Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday are the high holy days of the Catholic liturgical year. They are more important than Christmas or Ascension or Pentecost or Trinity Sunday, St. Patrick’s Day, St. Joseph’s Day or Ash Wednesday, even if Ash Wednesday for some reason seems to draw the highest church attendance. Sunday Masses and, to some extent weekday Masses too, are extensions of what happened on Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Jesus Christ, the son of God, took on our flesh to prove God’s love for all humankind. He accomplished that through his life and death. He proved that love was the unending will of God and our destiny too by his resurrection.

Jesus died on the cross saying, “It is finished” (Jn 19:30). His mission given to him by his father in heaven as “the son of man,” our kind of mortal human being, was over. On Holy Thursday night he explained the completion of that mission to his disciples at the Last Supper. He did this in the context of the Jewish Passover ritual and told his disciples, “Do this in memory of me.” As Catholics, we take this ritual of the Mass as a solemn gift and obligation. It is both a meal of thanksgiving and an offering of sacrifice by Jesus, and now together with him, by us his disciples. 

To understand and appreciate what we are really doing in keeping Jesus’ command to offer Mass in memory of him, it helps to understand what he and his disciples were doing on that Holy Thursday night. I had the good fortune of studying for two years with a Norbertine priest, Father Alfred McBride O. Praem. at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. Father McBride was already a well-known author and retreat director at this time in the 1970s. In 1990 he published a series of conferences he gave to retreatants entitled “The Seven Last Words of Jesus.” A lot of the details that follow are due to him, and his exact words will be in quotation marks. 

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Passover for the Jews was their liberation day from slavery in Egypt. It was always celebrated on the evening of the full moon, roughly between the last two weeks of March and first two weeks of April. Moses, God’s great servant in the Old Testament, had led the Jews out of Egypt and had given them God’s commandments as their response to his promise (covenant) to be their true God and protector in a land he would give them. They celebrated God’s acts and teachings through Moses with five kinds of ritual sacrifices: holocaust, libation, bread-offering, friendship meal of reconciliation and sin-offering. Jesus participated in these ritual celebrations as a boy with his parents and later as an itinerant rabbi with his disciples. 

In his life and in the Mass Jesus combined all these kinds of sacrifices. Holocaust was an offering of a burnt fat animal. It caused a sweet smoke to rise to the heavens like the faith and prayers of the people. Jesus often told his disciples that when he was “lifted-up,” meaning on the cross, they would see his total obedience to his father’s will. And when he was “lifted up” by his resurrection, it would be a sign of God’s total acceptance of his life and sacrificial death. 

When the high-priest Melchizedek celebrated Abraham’s victory over some neighboring enemies, he poured out a jar of wine over a sacred stone. It was a ritual way of giving the credit to God, “somewhat like toasting God for his generosity.” In the Mass, the words of consecration say, “for this is the chalice of my blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Jesus will become the sacrifice to show God’s love and compassion for us even though we are sinners. 

At the time of the wheat harvest the Jewish high-priest placed a loaf of bread on the altar and waved sheaves of newly harvested wheat over it to symbolically send the first wheat to God’s table in heaven to thank God for the people’s daily nourishment. The loaf was then burnt. In his Bread of Life discourse (Jn 6:22-71), Jesus says that his flesh sacrificed on the cross will become the bread of the Eucharist, the daily food for Christians’ growth in grace. 

“The Passover supper is a friendship meal.” It is celebrated by the father of a household for family, servants, friends and even strangers. The blood from the sacrificed main course of lamb was smeared on the doorpost to assure God’s protection. That was one reason for the full-moon timing. They wanted to make sure that God’s angels saw the blood on their doorposts and knew they were to be protected. All in the house were to greet each other with the Hebrew “shalom,” (peace). Grudges had to be settled beforehand. At the Last Supper Jesus spoke of friendship: “I no longer call you slaves … I have called you friends … ” “The early Christians incorporated these themes of friendship and peace into their Eucharists.” Thus they followed their master, who on the cross forgave those who killed him and gave paradise to the repentant thief. 

Sin offering is the final type of Jewish sacrifice. Jews kept and still keep the feast of “Yom Kippur.” On that day they tried to shed their selfishness and sins and ritually placed them on a goat (the scapegoat) and drove it out into the wilderness. With the crucifixion Jesus willingly took our sins upon himself, winning for us the possibility of union with God. 

Good Friday is not the end of the story. Easter Sunday is. St. Paul calls Jesus the “first born of the dead.” Indeed, on his third day in the tomb, Jesus fulfilled another Jewish prophesy, Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones. “I will open your graves and have you rise from them, O my people! I will put my spirit in you that you may live … (Ez 37:13-14). 

With Jesus’ resurrection, this, the greatest promise of the new covenant, is fulfilled. As St. Paul tells the Corinthians, “We know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and place us with you in his presence” (2 Cor 4:14). Every Mass celebrates what the Mass Preface II of Easter proclaims, “Through him the children of light rise to eternal life … for his death is our ransom from death, and in his rising the life of all has risen.”

We should think of this all through the year as we celebrate Mass in memory of Jesus.

Father Carville is a retired priest in the Diocese of Baton Rouge and writes on current topics for The Catholic  Commentator. He can be reached at  johnnycarville@gmail.com.