The Paschal Mystery of Jesus, which comprises His passion, death, Resurrection and glorification, stands at the center of the Christian faith because God’s saving plan was accomplished once for all by the redemptive death of his Son, Jesus Christ. – Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church
As Holy Week begins this Palm Sunday it’s interesting to note that even lifelong Catholics might not realize that the central celebration of our faith – the Paschal Mystery – derives its name from the Hebrew verb pesach, meaning “the passing over.” When we stop to think about it, of course it makes perfect sense: Jesus and the apostles shared their Passover meal during the Last Supper on what we commemorate as Holy Thursday.
“In Christian theology the term Paschal Mystery refers to Jesus’s life, death and Resurrection and their saving significance for us,” writes Daniel J. Harrington in “The Paschal Mystery.”
“Liturgically from Holy Thursday to Easter Sunday morning is celebrated as one day, the Holy Triduum, one day made from three,” explains St. Mary’s College of California Professor of History Brother Charles Hilken. “Jesus gave us the sacrament of the Eucharist on Holy Thursday at the Lord’s Supper, where he instructed us to ‘do this in my memory.’ We believe that Jesus really had to die a real death; thus we celebrate His passion as well as His Resurrection.”
In the ancient world, Brother Charles notes, people had great reverence for the dead and death anniversaries were important. “The annual passing of the anniversary of the death of a loved one would be remembered and celebrated,” he says. “The early Christians celebrated the anniversary of the death of Christ. It was not only the passing of someone who was no longer with them but of the firstborn of the dead, the beginning of a whole new life and promise for us all. There was great importance attached to remembering the actual anniversary.”
The Last Supper’s historical accuracy as well as its religious importance is critical, agrees Father Troy Schneider, parochial vicar of Holy Family Cathedral in Orange. “The significance for us doesn’t come from some legend, but an event at which there were witnesses who wrote about it in three gospels that share consistencies.”
Catholic theology says that two sacraments take place at the Last Supper, Father Troy explains. “The Eucharist and the priesthood are the signs and symbol of God’s love in the world,” he says. Priests renew their vows each year at the Holy Thursday morning Chrism Mass – during which the oil of catechumens and the oil of the sick for the coming liturgical year are blessed. Customarily, he says, priests go out to dinner together that evening to celebrate.
One explanation for complexities of the Paschal Mystery comes in “Last Supper’s Meaning for Catholics as Literal,” written by Father Bryan Babick. Father Bryan writes that God is beyond creation, eternal and not subjected to the effects of time. Because death has no effect on Jesus as one in being with the Father, the Paschal Mystery stands outside of time. “Each time we gather to celebrate Mass, then, we are taken to the Last Supper and the Crucifixion and the Resurrection,” he writes.
While we commemorate the very beginnings of our Christian roots during Holy Week, the Paschal Mystery and the Last Supper occur for us during each and every Mass, no matter the time of year, Father Troy notes. “The liturgy is a dialog between God and His people and a celebration of the life, suffering, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s basically us present there and time standing still in a very real way.”
Christ’s Paschal Mystery, writes Father Bryan, “is unique because it conquers death, which nothing else can do. Since the Mass is not a repetition but an entering into and re-presentation of the Paschal Mystery, it takes Christ’s work and applies it to the present on behalf of the future. Defeating death never runs out because such a victory must continually be commemorated if we hope to survive its effects through the victory of the Cross.”
For Protestants, “communion is a wonderful dinner they have with the Lord,” says Father Troy. “For us it takes on a different meaning. It’s Christ’s presence with the Father and the Holy Spirit in a sacramental way.”
Indeed, the Catholic Church and its central Paschal Mystery are ancient, Brother Charles says. In each Mass and throughout the liturgical year Catholics worldwide pray the same prayers and observe the same rituals that date from before the Reformation.
As Catholics, he says, we have “retained the fullness of belief in the transformation of the bread and wine into the actual blood and body of Jesus. We believe that not only represents the Christian mystery of salvation but makes Jesus Himself present.”