The Last Supper – Some of its meanings for Christians and its links to the Passover

Thursday, March 8th, 2007
On the occasion of the Annual General Meeting of the Council, February 22, 2007

Within the limits of this short paper we will explore some of the connections to be made between the Jewish Festival of Passover and the Christian Eucharist. You will be familiar with much of this but I hope the points I make will be helpful for our purpose tonight.

Introduction

It is said Christianity was cradled in Judaism. Indeed, it can be truly stated that the Last Supper was cradled in the Passover. The meal shared by Jesus with his disciples on the night before he was crucified is called the Last Supper, because the name is derived from Jesus's statement at the meal, "I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer, for I tell you, I will not eat it again until it is fulfilled in the Kingdom of God."

The meal holds a central place in the Christian Story and all the Worship and Theology traditions within the Church. Its commemoration has been given various names — The Breaking of Bread, The Lord's Supper, Holy Communion, The Eucharist, Mass and the Divine Liturgy. The Eucharist is perhaps the more broadly used. As we start this short reflection, we remind ourselves that Jesus and the disciples were Jews, and they were gathering in Jerusalem like all their fellow Jews to participate in what was probably the greatest of all their Festivals along with the Day of Atonement.

1. The Last Supper was historically and symbolically linked to the Passover Meal

The Story is recorded in Matt 26:20-29; Mark 14:17-25; Luke 22:14-38. They all present the Supper as a Passover Meal. Each of them have disciples asking, "…where will you have us go to prepare for you to eat the passover". However, John's Gospel (while describing it in 13:1-17:26 with extensions of teaching known as his farewell discourse while still gathered together for the meal) suggests the Supper happened prior to the Passover. In Chapt. 18.28 Jesus is taken from a hearing before Caiaphas to Pilate, [those who took him] … "…did not enter the praetorium so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover." So, according to John, Jesus was crucified on the day of which the same evening was Passover night. Perhaps the designation of Jesus as 'the paschal lamb' by the time the fourth Gospel was written influenced this description.

Time and context in the writing of each text has contributed to these variations. However, we can see the event taking place in the Passover season and that the Paschal ideas and other associations with the festival were present. It seems clear that celebrating this important feast filled the mind of Jesus at such a time. (Luke 22:15 "I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer".

2. The Passover liturgy 'gives thanks' for God's works of 'salvation'. So too the liturgy of the Christian Eucharist.

We know that the Jewish method of blessing food or drink was by giving thanks to God for it and naming God over it; only after this recognition of God as its maker and owner was it considered to have been set free to be used for human purposes. (Deut 8:10 – the injunction to 'Bless God for all God's goodness':"You shall eat your fill and bless the LORD your God".)

It is a key element within the Seder. Similarly, in the early liturgies of the Eucharist, the bread and wine are 'set apart' by a prayer of thanksgiving. The very name (eucharistia) given to the commemoration by early Greek Christian writers, derives from this earlier 'giving thanks' discipline. In the Synoptic and Pauline outlines of the Last Supper, we read Jesus "took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, 'This is my body, broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me'" Lu 22.19.

The WCC's Faith and Order Commission paper "Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry" carries this description: "The Eucharist is always a proclamation and a celebration of the work of God. It is the great thanksgiving to the Father for everything accomplished in creation, redemption and sanctification, for everything accomplished by God, now — in the Church and in the world, in spite of the sins of human beings." (See UCA Liturgy).

3. The Passover memorialises God's power to Save … so too the Eucharist

In the Passover, the people of God not only remembered, but again 'lived through' the events of their deliverance from Egypt under the sign of the sacrificed paschal lamb as if they themselves participated in them. (See Exodus 12:14 "This day shall be a day of remembrance for you… through your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance." The story is retold and God's saving actions celebrated.

Similarly, when Jesus addresses the disciples at the end of the Supper in Matthew's record, Jesus took the Cup and again giving thanks he gave it to his disciples saying, "Drink from this, all of you. This is my blood of the new covenant which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." Here, Jesus refers to his death as a saving event, and it is his call to "…do this …as often as you do it, 'In remembrance of me', that is important. 'Anamnesis' is the word used denoting 'the remembering of something through a memorial activity'. So the Eucharist is the memorial of the crucified and risen Christ — a living and effective sign of his sacrifice once and for all on the cross.

St. Paul in 1Cor 11:23-25 begins his recording of the Last Supper with these words: "I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you …that on the night when he was betrayed…". So in the early Corinthian Church the story of the Last Supper was being 'told and retold' as they memorialised Jesus life and death in their worship.

4. A Covenant between God and 'His People' is central to both the Passover and the Eucharist

All sorts of agreements are accepted and confirmed with a celebratory and focussed meal. Marriage illustrates this. It is celebrated by family and witnesses extending into a 'reception'. In the Hebrew Scriptures the making of a covenant was followed by a meal in which the participants had fellowship and were pledged to loyalty to one another.

The covenant between God and Israel at Sinai was celebrated and sealed by a meal in which the people "ate and drank and saw God" (Exodus 24:11) "God did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; also they beheld God, and they ate and drank." The Torah was Yahweh's gift to Israel and was made possible by Yahweh's sovereign grace alone.

In the Synoptic Gospel accounts, each writer refers to Jesus saying, "This cup …is the new covenant in my blood". This new covenant is declared and celebrated in a 'meal'. The meal's progress was punctuated with special moments of demonstrated symbolic action. Taking the Bread — "this is my body"; taking the Cup — "this is my blood…". John's Gospel includes the 'feetwashing' action prior to the Supper — with Jesus' call to the disciples to serve each other — 'just as he had [served] them'. This was to express the particular aspect of 'servanthood' within His 'new covenant'. And, this was accompanied with a new commandment to … 'love one another', "…as I have loved you, so are you to love one another."

5. There is a messianic message in the Eucharist that stems in part from the Passover…

At the commencement of the Passover meal in Luke's account he records Jesus as saying "I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom [or the time of the reign] of God." Some scholars suggest that in the celebration of the Supper, Jesus was emphasising the messianic and eschatological significance of the Passover meal.

At the Passover feast the Jews looked forward to a future deliverance. A seat was set aside to remind all present of their expectation. And more pointedly, a cup was set aside for the Messiah lest he should come that very night to bring about that deliverance and fulfil the promise of the messianic banquet as described in Is. 25-26.

It may have been this cup which Jesus took in the institution of the Eucharist, indicating that even now the Messiah was present to feast with his people.

The meals which Jesus is recorded as sharing during his ministry often focussed to proclaim and enact the nearness of the Kingdom (or Reign of God). In Jesus' teaching, the Reign of God is the central theme. It involves his whole understanding of his own person and work. His concern was for the renewal of the world in the spirit of God's original purpose — the harmony and wholeness expressed in the Creation stories.

Mark 1:15 summarises the message "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the Good News". The Luke 15 parables of the 'lost sheep', the 'lost coin' and the 'lost son' are instructive and visionary as they illustrate the commitment of God, to seek, to find and to rejoice in the salvation of anyone who is 'lost'. Jesus encounter with Zachaeus (chapter 19) illustrates the same intention to 'seek and save' the lost — and a meal is shared to celebrate that intention.

Finally, we have heard of the rich significance of the Feast of Passover. There are symbolic actions and theological nuances in the Christian Eucharist that clearly have their background in it. I hope we will not only recognise some of the links between the two, but enjoy the way God may speak to us through both.

  1. F. J. Taylor, 1951, "Passover"  in A Theoligical Word Book of the Bible,  Ed. Alan Richardson,  SCM London. 163-4.
  2. Faith and Order Paper No. 111, WCC 1982, Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry – Geneva  10-17

The Rev David Houston is the Christian Co-Chair of the Council of Christians and Jews (SA)

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