Understanding the Jewish traditions behind the Catholic Mass

Understanding the Jewish traditions behind the Catholic Mass

Gabrielle Walsh

Passover Meal was held on the Tuesday of Holy Week, 30 March, in the parish hall of the Church of Our Lady Help of Christians, East Brunswick, Melbourne Archdiocese. It was led by Fr Lam Vu OFM Cap.

The aim of the event, which was very well attended, was to deepen understanding of the Jewish traditions that underpin the Catholic Mass, given that the Passover, or Seder Meal, is similar to the Last Supper that Jesus celebrated with his Apostles.

No attempt was made on this occasion to reconstruct a religiously authentic Seder Meal either from Christ's time or as observed in present day Judaism. However, by using some of the Jewish prayers and with an adaptation of the traditions of the Seder, the Catholics present were able to learn more of the significance of the Jewish tradition and to be reminded that Jesus was a faithful Jew who observed Judaic law.

Four parts

In his homily, Fr Lam Vu drew on the relationship between the Passover and the New Testament accounts. He explained that the four parts of the Passover in Exodus were represented by the four parts of the Seder Meal while the four cups of wine recall the four stages of God's promise to the Jewish people, of their transformation from slavery to freedom.

The first promise was to 'Take you out of the toils of Egypt' and the first part of the Seder Meal includes a festival blessing (kiddush) and the lighting of candles and washing of hands, with the prayer, 'Blessed are You, O God, for bringing us to this special time and with whom we celebrate this special day'.

At the blessing over the first cup of wine, a prayer is recited, 'Blessed are You, O God, who kept us alive and sustained us and brought us to this moment'.

The second cup of wine was then filled and the second part of the Seder Meal began with a recital of the Passover narrative, after which Fr Lam Vu spoke about the significance of this to the Christian tradition.

Following a recitation recalling the ten plagues that God wrought upon the Egyptians, the second cup of wine was lifted with the prayer:

'Together we thank God, we praise, glorify, exalt and bless the Power that did all these miracles for our ancestors and us, from slavery to freedom, from sorrow to joy, from mourning to holiday, from darkness to a great light, and from servitude to redemption. Let us sing a new song. Hallelujah!'

The Jewish people remember three main elements of the Passover story: Pesach (Passover) when God passed over the houses of the Jewish people during the slaying of the Egyptian firstborn. Matzah (unleavened bread) is a reminder that when the Jewish people were escaping from Egypt there wasn't enough time for their bread to rise. And Maror (bitter herbs) recalls how the Egyptians embittered the lives of the Israelites in Egypt.

Fr Lam Vu next read Matthew 26:17-30 which tells the story of the Passover meal Jesus ate with his disciples. The breaking of the bread and the institution of the Eucharist are also heralded in this passage.

The third cup of wine was to remember God's third promise to the Jewish people that He would 'Redeem you with a strong arm and great signs.'

The Hallel (Praise) was then recited:

'We now give thanks to God, for His love of us, and for watching over the Jewish people. We have faith that He will ensure the safety of the Jewish people. We also know that many of these people cannot celebrate Passover tonight, and we observe Passover in their name. May we be worthy of His blessings and love, and the deliverance from slavery to freedom. For His loving kindness is strong to us and the truth of the Lord endures forever.'

The fourth cup of wine was to recall God's fourth promise to the Jewish people that He would 'take you to me as a people and I shall be to you God, and you shall know that it was I who took you out of the toil of Egypt'.

The meal's conclusion was signified with the phrase, tel telesti, which means, 'It is finished', or 'It is consummated'.

Fr Lam Vu explained that for Christians the Last Supper ends at the third cup. Instead of proceeding immediately to the climax of the Passover, with the drinking of the fourth cup, Mark's Gospel account (14:26) informs us: 'And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives'.

Sacrificial links

The links between Jesus' sacrifice and the sacrifice of the Passover Lamb were noted in the reference to Jesus' seamless linen tunic (Jn 19:23- 24) which is the same type of tunic as that worn by the High Priest (Ex. 28:4; Lev. 16:4). For Jesus is the King, the Passover Lamb and also the High Priest of the New Covenant.

Jesus' unbroken bones represent another link with the Passover Lamb, as prescribed by Jewish law (Ex. 12:46): '... that the Scripture might be fulfilled, 'Not a bone of him shall be broken' ' (Jn 19:33, 36).

In the Christian tradition it is Jesus who drinks the fourth cup: 'After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfil the Scripture), 'I thirst.' A bowl of sour wine stood there; so they put a sponge full of the vinegar on hyssop and held it to his mouth' (19:29). Jesus then cried out, 'It is finished'' (John 19:30).

To conclude the Passover Meal, Fr Lam Vu blessed those present.

Gabrielle Walsh is National Secretary of the Australian Family Association.

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