Frank O’Dea SSS
Homily: Year C
Readings: Exodus 24:3-8; Hebrews 9;11-15; Mark 14: 12-16, 22-26
In the first reading we’re told that Moses took the blood of the sacrificed animals.
He dashed half the blood on the altar and half on the people.
In this way he showed the link, the covenant, between the people and God, and the people said they would do all that the Lord had asked them to do.
In the second reading the author says that Christ is the mediator of a new covenant which is sealed not with the blood of animals but with his own blood.
The gospel tells us the story of the institution of the Eucharist at the last meal that Jesus had with his disciples.
He took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to the disciples saying:
Take, this is my body.
Then he took a cup of wine, saying:
This is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many.
These readings highlight for us the importance of the wine in the celebration.
We’re fortunate that in our time, the wine has been restored to its rightful place and is available to the people.
Let’s take full advantage of it.
This morning I’d like to tell you about the sacrifice of Todah which you’ve probably never heard of.
I’ve made up a story in which to present this teaching.
Once upon a time in ancient Jerusalem, there lived a man whose name was Azariah. He had a wife, Miriam, and three children.
One day he was clearing a drain at the base of the city walls when a large section of the stone wall collapsed and buried him.
His fellow workers laboured frantically to remove the massive stones.
Amazingly, Azariah suffered no more than bruises and cuts to his body; he could easily have been killed under the weight of the huge blocks – one landed just a few centimetres from his head!
Azariah recovered quickly, feeling very grateful that he had not been killed.
In thanksgiving for being saved from death, Azariah offered a todah sacrifice.
The todah sacrifice consisted of a lamb, wine, some unleavened bread as well as ordinary leavened bread, that is, with yeast.
The lamb was sacrificed in the temple, and the unleavened loaves were burned.
Azariah took home the meat of the sacrificed lamb, the wine and the leavened bread. He invited a few close friends and the men who rescued him, to join his family in thanksgiving for being saved from death.
The assembled group chanted Psalm 22 which begins:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
The lamentation goes on for eighteen verses and reminds the gathering of the peril that Azariah was in when the wall collapsed on him – God didn’t seem to be there to prevent the tragedy.
Then the psalm changes tone with a call for help:
But you, O Lord, do not be far away! … come quickly to my aid! Deliver my soul from the sword.
This is recognition that God does help, and in this instance that God saved Azariah from death.
Then another change of tone as everyone thanks God for saving Azariah:
I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.
Having praised God for his deliverance from death, Azariah, his family and friends then enjoyed a feast: the meat, the wine and the leavened bread.
Azariah followed the pattern of the todah sacrifice: offering the lamb and the unleavened bread in the temple, the singing of a psalm of lament and praise and the festive meal.
The todah sacrifice was popular throughout Jewish history. It occurs in the story of Jonah in the belly of the whale, when David defeated the Canaanites and when King Hezekiah recovered from a serious illness.
In time the sacrifice in the temple was abandoned, and the ritual became a purely home event.
It is significant that ordinary leavened bread was used though it was usually unacceptable as sacrifice because it was considered corrupted by yeast.
What is the significance of todah for us today?
The rabbis had a teaching:
In the coming Messianic age all sacrifices will cease, but the thank offering (todah) will never cease.
We are in the messianic age, so it’s worth exploring this matter further to see its relevance for us.
Todah in Hebrew means thanksgiving combined with praise, and includes witnessing to how God saved the person.
In Greek, Eucharistia means thanksgiving and praise.
At the Last Supper Jesus offered praise and thanks to God with bread and wine. However, we cannot say with any certainty that Jesus was offering a todah sacrifice, though all the elements were there: his death was imminent but he knew the Father would deliver him, he celebrated with bread and wine with his friends.
Hartmut Gese, a German biblical scholar, says that the Last Supper was a todah meal but he is not supported by other scholars.
My colleague and respected scholar, Tony Mc Sweeeney, says:
Whether Jesus himself really did understand his last supper in this way or not, the interpretation has the merit of suggesting a fascinating angle from which to contemplate the church’s celebration of the eucharist.
Tony also points out that the stories of the Last Supper don’t speak of unleavened bread (azymos) but artos, ordinary leavened bread.
Most of us would be surprised to know that it’s possible, maybe even probable, that Jesus used leavened bread at the Last Supper.
It is a historical fact that the church used ordinary leavened bread for the Eucharist for about 800 years which may perhaps indicate the church was just continuing what happened at the Last Supper.
The story of the todah sacrifice can encourage us further to see the Eucharist as a ritual to praise and thank God for his great love for us and for the extraordinary gifts that he has so generously poured out on us.
It’s a good practice at every mass to bring to mind something to thank and praise God for, and to do this consciously and deliberately.