Origins and influences IV: the Last Supper and communion in Christ

Christians are very familiar with the idea of Jesus’ last supper – principal source of our Mass – being a Passover.

Each Palm Sunday we hear readings from a synoptic Gospel of the year – Matthew, Mark or Luke – which tells us this meal was a Passover. Indeed the Gospels go into some detail about the careful preparation for the meal, as in the following verses from Luke’s Gospel.

The Passover with the Disciples

Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and prepare the Passover for us, that we may eat it.” They said to him, “Where will you have us prepare it?” He said to them, “Behold, when you have entered the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him into the house that he enters and tell the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says to you, Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ And he will show you a large upper room furnished; prepare it there.” And they went and found it just as he had told them, and they prepared the Passover.

And when the hour came, he reclined at table, and the apostles with him…

Luke 22.7-14

Each Gospel then continues with words from the Lord in which Jesus interprets ritual actions in terms of his forthcoming death – and, in Luke’s account, asks the disciples to take, break and share bread (his body) in remembrance of him.

Institution of the Lord’s Supper ?

And he said to them, “I have earnestly 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 of God.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves. For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” And he took 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 likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. But behold, the hand of him who betrays me is with me on the table. For the Son of Man goes as it has been determined, but woe to that man by whom he is betrayed!” And they began to question one another, which of them it could be who was going to do this.

Luke 22.15-23

So far, so straight forward? Well not exactly. Luke tells us of a meal with a cup before and after the sharing in bread. That might come as a bit of a surprise. And surprising too, perhaps, that we are not told anything particular to the celebration of Passover, most notably the feasting on the lamb sacrificed and roasted for the household’s meal.

When we compare Luke’s account to those of Matthew and Luke there are more things to note. Most notably there is no mention there of a cup shared before the words over the bread, and there is no command ‘Do this in remembrance of me’.

No-one seems to doubt that by the time these Evangelists were writing their Gospels the Church was celebrating the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist.

Our earliest account comes from a letter of St Paul, dated maybe 30 years before the Gospel of Luke.

I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

I Corinthians 11.23-25

Paul’s account includes the words at the breaking of bread about ‘do this in remembrance of me’, indeed he adds something similar after the cup.

We do not know what the domestic Passover ritual was at the time of Jesus, so it is speculation as to whether or not there was a sharing in two cups. But it is interesting that there is such variation in the accounts of the last supper.

Many scholars suggest that writers’ accounts of the last supper meal will have been influenced not only by their authors’ knowledge of an oral tradition about what Jesus did and said; and knowledge of other written accounts (for example, possibly an influence of Paul on Mark and Matthew); but also possibly – even probably – by the way Eucharist was celebrated in their local community. This perhaps explains why Luke’s account varies from the others – Eucharist was celebrated in a ritual including two cups, perhaps because Luke knew a celebration of Eucharist which included not only ritual involving bread and wine, but even perhaps a full meal which began with the blessing of wine. On this joining of Eucharist and meal there is more below.

We often seem to assume all early Christians would do the same thing at celebrations of Eucharist, and any variation would be deviation from the norm. However it is at least plausible that different communities celebrated ‘the breaking of bread’, their sharing in the Body and Blood of Christ, in somewhat different ways, according to their circumstances – indeed given the variations of all sorts noted in other early sources this may the more likely case.

In particular sometime early in the history of the Church one major change took place in how Eucharist was celebrated. We may not know the full ritual content of the last supper, but we do know there was a meal.

We also know that at the time of Paul the particular rites which were the sharing in the Body and Blood of Christ were still being celebrated in the context of a meal. We know that because Paul was scandalised by the unchristian way in which the Corinthians conducted themselves at this meal.

When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not…

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.

So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another— if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home—so that when you come together it will not be for judgment.

I Corinthians 11.20-22, 27-34

It is suggested that Matthew and Mark were familiar with their local Church celebrating the Lord’s Supper separate from any other community meal; and that maybe Luke’s community had not yet, or at least had only more recently separated the two ‘meals’.

By the 2nd Century AD that separation was commonplace – if not, perhaps, yet universal. But this Blog will come back to how Eucharist was celebrated in the 2nd Century in a month or so. Over the next few Sundays this Blog will spend a little time looking at how, in the Roman Rite, we presently begin our celebration of Mass, in the Roman Rite, and then looking at the pretty much standard pattern of the Eucharistic Prayers of the Roman Rite.

But first to just notice the very different way in which John’s Gospel deals with the last supper.

Now you do as I have done to you

Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, “Not all of you are clean.”

When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them. I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But the Scripture will be fulfilled, ‘He who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.’ I am telling you this now, before it takes place, that when it does take place you may believe that I am he. Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever receives the one I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.”

John 13.1-20

Clearly what John presents is not a Passover meal – for this is a meal before the Feast. John tells us that Jesus was killed at the time that of the sacrifice of the Passover lambs. Scholars have all sorts of suggestions to account for this difference between John’s Gospel and the others. Perhaps John was linked with a different Jewish grouping, the Essenes, that followed a slightly different calendar (a little like the Orthodox Church today follows a different calendar, celebrating Easter and Christmas on different days to the rest of the Church, in the secular calendar).

Or maybe John is varying the narrative to make a symbolic point – that truly Jesus is the Passover sacrifice or, maybe more properly, that Jesus fulfils all that is promised in Passover, and that for those who acknowledge Jesus as Lord and Saviour there is now no need to celebrate Passover. John knows that Christians are to live in communion with Jesus, to eat his flesh and drink his blood (cf John 6). It is conceivable that John knows of a ritual meal that is Eucharist, but maybe, just maybe, for John what matters more than any such meal is mutual service. Without such mutual service, then perhaps John like Paul would say whatever you do by way of ritual or worship is not the Lord’s Supper, but brings judgement on ourselves.

The point was forcefully made by Saint Pope John Paul II when proposing a Year of the Eucharist to the Church.

There is one other point which I would like to emphasize, since it significantly affects the authenticity of our communal sharing in the Eucharist. It is the impulse which the Eucharist gives to the community for a practical commitment to building a more just and fraternal society. In the Eucharist our God has shown love in the extreme, overturning all those criteria of power which too often govern human relations and radically affirming the criterion of service: “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all” (Mc 9:35). It is not by chance that the Gospel of John contains no account of the institution of the Eucharist, but instead relates the “washing of feet” (cf. Jn 13:1-20): by bending down to wash the feet of his disciples, Jesus explains the meaning of the Eucharist unequivocally. Saint Paul vigorously reaffirms the impropriety of a Eucharistic celebration lacking charity expressed by practical sharing with the poor (cf.1Cor 11:17-22, 27-34).

Mane Nobiscum Domine, 28. John Paul II.

Questions for reflection

  • What does it seem to you makes for communion with the Lord?
  • The phrase ‘practicing Catholic’ is a familiar one. Often this is used to distinguish those who go to Mass from those who don’t. What four or five characteristics do you think that, together, might make for a better definition for a practicing Catholic?
  • What variations in celebrations of the Lord’s Supper are you familiar with in contemporary Christian communities?
  • What would might be the advantages/disadvantages of once more combining Mass with a community meal?

Acknowledgements

  • Scripture: English Standard Version (c) 2001-9, Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers
  • Photographs. All (c) Allen Morris. (c) 2015, Last Supper, Sacred Heart, Coleshill, Birmingham; (c) 2015, Vasily Perov, ‘Monastery Refectory’ and Icon detail, Russian Museum, St Petersburg;
  • Commentary: © 2021, Allen Morris

2 thoughts on “Origins and influences IV: the Last Supper and communion in Christ

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