Some of you may be familiar with a talk given by Scott Hahn called the Fourth Cup. Scott does a great job of taking you on a great journey of discovery as a Protestant preacher to learn something profound about the Catholic Mass. From Scott’s talk, you get the sense that his understanding of the Fourth Cup was an important part of his conversion story.
Scott’s personal story really enriches the presentation, but it also makes it too long for our purposes. So I’m going to give you a presentation on the Fourth Cup that fits our time limitation, but leaves out many great details about Scott’s experience while learning about the importance of the Fourth Cup.
I do not know how many times in the Old Testament the writer gives a recap of the Passover and Exodus, but I’ll bet it’s over 25 times. In the Passover and Exodus, the Hebrews were freed from slavery and led to the Promised Land. God took care of everything, from the various plagues and pestilences to providing a column of fire to light the way through the desert. He got Pharaoh so worked up that the Egyptians gave the Hebrews precious metals and begged them to leave. The slave masters gave their slaves presents and begged them to go be free somewhere.
We have in Chapter 12 of the Book of Exodus the instructions for the Seder Meal. God told Moses every detail: the lamb could not have a blemish. The people needed to be dressed in a particular way. The food was not particularly tasty. Who wants to eat bitter herbs or bread without any yeast?
There were other ritual acts at the first Passover: the marking of the doors of the Hebrews with blood from the lamb. Those marked were the houses the Angel of Death would pass over. Everywhere else he would slay the first born.
This Old Covenant marked the day that God’s chosen people were freed from death. So it’s not just an escape from slavery story. It’s a “we were not killed” story. And that remarkable event in history was to be memorialized by God’s people.
Every year, at the Pascha, the people would do a ritualized re-participation in that great Passover. They swept the grain from their homes for a week. They got an unblemished lamb, some unleavened bread, and some bitter herbs. And they got their scrolls so they could read the story and sing the Psalms that were a part of the ritual.
So by the time of Jesus, the Seder Meal is a scripted event. We see in the Gospel stories how the first thing to do was to secure a good place to have it. Jesus gave his disciples instructions on how to go about getting the Upper Room where he and they would celebrate the Old Testament ritual meal.
And the structure was set. It began with a blessing, and everyone would drink from the first cup of wine. Then they would have the readings and sing Psalm 113, and they would drink from the second cup of wine. Then they would eat the lamb, the unleavened bread, and the bitter herbs, and they would drink from the third cup of wine. Finally, they would read a series of Psalms, Psalms 114-118, and then drink the fourth cup, the cup of consummation. After the fourth cup, the elder at the table would say, “Tel Telesti” which means “It is finished.”
That would be the end of the memorial meal. As a good rabbi, Jesus would know how the Seder Meal was supposed to go.
But on the Seder Meal of Holy Thursday, the rabbi went way off script. While the preparations were as one would expect, Jesus does something kind of weird when he explains during the eating of the meal and the third cup that this is his body and his blood. And he says to his disciples something very similar to the instruction given to Moses and the Hebrews: whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, do it in remembrance of me. This Seder Meal is not just a regular Seder Meal. Something new and different is going on.
There are a lot of other things going on at this meal on Holy Thursday. But for our purposes today, let’s focus on the fact that Jesus abandons the meal before it is finished. “I shall not drink the fruit of the vine until the day when I drink it with you new in the kingdom of my father.” They sing the Psalms, but they do not drink the cup of consummation, the fourth cup.
Since we are not Jews, we don’t immediately see the jarring nature of this bit of the story. But imagine if Father said Mass as normal right up to, “Behold the Lamb of God,” and then walked out of Mass. We would all be looking at each other because we know the ritual was not finished as it should be. That’s what the Twelve experienced.
I’m sure you remember the many other important things that happened during the night and into the morning of Good Friday, but for our purposes we are going to fast forward to Jesus at Golgotha, the place of the skull where he was crucified. Last week, I explained the very awful nature of execution by crucifixion, and sometimes as an act of mercy they offered the victim some drugged wine. But Jesus refuses this wine.
You might remember that three of the Gospels — Matthew, Mark, and Luke — approach the story of Jesus in a similar way and share many of the same stories, even to the point of having the same words in places. We call these three the synoptic gospels because they sort of look at things in the same way. The Gospel of John is very different in approach and style. Where it takes Jesus half the gospel to finally get to Jerusalem in the synoptics, John seems to have him there almost immediately after the wedding miracle at Cana. And John presents Jesus in the Passion as a man full of power. And we see that in these quotes from John’s gospel. Jesus says, “I thirst” so they will offer him wine. And notice that the wine is offered on a sprig of hyssop, the same branch used to spread the blood of the lamb in the Old Testament Passover. And then Jesus says the words that close the Seder Meal: Tel Telesti. It is finished. And then he hands over his spirit.
And, just like the unblemished lamb of the Passover, the legs of this lamb, the Lamb of Christ, are not broken by the soldiers because they see that he has already died.
So, Jesus adds something new to the Passover Meal, introducing the words of the New Covenant, and then he seems to abort the ritual and allow himself to be put on trial and sentenced to death on the Cross, where he then takes the cup of consummation and says the closing words just before he gives up his life.
It’s about here in Scott Hahn’s telling that we get all the personal details about how Scott wants to share this amazing discovery of how the Sacrifice on Calvary is the new Covenant and how the Seder Meal has been completed once for all time in the Crucifixion. And Scott – still a Protestant teacher – shares this with some graduate students. One of them says that, as a lapsed Catholic, he remembers hearing something similar in the Baltimore Catechism. So, Scott, in his rugged individualism, discovers something the Church has taught forever. It’s a measure of Scott’s humility that he makes sure to share that nugget.
In the same spirit of humility, let’s look at how the New Testament writers connect Jesus to the Passover Lamb.
Peter uses the now familiar phrasing: a spotless, unblemished, lamb. The Blood of Christ is the blood of the Lamb.
In the Walk to Emmaus, the two disciples are favored to learn directly from Jesus how all the scriptures point to him. And yet, they only recognize him in the breaking of the bread.
St. Paul connects the third cup – the cup of blessing – of the Seder Meal to the blood of Christ. And he explains that the blood of Christ is the New Covenant.
In the Old Testament, the focus of the ritual meal was eating the Lamb and retelling the story of escape. In the New Testament, the focus of the ritual is the sacrifice of the Lamb, and that the sacrifice was made by the Lamb. Never before had the victim also been the priest. But in the New Covenant, that is what happens. Christ accepts the unjust punishment of death by Crucifixion because he is the unblemished Lamb. He carries his own Cross to Golgotha because he is the priest who will offer the sacrifice. He allows them to drive spikes into his arms and hang him there for three hours because we cannot escape eternal death by our own merits. We need Him and his merits. And he gave them to us because he loves us.
That sacrifice is at the heart of the Mass. There are other parts, and some of them are remarkably like the Seder Meal. We read from Scripture, we sing songs, we eat and drink together. But the Mass is not a new Seder Meal. The Mass is Christ Crucified for our redemption. That’s why it is a eucharist. Eucharist means thanksgiving. We offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving and praise to take us back to that day when Jesus offered the Blood of the Lamb so that Eternal Death would pass over us.
The Eucharistic Prayer is perhaps the longest stretch in the Mass when Father prays without being interrupted by us. This is more clear when we hear Prayer One, since it is a bit longer than the others. That’s the point in the liturgy when Jesus is on the Cross, and Father is offering the sacrifice in the person of Christ on our behalf. Then we get our line. We say “So Be It” when we say “Amen.” Amen is “sign me up” and it’s every other way that we express total agreement with what has been said. So let’s make sure we are listening to Father during the prayer of consecration and really mean it when we respond, “Amen.”
Then we are really prepared to pray as he taught us in the words he gave us and then to receive him – truly his body, blood, soul, and divinity – into our bodies. That moment of Holy Communion is precious. Each of us goes up individually to receive him into ourselves and be transformed by that reception.
Without the Cross, there is no cup of blessing. So let us say “Amen” and be thankful.