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Benedict XVI's Holy Thursday Homily

"Jesus Is the New and True Lamb"

VATICAN CITY, APRIL 7, 2007 (Zenit) - Here is the homily Benedict XVI delivered Thursday for the Mass of the Lord's Supper, celebrated in the Basilica of St. John Lateran.

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Dear brothers and sisters,

In the reading from the Book of Exodus that we have just heard, the celebration of Israel's Passover is described as it was set out by Mosaic law. In the beginning, there could have been a spring holiday celebrated by nomads. However, for Israel, this had been transformed into a feast of commemoration, thanksgiving and, at the same time, hope.

At the heart of the Passover supper, ordained by the specific liturgical rules, was the lamb, as the symbol of liberation from slavery in Egypt. Thus, the paschal "Haggadah" was an integral part of the lamb dinner: the narrative recollection of the fact that it was God himself who had liberated Israel "with a raised hand."

He, the mysterious and hidden God, had been stronger than the pharaoh with all the power that he had at his disposition. Israel was not to forget that God personally had a hand in the history of his people, and that this history was continuously based on communion with God. Israel was not to forget God.

The words of the memorial service were surrounded by words of praise and thanksgiving taken from the Psalms. Giving thanks and blessing God reached its apex with the "berakha," which in Greek is called "eulogia" or "eucaristia": To bless God becomes a blessing for those who bless. The offering donated to God returns blessed to man.

All this erected a bridge from the past to the present and toward the future: The liberation of Israel had not yet come about. The nation still suffered like a small population in the middle of tensions between great powers. The thankful remembrance of the action of God in the past became at the same time both a plea and a source of hope: Bring to fruition what you have begun! Give us definitive freedom!

This supper, with it multiple meanings, was celebrated by Jesus with his disciples on the eve of his passion. Taking into account this context, we can understand the new Easter, which he gave to us in the holy Eucharist.

In the narrations of the Evangelists, there is an apparent contradiction between the Gospel of John, on one hand, and what, on the other hand, Matthew, Mark and Luke tell us. According to John, Jesus died on the cross precisely at the moment in which, in the temple, the Passover lambs were being sacrificed. His death and the sacrifice of the lambs coincided.

This means that he died on the eve of Passover, and that, therefore, he could not have personally celebrated the paschal supper; at least this is what it would seem.

On the contrary, according to the three Synoptic Evangelists, the last supper of Jesus was a paschal supper, in its traditional form. He introduced the innovation of the gift of his body and blood. This contradiction, until a few years ago, seemed impossible to resolve.

The majority of the exegetes thought that John did not want to communicate to us the true historical date of the death of Jesus, but had opted for a symbolic date to make the deeper truth more evident: Jesus is the new and true lamb that spilled his blood for us all.

The discovery of the manuscripts of Qumran has led us to a convincing possible solution that, while not accepted by all, is highly probable. We can now say that what John referred to is historically correct. Jesus truly spilled his blood on the eve of Passover at the hour of the sacrifice of the lambs.

However, he celebrated Passover with his disciples probably according to the calendar of Qumran, that is to say, at least one day earlier -- he celebrated without a lamb, like the Qumran community who did not recognize the Temple of Herod and was waiting for a new temple.

Therefore, Jesus celebrated Passover without a lamb, no, not without a lamb: Instead of the lamb he gave himself, his body and his blood. In this way he foresaw his death coherently with his announcement: "No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own" (John 10:18). The moment he offered his body and blood to the disciples, he truly fulfilled this statement. He himself offered his life. Only in this way the old Passover obtains its true meaning.

St. John Chrysostom, in his Eucharistic catechesis, once wrote: What are you saying Moses? That the blood of a lamb purifies man? That it saves them from death? How can the blood of an animal purify man? How can it save mankind, have power against death?

In fact, Chrysostom continues, the lamb can only be a symbol, and, therefore, the expression of the expectation and the hope in someone that would be capable of doing all that an animal couldn't do.

Jesus celebrated the Passover without a lamb ...

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