By FATHER DONALD DILGER
First Reading: Exodus 24:3-8; Response: Psalm 116:12-13, 15-16, 17-18; Second Reading: Hebrews 9:11-15; Gospel: Mark 14:12-16, 22-26
Moses had grown up as an adopted member of the Egyptian royal family. Even his name is an Egyptian name. He was visiting his Hebrew brethren, when he saw an Egyptian strike a Hebrew. He killed the Egyptian. Word got back to the Pharaoh. Moses fled into the Sinai wilderness, married and became a shepherd. While tending the flock of his father-in-law, he came to the base of Mt. Sinai. There he experienced the vision of the burning bush and received from the Lord his commission to deliver the Hebrews from Egyptian oppression. The Lord God said to him, “After you have led the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.” In today’s reading, after three months of wandering, Moses and the Hebrews/Israelites camp at Mt. Sinai. God called Moses to the top of the mountain. He directed him to report to the people that God intended to make them his special people. The people respond, “We will do all that the Lord requires.” All prepare for the big event — the Lord God striking a covenant (treaty) with them, the Covenant of Sinai. The laws, the stipulations of the treaty, are dictated to Moses by the Lord. Motivation for accepting the treaty — the promise of their own land.
Ratification of the covenant is the subject of our first reading. The people pledge to observe all the laws. Moses engraves the laws on stone, indicating their permanence. Finalizing treaties between nations and kings was a solemn occasion. Here the king was the Lord himself, thus a religious ceremony. Moses built an altar at the foot of Mt. Sinai. Sacrificial animals were slain. Why? The blood of the slain animals is a symbol of the blood of the people, which in turn is a symbol of the life of the people pledging their own lives to observe the covenant. As we read in Leviticus 17:14, “The life of every creature is its blood,” and all life belongs to the Lord. The now bloodless victims were offered in two ways. A holocaust was a completely consumed by fire, except the hide, which went to the officiating priest. In the peace offering, part of the sacrifice was given to God to be consumed by the priests, part was returned to the offerers to be consumed. Thus the covenant ratification included a meal for participants. The blood of the animals was put into bowls. Half was splashed on the altar. Moses sprinkled the other half on the people, while saying, “This is the blood of the covenant, that the Lord has made with you.”
Psalm 116 looks in two directions It connects with the gospel reading in the people’s response “I will take the cup of salvation, and call on the name of the Lord.” The psalm connects with the first reading in the third set of verses, “To you I will offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving . . . .” Thanksgiving sacrifices were a form of peace offering. See comments on the first reading. The words, “in the presence of the people” go beyond the readings and remind us of the assembly of the Christian community gathered for Mass.
The second reading, an excerpt from the Letter to the Hebrews, picks up from the first reading the theme of sacrificial blood. Now there is a new priest officiating, “Christ our high priest.” It is no longer the blood of goats, bulls, heifers, birds that is offered. This new priest offers his own blood. Those ancient sacrifices were repeated frequently. The new sacrifice is a once and for all sacrifice and brings eternal redemption. What we do at Mass is not a new sacrifice. It is making present again that once and for all spilling of blood of the unblemished Lamb “to cleanse our conscience from dead works, to worship the living God.” This reading prepares us for today’s gospel — the establishment of a new and eternal covenant.
The scene is the Last Supper, Mark’s version. He writes, On the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrifice the Passover Lamb.” Unleavened Bread and Passover were both ancient rites of Spring. Passover was a feast of herders. Unleavened Bread — a feast of farmers. At some point in history the two were combined with the celebration of Israel’s freedom from oppression in Egypt. The ultimate rite of the combined feast was the Passover Supper. At some point in the meal there was a recital of the great deeds done by the Lord to rescue them from slavery and lead them into the Promised Land. By the time of Jesus the Passover Meal had an undertone of sacrifice. This is obvious from the fact that, at least in Jerusalem, the slaying of the Passover Lamb was done by priests in the temple. Thus the sacrificial undertone of the Passover Supper prepared the setting for the sacrifice of the ultimate and perfect Passover Lamb. What Jesus initiated at the Last Supper he completed on the cross. We celebrate not the delivery of Israel from slavery in Egypt, but the delivery of all humanity from slavery in sin.
Jesus sent two disciples with instructions to locate the owner of the room he had in mind to celebrate the Passover Meal. The meal was an involved ritual requiring various types of food and sufficient wine. It was the job of the two disciples to prepare everything. It was the prerogative of the head of the family to distribute shares of the food at the table. Mark writes, “While they were eating, he took bread, blessed it, broke it, gave it to them . . . .” Such was already the established form in the earliest narratives of the Last Supper. See 1 Cor. 11:23-25, and the narratives of Jesus’ multiplication of bread for the multitudes in Mark, Matthew, and Luke. The blood Moses sprinkled on the people sealed the covenant between God and Israel. The blood Jesus shared with his disciples seals, as Paul and Luke write, “the new covenant in my blood.” Somewhat startling is the next phrase, “poured out for many.” Not for all? The expression is based on Isaiah 53:12, part of a poem or song that lauds the vicarious death of the Servant of the Lord, “He poured out his soul to death . . ., yet he bore the sins of many.” This excludes no one, but it would be easier for us if the form said “for all” instead of “for many.” “Do this in remembrance of me” is found only in the oldest version, 1 Corinthians 11:25, but also in Luke 22:19.