Thirsting for the Cross

“I thirst.” / Eucharist

Jesus proclaims from the cross, within inches of death, that He thirsts.  Out of His seven final phrases from the cross, this one is the most understandable, yet very perplexing.  It is not hard to imagine that Jesus would be thirsty on the cross, but why would he choose to leave those at the foot of the cross with these words, “I thirst” (Jn 19:28).  Was this a way to show His humanity?  Was this some animalistic plea for life?  Neither of these seem likely.  In context of His other six last words, there must be some greater meaning here.  What was Jesus thirsting for?

Today in the Church we arrive at Holy Thursday: the day of the Last Supper.  I think we must start here in order to understand what Jesus is thirsting for from the cross.  At the Last Supper, Jesus celebrates his final meal with His closest disciples before His betrayal by Judas.  This meal is a Passover meal in which they commemorate how God brought them out of Egypt and out of slavery.  This Jewish celebration gives us deeper insight into what exactly happened at the Last Supper.

In the book of Exodus, we are told exactly what the Israelites had to do at the original Passover to be delivered from slavery in Egypt.  They must (1) procure an unblemished, male lamb, (2) sacrifice the lamb, (3) spread the lamb’s blood on their door post, (4) eat the flesh of the lamb, (5) and keep the Passover meal (Ex 12).  These 5 things they must do in order to be delivered from the hands of the Egyptians.  Jesus and his disciples are commemorating this event by doing the same thing on Holy Thursday.  Israelites have done this every single year since the time of the Passover; however, Jesus flips the script.

During the Passover meal, Jesus “took the bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying ‘This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me’” (Lk22:19).  Hold on… I thought we were already remembering one event.  Are we supposed to remember a second event while remembering the first event?  This is clearly not the case.  Jesus continues with the chalice of wine, “This chalice which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Lk 22:20).  Jesus speaks of a NEW covenant established in His blood.  The old covenant was established through the blood of the Passover lamb and we now have a new covenant established through the blood of Jesus.  Jesus is putting himself in the place of the Passover lamb when he says His body “is given for you” and His blood is “poured out for you.”  Jesus is setting up a new Passover celebration setting Himself as the lamb.  Step one of this ‘new’ Passover is complete, we have procured a new lamb… now, onto the other four steps.

Jesus is the new Passover “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29).  As the new lamb, Jesus is instituting a new Passover that follows all 5 steps of the original Passover.  Jesus has been procured (in Jerusalem) and now must be sacrificed.  As we know, Jesus is led to sacrifice on the cross (step 2) and his blood is poured out upon the world when the spear is thrust into His side (step 3).  The last two steps, 4 and 5, are where things get tricky.

In order to complete the new Passover, we must eat the flesh of the sacrificed Lamb and keep the Passover meal as a memorial.  Jesus already gave the instructions for step 5 at the Last Supper when he said, “Do this in remembrance of me.”  Step 4, however, comes slightly out of order.  At the Last Supper, the disciples were partakers in step 4 when they ate of the bread broken and blessed by Jesus.  You see, when Jesus speaks, His words have power.  When He says to Lazarus “rise”, he awakes.  When He says to the paralyzed man “your sins are forgiven”, they are forgiven.  When He commands the demons to depart, they flee in fear.  So, when Jesus says, “this is my body” the bread actually becomes His flesh.  This is the great mystery of the Last Supper: The Twelve were partakers in the Passover meal of the new Lamb before the Lamb had been sacrificed.  All 5 steps have been put in place and, behold, the new Passover Lamb has come, not to free us from the slavery of Egypt, but to free us from the slavery of sin.

Alas, what does Jesus as the new Passover Lamb have to do with His thirst on the cross?  The answer lies in Jesus’s very first words at the Last Supper, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you I shall not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God” (Lk 22:15-16).  Jesus has “earnestly desired” to eat this meal with his disciples, but how long has He desired this…?  FOREVER!  Jesus has desired to eat this meal since the beginning.  Being God, Jesus knew that this meal would happen since the beginning of creation and knew what type of meal it would be.  This new Passover meal is a meal of intimate communion because the disciples are literally consuming the flesh of Jesus.  God has “earnestly desired” this unity with us that will be “fulfilled in the kingdom of God.”  Heaven is this fulfillment, complete union with the triune God who desires for us to be there even more than we do.  When Jesus cries out, “I thirst!”, His thirst is for us!  He expresses His longing for union with us that is being consummated through His death on the cross.  We get a glimpse of this union every time we “do this in remembrance of me” in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.  Every day we are given the opportunity to partake in this new Passover meal in which consume the eternal Passover Lamb who frees us from the slavery of sin.  The Eucharist is a memorial of the death and resurrection of Christ in which we satiate, if only for a few minutes, His thirst and ours for the union which is fulfilled in heaven.

Let us hear the voice of Jesus every time we receive the Eucharist recognizing that He thirsts for eternal communion with us in heaven even more than we thirst for it ourselves.

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