Last Supper, New Passover

Scripture: Luke 22: 14-20

Today we begin Holy Week. Instead of talking about Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem in triumph, I want to look ahead to Thursday and Jesus’ Last Supper. We are so familiar with taking Communion together that it is easy to miss just what was going on.

Jesus and the disciples were all Jewish

In the book Jesus and the Jewish roots of the Eucharist by Brant Pitre, the author begins by saying, as I have often said, that Jesus and the disciples were all Jewish. Therefore to understand the Gospels (and specifically the Last Supper) we have to try to see the Last Supper through 1st century Jewish eyes, not 21st century Christian eyes. Pitre’s book aims to interpret the Last Supper as a New Passover leading to a New Exodus to a New Promised Land.

The Passover in Scripture

The Last Supper was a Passover meal, a “perpetual remembrance” of the Israelites’ deliverance from slavery in Egypt. That was when God “passed over” the homes of the Israelites and spared their firstborn children from death. It began their journey through the wilderness for forty years, led by Moses, and culminated with their entry into the Promised Land.

In the early days, each family slaughtered its own Passover lamb, drained its blood, and cooked it.  Later, only the priestly class (Levites) performed animal sacrifices. Therefore families had to take their Passover lambs to the Temple for slaughter. The priests ritually dashed the blood on the altar. Then the family brought the lamb home to cook. I find it curious that none of of the Scriptural accounts of the Last Supper mention the lamb itself . However, Paul repeatedly makes the connection that Jesus is the new Paschal (Passover) Lamb that underwent sacrifice for us. Likewise, the author of Revelation saw a heavenly vision of the Lamb, not a human-like Jesus [Revelation 5: 6].

“This is my body … this is my blood.”

Matthew, Mark, and Luke (and also Paul) describe the “words of institution” at the Last Supper: , “This is my body … this is my blood.” Jesus discusses the Eucharist in detail in the Bread of Life discourse [John 6: 26-69], which follows the Feeding of the 5000. The words of institution are contentious for Jews and Christians alike – though not for Protestants, who regard the link between (bread and wine) and (Body and Blood) as symbolic.

It is hard to avoid the implication of cannibalism for those who believe in transubstantiation. For Jews, the issue is even harder, because of the absolute prohibition of drinking blood [Genesis 9: 3-4], which the Hebrew Scriptures equate to the life of the animal [Leviticus 17: 10-12]. Even Jesus’ own followers considered his description of consuming flesh and blood as “a hard saying.” His teaching about eating flesh and drinking blood repelled some of them so much that they abandoned him completely [John 6: 66].

A Messiah for a new age

In the ancient world, Heaven was as real as the tangible Earth.  Earthly societies (king, emperor, chief, surrounded by courtiers and advisors) reflected the arrangement of Heaven (God, angels, cherubim), not the other way round. By the time of Jesus, the Jewish people looked for a Messiah, who would introduce a new age of God’s righteousness. First century Jews expected the New Exodus to start in Jerusalem, most likely on an anniversary of the first Passover.  They expected the Messiah to introduce a new Exodus to a spiritual heaven (a new Promised Land). Jesus proclaimed in his ministry and at the Last Supper that he was that person.

Three images link ‘bread’ to Jesus’ words at the Last Supper

1. The Manna

Jesus made a parallel between the manna received during the Exodus (the bread from heaven) [John 6: 32 and 49] and the bread of eternal life. Moses gave the manna, but the Israelites died natural deaths. Jesus, the new and greater Moses, gives the bread of life, which is eternal. So we have bread // life. The manna was miraculous yet impermanent; Jesus gives eternal spiritual bread.

2. The Lord’s Prayer

Pitre also connects the miraculous bread to the Lord’s Prayer. He explains why it is, ‘Give us this day our daily bread?’ The second ‘daily’ is a Greek word epiousios, which Pitre translates as ‘substance (ousios) from above (epi)’. That implies that when we pray, we do not ask merely for breakfast, lunch, and dinner each day. We ask instead to receive the ‘new manna’, the new spiritual bread  from above, every day (hence the Roman Catholic practice of daily mass).

3. The Bread of the Presence

Many 1st century Jewish people would have connected the bread of the Eucharist and the ‘Bread of the Presence’   This was kept in the Holy of Holies at the Ark of the Covenant between God and the Israelites. This bread was literally, the “Bread of the Face of God”.

Mosaic Law permitted only priests to eat it.  However, King David, who was not a priest, commandeered it when his army was hungry. Jesus, the one of ‘David’s line’ (i.e, the greater King David) gave his body as the ‘Face of God’ – i.e., proof that he was the Messiah.

We keep a form of Bread of the Presence as Reserved Sacrament at St. George’s. We will remove it from the church on Maundy Thursday to signify that Christ’s Body is not in the building from then till Easter.

Concerning the wine, Pitre stresses the idea that blood = life.  Therefore wine = life = blood. Luke’s account of the Last Supper is different from Matthew, Mark, and Paul. Luke records the disciples drinking two cups of wine. A typical Passover meal (Seder) involves drinking four cups of wine. One at the beginning; one when the Exodus story is read; one to begin the meal. The assembly drinks the final cup after singing the Great Hallel (Psalms 115-118). Luke’s first cup mentioned could be the first or the second of the Seder. The second cup mentioned by Luke is the new covenant between God.  It parallels the one at the original Passover. It is most likely the third cup of the Seder.

None of the Gospels mention the fourth cup of wine of the Seder

Jesus then said, “I will not drink the fruit of the vine again till I drink it in the Kingdom of God” Luke 22:18]. Matthew [26:30] and Mark [14: 26] both mention ‘singing the hymn’ (the Great Hallel) after supper, but none of them mention the fourth cup of wine.

Pitre points out, however, that Jesus does take a cup of sour wine when he is on the Cross. This, he says, can be considered as the fourth cup that completes the New Passover meal.  It seems significant that when Jesus prays in Gethsemane, he asks God that “this cup may pass from me, but not what I will but what you will.”

Christ’s death represents the beginning of the Exodus to the heavenly new Promised Land. In that metaphor, we earthlings continue our journeys through the wilderness on this earth until the final Judgement Day when the souls of the righteous ones will enter the heavenly Promised Land.

The Last Supper is more than a special Passover meal

Overall, the Last Supper is more than a special Passover meal. It is a miracle, that parallels the Feeding of the 5000. In both cases, the timing of the meal is sunset; the attendees sit or recline; Jesus takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, gives thanks, and shares it. In the feeding miracle he leaves 12 baskets of leftover breads; at the Last Supper, he leaves behind 12 disciples, who also represent the 12 tribes of Israel. They were, we are, priesthoods of believers, like the heads of families at the first Passover.

I like the spirituality of considering the Last Supper as a New Passover that begins a New Exodus. Pitre unravels much of the symbolism around the Eucharist that is difficult to dig out. Yet to me, he fails in one critical aspect. We are still left with the difficulty in the words of institution; the meaning of “This is my body … This is my Blood.” Just as it was 2000 years ago, it remains “a hard saying.”