exodus as if it were a current event, as if their deliverance were taking place in their own generation. They also looked forward to a definitive deliverance, when a Messiah, an anointed king, would establish God's kingdom in its fullness and bring peace to the chosen people.
This was the context for Jesus' Last Supper. He said to his twelve apostles: "I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer" (Luke 22:15).
In the course of the meal, he took the bread and he declared it to be his body and then he took the cup of wine and he declared it to be his blood. All of this he did in fulfillment of something that he had promised in his preaching.
In the sixth chapter of John's Gospel, we first see Jesus multiplying loaves to feed a multitude. That bread, however, served as a sign of something greater. For, afterward, we find Jesus reflecting on the "bread of life," the "bread that comes down from heaven" — a bread that would be his "flesh for the life of the world," a bread that would be "true food" while his blood was "true drink."
The crowd that heard him found his words to be strange and many people left him that day.
Yet all those words came to fulfillment the night before Jesus died. Certainly the Twelve remembered that Bread of Life discourse when Jesus pronounced those words over the Passover bread and wine: "This is my body. . . . This is the cup of my blood."
With the Last Supper, Jesus inaugurated what Christians have, ever since, called the "Paschal Mystery," the mystery of the suffering, death, and Resurrection of the God- man. We call it "Paschal" because of its beginning at Passover, which is called Pesach in Hebrew and Pascha in Latin and Greek.
At every Passover, a lamb was offered in place of the firstborn son. Where is the lamb at this Passover? It is Jesus, whom John the Baptist had proclaimed as the "Lamb of God" ( John 1:29). At this new Passover, Jesus offered himself as the perfect sacrifice — the firstborn Son of God offered himself as the definitive Paschal Lamb. As we sing in a popular hymn: "For the sheep the Lamb has bled, / Sinless in the sinner's stead."
Jesus wanted to make this "mystery" a permanent reality, which would be continued for every believer in the years and centuries and millennia after his death and Resurrection. Thus, he charged the apostles, "Do this in remembrance of me."
What we remember in the Eucharist is Christ's sacrifice at Calvary, where he offered himself, laid down his life, for our redemption. The Mass is a real sacrifice because Jesus' self- offering was a real sacrifice. Saint Paul put it well: "For our Paschal Lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us celebrate the feast . . . with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth" (1 Corinthians 5:7-8).
Our "remembrance" is not merely a psychological act, a retrieval of data stored away in neurons. Nor is it simply a historical commemoration, whose details are kept alive in old books. No, our remembrance is a re- presentation of a unique moment in history. It took place once, but for all. Now, when we go to Mass, we speak of the Paschal Mystery as a present reality, just as the families of Israel spoke of their deliverance during the Passover ritual. Moreover, because of Jesus' promise, we know that his presence is indeed a real presence. He is really there. We are really with him.
Even more than that, we are united with him in a closer bond than any friendship or merely human love could ever provide. The bread we break is a true communion in Christ's body. Our blessing cup is a true communion in his blood. This is what Saint Paul emphasized in his First Letter to the Corinthians. At Mass, we participate — we share — in Jesus' death and Resurrection through this unique presence that the Church calls "sacramental." It is real, but it is made real through the action of the Holy Spirit in and through the use of sacred signs and symbols. These symbols, by the grace of God, have the power not only to manifest what's happening, but to make it truly happen. They accomplish what they signify. That's the difference between a sacramental sign and any other type of symbol or sign.
There are two ways you can experience a parade: you can stand on the curb and watch it go by, or you can join the ranks and march along with the band.
In the Mass, Jesus instituted the sacrament through which his Passion, death, and Resurrection would be made present again in our lives. The Eucharist enables each of us to share in the benefits of the cross. We speak of our "dying to sin" and "rising to new life" because we participate in the mystery of Christ's death and Resurrection. The Church uses the word "re- present" to speak of what is happening in the Mass. The term "holy sacrifice" of the Mass is also exact because sacramentally, both really and truly, the death and Resurrection of Christ are once again made present.
Because Jesus is really present in our Communion, we truly become a part of him. We can compare the Mass to a parade. There are two ways you can experience a parade: you can stand on the curb and watch it go by, or you can join the ranks and march along with the band. Marching in a parade is essentially different from watching one go by. Sacramental life means taking our place as God's children and truly sharing in divine life — not just standing on the sidelines and watching Jesus go by, or talking about his passing. That's what the Mass is all about.
Saint Luke tells the great story of what Jesus did on the day he rose from the dead (Luke 24:13-35). He walked with his disciples. He opened up the Scriptures to them. And then he made himself known to them in the breaking of the bread. When that happened, he vanished from their sight. His real presence, then, was not something the physical eyes could see. It was something hidden under the sacramental signs: the appearances of bread and wine.
The early Christians understood all this. In the Acts of the Apostles, we see a thumbnail sketch of the very first days of the very first generation of the Church. What did the Church do then? What did Catholics do? "They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers" (Acts 2:42). There it is: the first Catholic parish coming together on Sunday. This is what we Catholics still do when we go to Mass. We hear the teaching. We experience communion and fellowship in Christ. We break bread and offer the traditional prayers.
Devout Christians have, since that first generation, marked their Sundays this way. They have also read the Scriptures this way, seeing in the story of the Last Supper and the Bread of Life discourse the origins of the Mass. Yet the Mass is hardly limited to those few texts. We find it explored theologically in the Epistle to the Hebrews, and presented in a visionary way in the Book of Revelation. Saint Paul refers to it often, in passing, as he conducts his correspondence with far-flung churches. We find it, moreover — as Christians always have — foretold and foreshadowed in the sacred writings of ancient Israel, the Church's Old Testament. In the prayers of the Mass, we recall many of those moments: the sacrifice of Abel, the bread and wine offered by the priest Melchizedek, the "goodness of the Lord" that we can "taste and see."
This is something God foresaw and foreknew, and something he revealed in the fullness of time. Like Christians of every age, we now can see it, too, though in a hidden and mysterious way, in a mystery.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl & Mike Aquilina. "The Beginnings in the Bible." From Chapter one in The Mass: The Glory, the Mystery, the Tradition (New York: Image, 2013).
Reprinted with permission of Image Catholic Books.
For more information, visit ImageCatholicBooks.com
Cardinal Donald Wuerl is the Archbishop of Washington, D.C. He serves on the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Congregation for Clergy, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, the Pontifical Council for Culture and is former chairman of numerous committees of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, including the Committee on Doctrine, and is a member of the USCCB Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis and the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty. He is the author of numerous articles and books, including the best-selling catechisms, The Teaching of Christ and The Catholic Way. His recent books include, The Mass, Seek First the Kingdom, Faith That Transforms Us: Reflections on the Creed, New Evangelization: Passing on the Catholic Faith Today and The Church.
Mike Aquilina is vice president of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and co-host, with Scott Hahn, of several television series on EWTN. He is the author or co-author of, Love in the Little Things: Tales of Family Life, Living the Mysteries: A Guide for Unfinished Christians, Fathers of the Church: An Introduction to the First Christian Teachers, The Way of the Fathers: Praying with the Early Christians, and Praying in the Presence of Our Lord: With St. Thomas Aquinas. With Cardinal Donald Wuerl, he is the author of The Church: Unlocking the Secrets to the Places Catholics Call Home, and The Mass: The Glory, the Mystery, the Tradition. See Mike Aquilina's "The Way of the Fathers" blog here.
Copyright © 2013 Cardinal Donald Wuerl & Mike Aquilina