The story of the “Last Supper” is an account quite familiar to Christians. The version in the Gospel according to Mark certainly recounts many of the familiar features. Too often, Catholic move quickly through the text seeing the institution of the Eucharist – and within the Tradition and Teaching of the church, while they are on solid ground, one wonders if the they adequately understand the deeper currents present in the gospel account.
Consider the first reading for the Solemnity. We do see references to Moses and manna, rather we encounter Moses and the enactment of a covenant between God and the people Israel. In Exodus 24, Moses is preoccupied with binding Israel in fidelity to the rule of God – in other words, the making of covenant. At the outset, the community swears full allegiance: “When Moses came to the people and related all the words and ordinances of the LORD, they all answered with one voice, “We will do everything that the LORD has told us.” (Exodus 24:3) Indeed, this oath seems almost a blank check. Israel swears to obey everything God has said, even that which Moses may yet tell them. The moment of oath taking is the moment of Israel’s constitution as a people unlike any other; they are a people not constituted by lineage, language, or territory but only by its singular hearing of the Word of God. The people’s resolve to “hear” is an acknowledgment that Israel is not self-made, self-invented, or autonomous, but is formed by the power, and for the pleasure, of the Holy One.
Walter Brueggemann notes “Three acts by Moses consummate the relationship is God. An altar was built (Ex 20:24-26) on which burnt offerings and whole offerings are given. Second, there is the ‘book of the covenant,’ apparently a literary deposit of the commands given by God to Moses. Third, in a ritual act, Moses sprinkles blood from the sacrifice upon both the altar (v. 6) and the people (v. 8). The ‘blood of the covenant’ thus creates solidarity between the two parties. This dramatic act is not rationally explicable, but no doubt arises from the recognition that ‘blood’ is the distinctive element that makes life possible. (See the comparable actions of Gen 15:9–11; Jer 34:18–19.) Thus, Israel now begins a new life of obedience, signified by sacrifice, the ‘book of the covenant,’ and the ‘blood of the covenant.’”
In the second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews, many people read the text with a sense of St. Paul’s fondness for courtroom forensics and judicial language, but modern scholarships does not assign authorship to St. Paul, but rather and unknown writer. This has allowed scholars to reconsider the Letter in the context of the Jerusalem Temple cult. In the second reading (Hebrews 9:11-15) the writer has set the scene in vv. 1–10: The place is the holy of holies, the sole celebrant is the high priest, the central act is the sprinkling of blood on the seat of mercy, and the time is the Day of Atonement. The one essential element is blood; in the language of Hebrews, the effective entrance into God’s presence is “not without blood” (v. 7). It is “For this reason he is mediator of a new covenant” (v.15)
It is with an understanding of the importance of the shedding/sprinkling of blood with the making of covenant, that we can then turn to our gospel.
Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Mark 11:8–11) had been preceded by his remarkable prediction that the disciples would find a “colt on which no one has ever sat” (11:2–7). A similarly remarkable prediction precedes the Passover supper that Jesus will celebrate with his disciples (see 14:12–16). Such amazing circumstances prepare Mark’s readers for a very special part of the Jesus story.
The Passover meal of the Hebrews celebrated their deliverance from Egypt. (“The Lord will go by, striking down the Egyptians. Seeing the blood … on the doorposts, the Lord will pass over that door and not let the destroyer come into your houses to strike you down,” Exodus 12:23). As Jesus’ Passover meal with his disciples begins, an unnamed (for now) and pitiable disciple is symbolically singled out as the one who will bring about Jesus’ betrayal and, ironically, the new deliverance of God’s people (vv. 17–21).
Such dramatic preparation leads to Mark’s account of the first Eucharistic meal (vv. 22–25), which was as central to his Christian community’s life then as it is today. Certainly, Mark was faithful in passing on the early church’s tradition that the Christian Eucharist is the new Passover. Jesus’ saving death and resurrection was God’s new and perfect way of delivering all people. Mark’s Christians shared in the new covenant of Christ’s body and blood when they shared the Eucharistic bread and cup! At the same time, Mark uses the occasion of the first Eucharist to round off a special theme he has been developing in regard to the disciples’ blindness. (Bread has not been mentioned since chapters 6–8, where the disciples did not see the deeper meaning of Jesus’ miracles, especially with “the breads”; the cup has not been mentioned since 10:35–45, when Jesus made clear its intimate connection with his death.) Consequently, Mark is telling his readers that those who wish to share in Jesus’ Eucharistic cup (now and at the heavenly banquet, v. 25) must first choose to share fully in Jesus’ way of suffering service (10:45a: “The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve”). They must participate actively in Jesus’ mission on earth, which involves pouring out their lives “for many” (v. 24), always in imitation of him (10:45b: “The Son of Man has come … to give his life as ransom for many”).