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How Jesus Perfected the Passover Seder

Jesus at the Last SupperWhen Jesus distributed the matzo to the disciples saying, “This is My Body,” He perfected and updated the Biblical commandment to eat matzo on the Seder night, so that the commandment to eat matzo we received at Mt. Sinai, a commandment we received in order to teach us how to respond to G-d as He revealed Himself at Sinai, would also teach us how to respond to G-d as He revealed Himself through the Incarnation and the Cross.  What was new in that update?  How did it perfect the commandment?  How did it integrate the Incarnation and the Cross into the tradition of Jewish worship?

The matzo we eat on Passover is called “the bread of affliction.”  It was the food (hard tack) which our slave masters in Egypt gave us. Eating matzo, we relive one dimension of that experience of slavery. That very partial but real re-immersion in the experience of slavery offers us a special opportunity to remember what it was really like and reflect upon it.

The servitude of the Children of Israel in Egypt was not merely political and physical. It was also, and even more significantly, an experience of spiritual oppression by powerful cultural, social and political forces which corrupted us until we fell, as the rabbis teach us, to the lowest levels of spiritual life. Similarly, our miraculous redemption from Egypt was not merely a political liberation. It was a liberation from slavery to evil agents, to deputies of Satan, liberation from the darkness of sin that corrupts the soul and destroys the spirit. The freedom which the Exodus gave us was not merely the freedom to govern ourselves, but the freedom to serve G-d, and the experience of freedom which a people knows when G-d descends to dwell among them, as He did when the Presence of G-d that appeared at Mt. Sinai descended into the Sanctuary. The story of the Exodus is the paradigm all salvation, which is why  “Jesus' passing over to his Father by his death and Resurrection”  is called “ the new Passover” (CCC 1340).

The Exodus is our historical experience of spiritual liberation. It is something that really happened to us, something we went through as a people, much as the Americans went through the revolutionary war to become a free people.  When Jesus instructed His disciples to prepare a Seder, He invited them to relive that experience of suffering and liberation with Him, and when they did, Jesus taught them a whole new way of relating to it.

Then the LORD said to Abram, "Know of a surety that your descendants will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs, and will be slaves there, and they will be oppressed for four hundred years." (Gen 15:13)

Why did the descendants of Abraham have to suffer and be slaves before G-d could gather them to Him on Mt. Sinai? No one knows for sure. G-d doesn’t say why. The issue is discussed and opinions are given. But Jesus gives the answer, and with that answer, takes us out of Egypt - out of slavery - a second time, in a way that perfects our liberation. Where does He give the answer? When he gives the disciples the matzo which is eaten in commemoration of that slavery—the bread of affliction-- and tells them, “This is My Body.”  His answer is:  “The suffering of Israel in Egypt united them with My Body, My Suffering.  They nearly died as I will truly die on the Cross; they lost everything as I will lose everything and cry out “"My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?" (Matt. 27:46). And then they will be reborn, as I will be resurrected.

“Those who suffered that terrible slavery are gone, but in a very real way, you, too, were there, and must take responsibility for how you experience it. Until now, you have experienced it as a memory of pain and degradation: harsh, dry, and bleak as hard tack, the food of slaves. But if you remember it that way, then you’re still feeling the effect of those evil taskmasters and the injury they caused you. This matzo is my body. From now on, you will remember the exodus not as a painful degradation, but as a painful exaltation, a participation in the painful experience of G-d who suffers so much injury and abuse at the hands of men; you will remember your slavery in a way that liberates you from those slave masters a second time, perfectly and forever, for when you eat this matzo knowing that it is My Body, the memory of the abuse they visited upon will lift you above them and above their corrosive influence because it will unite you to Me on the Cross.

“Why did the descendents of Abraham have to suffer slavery and oppression before they could be exalted and become sons of G-d?  If the Children of Israel, all of them saints, had been gathered to Mt. Sinai, beheld the Glory G-d and given the Torah, they would have learned that G-d exalts, but they would not have learned that G-d saves. The Exodus taught you that G-d liberates and saves you from sin and relieves the suffering caused by sin. Now I offer you an opportunity to participate in a Second Exodus and more perfect redemption that liberates you from the corrosive and degrading power of suffering itself, for the matzo you eat as my body transforms suffering into an experience of union with G-d.”

There is a paradox in the meaning of the matzo we eat on the Seder night.  It is a symbol of our experience of slavery, but also a symbol of our experience of liberation, for the Haggadah, explaining why we eat matzo, tells us that the we left Egypt so suddenly and in such a rush that there was no time for the dough to rise, so we found ourselves eating the same bread, the same matzo, walking out of Egypt, in our moment of liberation, that we ate while we were slaves!

This has always puzzled me, but now it is clear. We can follow G-d into the desert not only because we trust Him to take care of us, but also because we know that the deprivations and hardships of the desert themselves can help us grow closer to Him. Our very desire to be close to G-d can lead us into the desert. G-d arranged that the Children of Israel would carry matzo—the bread of affliction—into the desert because one day, many generations later,  He would descend among them and call the Children of Israel to follow Him saying, “Take up your cross (your afflictions) and follow me.” And that's just what they did when they took up their matzo--the bread of affliction--and followed G-d into the desert. Of course, the matzo they carried was not the Body of Christ. It had not been consecrated. But it could be consecrated. When Jesus took the bread of affliction and said, “This is My Body,” instituting the sacrament of Eucharistic communion, He created the possibility of consecrating the bread of affliction, of consecrating our suffering, of whatever kind, however bleak and difficult it may be, to become an experience of participating in the Body of Christ. That matzo which the Children of Israel carried with them into the desert becomes the Body of Christ whenever a Catholic Jew participates in the sacrament of Eucharistic communion.

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