Make Holy Week unforgettable.
The Cathedral Parish will celebrate the Passover Seder this year on Sunday, April 2 at 6:00 pm.
To participate in the Seder, you must attend the Preparatory Session on Sunday, March 26 at 5:00 pm in the Cathedral Center.
Passover, the longest continually-celebrated feast in human history, begins this year at sunset on April 5, which means it falls one day before Holy Thursday. But in eternal time, Passover is always on Holy Thursday, because they are the same event: the last supper of Jesus was the Passover on Thursday evening, the fourteenth day of Nisan, in 33 AD.
Our parish will celebrate Passover on Sunday, April 2, which is three days early and not at all kosher! But since we’re observing the feast as Christians, we can take liberties.
The date of Passover is governed by the law given in Exodus 12: “Tell all the congregation of Israel that on the tenth day of the month of Nisan, they shall take, every man, a lamb… and they shall keep it until the fourteenth day, when the whole assembly shall kill their lambs in the evening.” The month Nisan is “Abib” in Hebrew, which means “green ears of grain,” an obvious reference to Spring.
So Passover is always on the first full moon of Spring. It had to be a full moon; God would not have sent the whole nation of Israel on a night march with no light. Spring begins at the equinox, March 21, the day on which day and night are equal in duration. After the Equinox, the days get longer… and that is Spring! The first full moon after the Spring Equinox falls on April 5 this year.
Have you wondered why the date of Easter changes from year to year? Easter is set as the first Sunday after the Paschal full moon (Passover). It’s what is called in the Church a “moveable feast” and the dates of those feasts for the coming year are read every year at the Mass of the Epiphany.
The three pilgrim feasts of Israel are each associated with an agricultural season: the barley harvest around Passover; the wheat harvest around Pentecost; and grapes in the fall around the feast of Tabernacles. Yahweh required that the men of Israel should journey to worship at the Jerusalem Temple on those three days.
That’s why Jerusalem was so packed with people on Palm Sunday in 33 AD, when Jesus rode into the city on a donkey; it was the tenth day of Nisan. Jews from all over the world had to be in the Holy City for the pilgrimage feast, to procure a lamb without blemish for the Passover sacrifice four days later, on the fourteenth day of Nisan.
In essence, Passover is the memorial of that miracle by which God saved the people of Israel from bitter slavery in Egypt. He brought them through the ten plagues which struck Egypt, but left Israel unharmed, then led them through the Red Sea on dry land, toward the land that had been promised to their fathers. Miracle upon miracle upon miracle!
Despite the cartoon movies that have been made about the Exodus, the plagues were truly frightful. The food crops of the Egyptians were completely destroyed, their animals covered with boils and infection, the waters of the great Nile river turned to blood, the light of the sun was extinguished, and finally, every Egyptian first-born was found dead in his bed.
Try to imagine the complete contamination of our water, all our wealth destroyed, no food to be had, and the sun withdrawing its warmth and light. Wouldn’t you pretty much agree to anything at that point? But no, Pharoah continues to hoard his power over his slaves, until finally the death of the Egyptian children breaks him down. He practically begs the Israelites to leave his country. But after they’ve left, he changes his mind again and goes after them. It is a drama about evil and its persistence; evil will risk even its own destruction to stay in power.
At churches all over the country this spring, Christians will celebrate the Passover. It has become a popular “living Bible study.” But for Catholics, it has the most poignant meaning because we have been celebrating the Passover our entire Catholic lives, mostly without realizing it.
All our lives, we have heard the “Paschal Mystery” proclaimed: the suffering, death and resurrection of Our Lord Jesus. “Pascha” is Greek for Passover. We’re about to hear that word much more often, throughout the Easter season. In the Sequence on Easter Sunday, we will hear proclaimed, “Christians, to the Paschal Victim offer your thankful praises!” The Alleluia verse will be, “Christ, our Paschal Lamb has been sacrificed.” All the Easter prefaces will refer to “Christ, our Passover.” He is the Paschal lamb, the Passover sacrifice.
And so to learn more about Passover is to enter more deeply, more consciously into the Passover sacrifice of Jesus that we celebrate at every Mass.
When Catholics encounter the Jewish celebration of Passover for the first time, there are flashes of recognition, gasps of wonder. Because what Yahweh commanded to Moses 3000 years ago is what we say and do at every Mass.
It’s like discovering ancestral stories that give you a clue about how you came to be the way you are. My grandmother grew up at switching stations on the Santa Fe railway, and now my heart goes thump whenever I hear a train whistle. My grandfather was Irish, and the sound of Celtic flutes makes me cry.
When Catholics celebrate the ancient Passover rite, with words and actions that are part of the fabric of us, we are suddenly whooshed into the 3000-year river of salvation history. We encounter the proof of God’s eternal plan, set into motion in antiquity, still alive today.
As the Cathedral Parish celebrates Passover this year, watch and listen for all the prayers and gestures that you are so familiar with.
In the Old Testament, God is very particular about the way in which He desires to be worshipped. He is very specific. The lamb must be a year-old male, spotless, with no broken bones. The bread must have no leavening agents. The herbs must be bitter. The celebrants must tuck up their tunics, and be ready to travel.
And the blood of the spotless lamb must be sprinkled on the doorposts of the houses of Israel. Skepticism or disregard of this command resulted in the death of the oldest child of the household, and even the first-born of the animals. There were no innovations, no nods to the spirit of the times. The people must do precisely as God commanded.
It’s part of God’s divine pedagogy, that is, His way of teaching. His ways are incomprehensibly glorious; we can’t understand them at first glance. So God has to prepare His people to receive His plan.
All the steps God took with Israel were “teaching moments,” no matter how bizarre they seemed. The unbelievable command for Abraham to slaughter his long-awaited, only beloved son? It was a teaching on the radical nature of the sacrifice that would be required to save us. That strange and not-so-appetizing manna that fed the Israelites in the desert? Preparation for the day that Jesus would tell his disciples they had to eat His flesh to have eternal life.
You could practically trace the whole story of salvation through bread. Melchizedek, the primordial priest, brought out bread and wine to bless Abram, the chosen of God and patriarch of Israel. When God issued His precise commands for the building of the temple, He commanded that “the bread of the face” must be before the Holy of Holies at all times. The Savior was born in Bethlehem, the “house of bread” in Hebrew; Jesus multiplied bread for the crowds following Him. He delivered a difficult-to-swallow teaching on the bread of life, and He blessed the bread of the Passover to show exactly what He meant by those words.
An even richer history could be taken through the figure of the lamb, from Abraham’s substitutionary sacrifice, to the daily sacrifice at the Jerusalem Temple, and the entire symbolism of the Lamb of God, the Lamb that was slain but not dead, who appears at the Throne of God in Heaven.
And consider wine: commanded by God for the joyful feast days, Jesus’ miraculous changing of water to wine at the beginning of his ministry, the four cups at wine at the Passover supper, the chalice of the New Covenant consecrated by Jesus.
Passover brings all those threads, bread, wine and the lamb, together in one grand event, commanded by God as an everlasting ordinance. The long millennia of celebrating Passover was the key that allowed the apostles to, finally, understand Jesus’s enigmatic words about eating His flesh and drinking His blood.
Passover plays the central role in God’s divine schooling, preparing us for the sacrifice of the Eucharist. At every seminal moment in Israel’s history, the Passover was front and center. The original Passover was the evening before Israel was delivered from slavery. When Israel finally entered the holy land, they celebrated Passover. When the exiles returned from Babylon to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, they celebrated Passover. When Jesus remained behind in Jerusalem for three days, to the consternation of his parents, it was Passover. When He multiplied the bread, it was Passover. Passover is the key.
The central place of the Passover in the life of Israel has flowered into the central place of the Mass in the life of the new Israel. So much preparation, so many millennia of teaching, all so that we would understand Jesus’ gift to us at the last Passover of his earthly life. God has been preparing us for the moment of Communion for thousands of years. Passover is that preparation.
This year, make your Holy Week unforgettable with the Passover Seder.
Join us this year on Sunday March 26 at 5:00 for the preparatory session and on Palm Sunday, April 2 at 6:00 pm for the celebration.