home Current Issue The Last Supper

The Last Supper

The readings for Sunday, June 7, 2015, The Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, Cycle B, are Exodus 24:3-8; Hebrews 9:11-15; and Mark 14:12-16, 22-26.

“On the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrificed the Passover Lamb.” This is how Mark begins the Passion Narrative of Jesus the Messiah (Christ). Passover and Unleavened Bread were both ancient Rites of Spring. The Rite of the Passover Lamb was a feast of herders. The Rite of Unleavened Bread was a feast of farmers.  At some point in history they were combined with the celebration of ancient Israel’s escape from slavery in Egypt. The connection with “independence” made this feast a celebration of patriotism, a celebration of freedom. The ultimate rite of this feast was the Passover Meal in which there was a recital of how the Israelites escaped from slavery in Egypt. In the time of Jesus the Passover Meal had taken on an undertone of sacrifice. This was especially evident by the fact that, in Jerusalem, the slaying of the Passover Lambs was done by priests in the temple. How fitting therefore that the Passover Meal became the first setting for the process by which Jesus began the act of sacrifice which leads not just Israelites, but all people into freedom from sin.

Since neither Jesus nor, it seems, his Galilean disciples had a residence in Jerusalem, he sent two of his disciples into the city to prepare for the group to eat the Passover with him. Preparations were extensive — acquiring (probably renting) a large enough room, purchasing a yearling Lamb, plus the other foods required for a Passover Meal. Whether the work of preparing the meal was done by a caterer or by members of the disciples families we do not know. It is however likely that at least some of the apostles had their spouses and children with them for this family feast.

Jesus tells the two designated disciples they would meet a certain man, to whom they were to say, “The Teacher (a favorite title for Jesus in Mark’s gospel) says, ‘Where is my guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’” This man would show them a large room furnished ….”

Mark writes, “That evening, Passover Eve, when Jesus and Company had gathered at the table … While they were eating, he took bread, blessed, broke, and gave, and said, ‘Take! This is my body!’” Note how brief Mark’s version of the Words of Institution. These words and actions of Jesus echo Mark’s two stories of the multiplication of loaves and fishes, 6:34-44 and 8:1-10.  It is very likely that the Words of Institution influenced the composition in our gospels of the feeding of the multitudes. The earliest narrative of the Words is in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, about 54 A.D. Mark’s gospel is best dated about 70 A.D. The four versions of the Words of Institution, in Paul, Mark, Matthew, Luke, differ. The versions we use at Mass are a combination of the various versions.

After the sharing of the bread/body of Christ, Mark continues, “Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, and they all drank of it. He said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant which will be shed for many.’” The use of the word “cup” has special significance. In the Gospel of Mark 10:38-39, Jesus addresses James and John, “Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am to be baptized?” They affirm it. And Jesus continues, “The cup that I drink, you will drink….” The cup as a synonym for suffering and death is an Old Testament tradition. Example: Isaiah 51:17, 22-23. Because of Old Testament implications and Jesus’ earlier use of the word cup as a symbol for his death, the words, “taking a cup” at the Last Supper can only refer to his death.

In Jesus’ next statement, “This is my blood of the covenant which will be shed for many,” a slaying, a sacrificial death, is clearly intended.  Although in the Old Testament there was no drinking of the blood of a sacrificed animal, a reference is clear to Old Testament sacrificial episodes.

The body and blood of Jesus at the Last Supper can be compared with the peace sacrifice in which God shares a meal with his people.  When Jesus shares his body and blood with his disciples at the Last Supper, in view of the Old Testament background noted above, there is an implied claim that Jesus is God sharing the sacrificial meal. The words Moses speaks while sprinkling God’s people with blood, “Behold the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you,” echo the words of Jesus at the Last Supper, “This is my blood of the covenant.”

Leave a Reply