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

Gospel reading for Mass on 13th January

Mark 1:29-39

On leaving the synagogue, Jesus went with James and John straight to the house of Simon and Andrew. Now Simon’s mother-in-law had gone to bed with fever, and they told him about her straightaway. He went to her, took her by the hand and helped her up. And the fever left her and she began to wait on them.

That evening, after sunset, they brought to him all who were sick and those who were possessed by devils. The whole town came crowding round the door, and he cured many who were suffering from diseases of one kind or another; he also cast out many devils, but he would not allow them to speak, because they knew who he was.

In the morning, long before dawn, he got up and left the house, and went off to a lonely place and prayed there. Simon and his companions set out in search of him, and when they found him they said, ‘Everybody is looking for you.’ He answered, ‘Let us go elsewhere, to the neighbouring country towns, so that I can preach there too, because that is why I came.’ And he went all through Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out devils.

Acknowledgements
~ Translation of Scriptures: the Jerusalem Bible © 1966, 1967 and 1968 by Darton, Longman  &  Todd, Ltd and Doubleday, a division of  Random House, Inc.
~ Photograph: (c) 2013, Allen Morris. The healing of Peter’s mother in law. Church at House of Peter, Capernaum, Galilee.

Gospel reading for Mass on 29th December

Matthew 10:28-33
Gospel for Feast of St Thomas Becket

Jesus said to his apostles: ‘Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; fear him rather who can destroy both body and soul in hell. Can you not buy two sparrows for a penny? And yet not one falls to the ground without your Father knowing. Why, every hair on your head has been counted. So there is no need to be afraid; you are worth more than hundreds of sparrows.

‘So if anyone declares himself for me in the presence of men, I will declare myself for him in the presence of my Father in heaven. But the one who disowns me in the presence of men, I will disown in the presence of my Father in heaven.’

Acknowledgements
~ Translation of Scriptures: the Jerusalem Bible © 1966, 1967 and 1968 by Darton, Longman  &  Todd, Ltd and Doubleday, a division of  Random House, Inc.
~ Photograph: (c) 2017, Allen Morris. St Chad’s, Birmingham.

Gospel reading for Mass on 27th December

Luke 2:22-40

When the day came for them to be purified as laid down by the Law of Moses, the parents of Jesus took him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord, – observing what stands written in the Law of the Lord: Every first-born male must be consecrated to the Lord – and also to offer in sacrifice, in accordance with what is said in the Law of the Lord, a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.

Now in Jerusalem there was a man named Simeon. He was an upright and devout man; he looked forward to Israel’s comforting and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death until he had set eyes on the Christ of the Lord. Prompted by the Spirit he came to the Temple and when the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the Law required, he took him into his arms and blessed God; and he said:

‘Now, Master, you can let your servant go in peace,

just as you promised;

because my eyes have seen the salvation

which you have prepared for all the nations to see,

a light to enlighten the pagans

and the glory of your people Israel.’

As the child’s father and mother stood there wondering at the things that were being said about him, Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, ‘You see this child: he is destined for the fall and for the rising of many in Israel, destined to be a sign that is rejected – and a sword will pierce your own soul too – so that the secret thoughts of many may be laid bare.’

There was a prophetess also, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was well on in years. Her days of girlhood over, she had been married for seven years before becoming a widow. She was now eighty-four years old and never left the Temple, serving God night and day with fasting and prayer. She came by just at that moment and began to praise God; and she spoke of the child to all who looked forward to the deliverance of Jerusalem.

When they had done everything the Law of the Lord required, they went back to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. Meanwhile the child grew to maturity, and he was filled with wisdom; and God’s favour was with him.

Acknowledgements
~ Translation of Scriptures: the Jerusalem Bible © 1966, 1967 and 1968 by Darton, Longman  &  Todd, Ltd and Doubleday, a division of  Random House, Inc.
~ Photograph: (c) 2014, Allen Morris. Musée national du Moyen Âge, formerly Musée de Cluny

Gospel reading for Mass on 26th December

Matthew 10:17-22

Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Beware of men: they will hand you over to sanhedrins and scourge you in their synagogues. You will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the pagans. But when they hand you over, do not worry about how to speak or what to say; what you are to say will be given to you when the time comes; because it is not you who will be speaking; the Spirit of your Father will be speaking in you.

‘Brother will betray brother to death, and the father his child; children will rise against their parents and have them put to death. You will be hated by all men on account of my name; but the man who stands firm to the end will be saved.’

Acknowledgements
~ Translation of Scriptures: the Jerusalem Bible © 1966, 1967 and 1968 by Darton, Longman  &  Todd, Ltd and Doubleday, a division of  Random House, Inc.
~ Photograph: (c) 2017, Allen Morris. St Stephen. St Stephen’s church, Assisi.

Gospel reading for Mass on 25th December

Luke 2:1-14

Caesar Augustus issued a decree for a census of the whole world to be taken. This census – the first – took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria, and everyone went to his own town to be registered. So Joseph set out from the town of Nazareth in Galilee and travelled up to Judaea, to the town of David called Bethlehem, since he was of David’s House and line, in order to be registered together with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. While they were there the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to a son, her first born. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them at the inn.

In the countryside close by there were shepherds who lived in the fields and took it in turns to watch their flocks during the night. The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone round them. They were terrified, but the angel said, ‘Do not be afraid. Listen, I bring you news of great joy, a joy to be shared by the whole people. Today in the town of David a saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. And here is a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly with the angel there was a great throng of the heavenly host, praising God and singing:

‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and peace to men who enjoy his favour.’

Acknowledgements
~ Translation of Scriptures: the Jerusalem Bible © 1966, 1967 and 1968 by Darton, Longman  &  Todd, Ltd and Doubleday, a division of  Random House, Inc.
~ Photograph: (c) 2018, Allen Morris. ‘Peace and Goodwill’, Henry Payne. Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

Gospel reading for Mass on 24th December

Luke 1:67-79

John’s father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:
‘Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel
for he has visited his people, he has come to their rescue
and he has raised up for us a power for salvation
in the House of his servant David,
even as he proclaimed,
by the mouth of his holy prophets from ancient times,
that he would save us from our enemies
and from the hands of all who hate us.
Thus he shows mercy to our ancestors,
thus he remembers his holy covenant
the oath he swore
to our father Abraham
that he would grant us, free from fear,
to be delivered from the hands of our enemies,
to serve him in holiness and virtue
in his presence, all our days.
And you, little child,
you shall be called Prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord
to prepare the way for him,
to give his people knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins;
this by the tender mercy of our God
who from on high will bring the rising Sun to visit us,
to give light to those who live
in darkness and the shadow of death
and to guide our feet
into the way of peace.’

Acknowledgements
~ Translation of Scriptures: the Jerusalem Bible © 1966, 1967 and 1968 by Darton, Longman  &  Todd, Ltd and Doubleday, a division of  Random House, Inc.
~ Photograph: (c) 2016, Allen Morris. ‘Benedictus’, St Leonard’s church, Bridgnorth.

Gospel reading for Mass on 23rd December


Luke 1:57-66

The time came for Elizabeth to have her child, and she gave birth to a son; and when her neighbours and relations heard that the Lord had shown her so great a kindness, they shared her joy.

Now on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child; they were going to call him Zechariah after his father, but his mother spoke up. ‘No,’ she said ‘he is to be called John.’ They said to her, ‘But no one in your family has that name’, and made signs to his father to find out what he wanted him called. The father asked for a writing-tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John.’ And they were all astonished. At that instant his power of speech returned and he spoke and praised God. All their neighbours were filled with awe and the whole affair was talked about throughout the hill country of Judaea. All those who heard of it treasured it in their hearts. ‘What will this child turn out to be?’ they wondered. And indeed the hand of the Lord was with him.

Acknowledgements
~ Translation of Scriptures: the Jerusalem Bible © 1966, 1967 and 1968 by Darton, Longman  &  Todd, Ltd and Doubleday, a division of  Random House, Inc.
~ Photograph: (c) 2018, Allen Morris. St Mary’s church, Hull.

Gospel reading for Mass on 22nd December

Luke 1:46-56

Mary said:
‘My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord
and my spirit exults in God my saviour;
because he has looked upon his lowly handmaid.
Yes, from this day forward all generations will call me blessed,
for the Almighty has done great things for me.
Holy is his name,
and his mercy reaches from age to age for those who fear him.
He has shown the power of his arm,
he has routed the proud of heart.
He has pulled down princes from their thrones and exalted the lowly.
The hungry he has filled with good things, the rich sent empty away.
He has come to the help of Israel his servant, mindful of his mercy
– according to the promise he made to our ancestors –
of his mercy to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

Mary stayed with Elizabeth about three months and then went back home.

Acknowledgements
~ Translation of Scriptures: the Jerusalem Bible © 1966, 1967 and 1968 by Darton, Longman  &  Todd, Ltd and Doubleday, a division of  Random House, Inc.
~ Photograph: (c) 2016, Allen Morris. ‘Magnificat’, St Leonard’s church, Bridgnorth.

Gospel reading for Mass on 21st December

Luke 1:39-45

Mary set out and went as quickly as she could to a town in the hill country of Judah.

She went into Zechariah’s house and greeted Elizabeth. Now as soon as Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.

She gave a loud cry and said, ‘Of all women you are the most blessed, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. Why should I be honoured with a visit from the mother of my Lord? For the moment your greeting reached my ears, the child in my womb leapt for joy. Yes, blessed is she who believed that the promise made her by the Lord would be fulfilled.’

Acknowledgements
~ Translation of Scriptures: the Jerusalem Bible © 1966, 1967 and 1968 by Darton, Longman  &  Todd, Ltd and Doubleday, a division of  Random House, Inc.
~ Photograph: (c) 2018, Allen Morris. Musee des Beaux-Arts, Bordeaux.