THE LAST SUPPER OF OUR LORD
THE LAST SUPPER
The Church celebrates in her liturgy the Last Supper on Thursday of Holy Week, to recall the time Our Lord Jesus Christ gathered the Twelve Apostles during the Passover season. Jesus, with his community, celebrated the institution of the Eucharist during his Last Supper. The actions and words of Our Lord at the Last Supper laid the foundations of the new messianic community, the People of the New Covenant in Christ.
The solemn Jewish Feast of Passover or Pesach (in Hebrew) was instituted by God to commemorate the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt (Exodus 12:1-28), where they had been slaves before God rescued them. On the night of First Passover, Moses and the Israelites were instructed to sacrifice a healthy year-old male lamb, and take hyssop and sprinkle the blood of the Passover Lamb on the overhead and two doorposts, so that the destroying angel would pass over their houses and strike only the Egyptians. The Israelites in thanksgiving were then to eat the roasted lamb. The Feast of praise and thanksgiving to commemorate the occasion began after sunset with the Passover meal of the sacrificial lamb on the fourteenth day of the month of Nisan (spring), and on the fifteenth day began seven days for the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Leviticus 23:4-14). During that time, the Israelites were to eat only unleavened bread, to recall the time when they had to leave Egypt so quickly they had no time to make leavened bread.
After God led them across the Red Sea, he guided them by sending a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. God told Moses he would rain down bread from heaven to feed the Israelites (Exodus 16:4). Every morning the manna - מָן from heaven would be there for the Israelites to sustain them on their journey to the Promised Land.
God established his Covenant with them through the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai (Exodus 20:1-17). He then instructed Moses to make a Sanctuary, "so that I may dwell in their midst." The Tabernacle, the Dwelling Place, would hold the Ark of the Covenant, in which were housed the Ten Commandments; the Menorah or Golden Lampstand; and the Bread of the Presence - לֶחֶם פָּנִם, or literally the Bread of the Face (of God). The Showbread or the Bread of the Presence was to be offered each Sabbath as a sign of the perpetual covenant between God and Israel (Leviticus 24:5-7).
The Apostle John began his Gospel with John the Baptist, who, when he saw Jesus, said:
"Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!"
Gospel of John 1:28-29
John's Gospel records three Passovers: the first after the Wedding Feast of Cana (2:13), the second after the multiplication of the loaves and the Bread of Life discourse (6:4), and the Passover season at the time of the Last Supper (13:1). Before the second Passover, the crowd at Capernaum referred to God who sent manna from heaven to feed the Israelites during the Exodus: "Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, `He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'" Jesus responded:
"Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven;
my Father gives you the true bread from heaven.
For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven,
and gives life to the world."
They said to him, "Lord, give us this bread always."
Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life;
he who comes to me shall not hunger,
and he who believes in me shall never thirst.
Gospel of John 6:32-35
Jesus continued in the Bread of Life discourse: "Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood will have eternal life" (6:54).
At the Last Supper, Jesus observed and fulfilled the Old Covenant and transformed the ritual into the New Covenant through the institution of the Eucharist. Christ then became the sacrificial lamb during the Passover season through his sacrifice on the Cross.
The word Passover may designate the Jewish Feast of Passover, or the Passover sacrificial lamb, or the actual Passover meal. The above image notes the word Passover in the Biblical languages. The word Paschal, as in the expressions Paschal Lamb and Paschal Mystery of Christ, derives from Pascha, the Greek and Latin words for Passover.
The Institution of the Eucharist, the New Covenant in Christ at the Last Supper, is recorded in Matthew (26:26-29), Mark (14: 22-24), the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians (11:23-26), and the following:
Then he took a loaf of 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."
And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying,
"This cup that is poured out for you
is the new covenant in my blood."
Gospel of Luke 22:19-20
The word Eucharist derives from the Greek word εὐχαριστία or Eucharistia which means thanksgiving; the verb form means to give thanks or offer a prayer of thanksgiving. The celebration of the Eucharist in the Church becomes a Memorial of the Last Supper and of Christ's one sacrifice on the Cross for the redemption of our sins. It is truly an act of thanksgiving and praise! The Apostles took to heart the words of Jesus to "Do this in memory of me" as an ordination to continue the New Covenant, as they continued the practice of communion in "breaking bread" (Acts 2:42).
The Last Supper in a sense is the act of foundation of the Church, because Jesus gives himself and creates a new community, a community united in communion with himself. This community of the Lord at the Last Supper is what we experience today in the community of the Church. Our Church is essential today, for it serves as a refuge from loneliness and from human frailty and strife in our lives. Our community in the Church is a chance to become one with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. When we receive communion, we become united to Our Lord and with our community, the Church.
The cup of blessing which we bless,
is it not a participation in the blood of Christ?
The bread which we break,
is it not a participation in the body of Christ?
Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body,
for we all partake of the one bread.
First Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians 10:16-17
1 The Navarre Revised Standard Version of the Holy Bible: The Gospel of Luke (with Latin Vulgate), Four Courts Press, Dublin, Ireland, 2003.
2 Pope John Paul II. On the Eucharist in its Relationship to the Church. Encyclical Letter, Pauline Books and Media, Boston, April 17, 2003.
3 Pope Benedict XVI. Jesus, the Apostles, and the Early Church. Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2007.
4 Lambdin TO. Introduction to Biblical Hebrew. Prentice-Hall, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, 1971.
5 Bauer W. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Second Edition (BAGD). University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1979.
6 Pitre B. Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist - Doubleday, New York, 2011.
7 St. Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica, Third Part, On the Passion of Christ. Translation by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province, 1920. Reprinted by Christian Classics of Allen, Texas, 1981.
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