There are several cues during the Evening Mass on Holy Thursday that tell you something is different tonight. Mass begins and ends with an empty tabernacle. Flowers and the Gloria make appearances after absences during these days of Lent (with a few exceptions), but the joy doesn’t remain long. The organ is quiet. The bells are replaced with clackers. The Mass ends with the procession of the Blessed Sacrament to the altar of repose and ends silently, as we wait with Jesus in the Garden. The altars are stripped. We wait.
Two thousand years ago, twelve men celebrating Passover with their leader would have noticed differences to a familiar liturgy as well. Jesus spoke of the unleavened bread being His Body. And he spoke to them of a new covenant. Then, after singing the Hallel Psalms, instead of finishing the Passover meal, Jesus left and led them to the Garden to pray. It was a memorial they celebrated for 30+ years of their lives, and suddenly Jesus was doing something different.
Understanding the Passover sacrifice and meal helps us to understand exactly what Jesus was doing that night. (Which is why I recommend Brant Pitre’s book Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist to everyone I meet.)
Why is this night different from all other nights? This is the famous question the son would ask his father during the Passover liturgy. And the father would respond, “It is because of what the LORD did for me when he brought me out of the land of Egypt…”
Notice – it is what the Lord did for me. Not for my fathers. Not for our people a thousand years ago, two thousand years ago. For ME.
For the Jewish people, this “memorial” (go back to Exodus 12 and see how often it is referred to as a memorial, a remembrance) was not just a way to recall a past event. The Hebrew understanding of remembering, memorial — zikaron — was not a passive remembering of a past event. It was a participation in that event. The past event was being made present for you, so that you too could share in the Passover, the redemption of the first born.
It was what the Lord did for you.
This was in the forefront of the minds of the Apostles that night. This was on their minds as they heard Jesus’ words: Do this in memory of me. Same word. Zikaron. Anamnesis. Not “think back to this night years from now and think of me fondly.”
No. Zikaron. Make this present. Participate in it. So that it is not just the redemption of your fathers or your people two thousand years ago — but so that you can share in that redemption.
And then Jesus tells them something drastic — He is here to make a new covenant.
But hadn’t God told the Israelites that Passover was supposed to be a “perpetual institution?”
The call of the first born is not revoked. It is fulfilled.
Do this in memory of me.