Body of Christ: Last Supper

The Last Supper. In the verses which follow v.17, Mark concentrates all of his attention upon two incidents which marked the meal: the moment of the dipping of the bread and the bitter herbs in the bowl of stewed fruit when Jesus spoke of his betrayal (verses 18–21), and the interpretation of the bread and the third cup of wine following the meal itself (verses 22–25).

The festivity of the meal was shattered when Jesus, with a solemn “Amen,” announced that one of those sharing the intimacy of the table-fellowship would betray him. The explanatory words “one who is eating with me” set the pronouncement in the context of Ps. 41:9, where the poor but righteous sufferer laments that his intimate friend whom he trusted and who ate his bread had “lifted his heel” against him. The repeated reference to the inner circle (“one of you,” v.18 and “one of the Twelve,” v.20) and the question “Surely it is not I?” expressed by each in turn (v.19) serve only to intensify the importance of the explanatory clause “one who is eating with me.” This is especially apparent in the climactic character of v.20, which is parallel in form to the pronouncement in v.18:

Verse 18 Verse 20
One of you will betray me,

one who is eating with me.

One of the Twelve,

one who is dipping with me in the same bowl.

The explicit reference to the dipping of the bread in the bowl of stewed fruit in v.20 serves to reinforce the allusion to Ps. 41:9. In the timing of Jesus’ pronouncement the incongruity of Judas’ intention with the intimacy of the paschal fellowship would be apparent to all who were present. Jesus’ generosity in sharing this sacred meal with his intimate friends thus stands in contrast to the hypocrisy of the traitor sketched in vv.10–11 and serves to recall the mistreatment of the poor sufferer in Ps. 41.

One of the major themes of Ps. 41 is the assurance of ultimate triumph over his enemies’ intentions that is given to the righteous sufferer (Ps. 41:10–12). The woe pronounced upon Judas is in line with this expectation and expresses profound sorrow and pity. In contrast to the blessing of the woman who wins a lasting memorial in accordance with the promise of Ps. 41:2 (Mk 14:9), Judas is assured of a contrary recompense (cf. Ps. 41:10). There is no vindictiveness in the pronouncement, for the recognition that the approaching death of the Son of Man is in harmony with Scripture serves to set the result of Judas’ treachery within the context of God’s design. The heinousness of Judas’ action, however, is not excused. While the Son of Man goes to his death in accordance with the divine plan, on the other hand it were better for his betrayer had he never been born. The purpose of Jesus’ poignant warning is not primarily to affirm the fate of Judas but to underscore his own assurance of vindication. Nevertheless, the betrayer is morally responsible for his action and for the horrible character of its consequences, both for Jesus and for himself.

It is remarkable that Judas is not mentioned by name in the account. He is not introduced as one who asked, “is it I?” nor is he identified as the betrayer by Jesus (cf. Matt. 26:25), and there is no reference to the fact that he left the room before the interpretation of the significance of the meal (cf. John 13:26–30). In Mark the stress falls rather upon the violation of the paschal fellowship by the presence of a traitor who must bear the onus of responsibility for his act, and upon Jesus’ knowledge that he will be betrayed by one of the Twelve and that his death is certain. This latter emphasis is set in the perspective of God’s redemptive action by the words of institution and the solemn oath which follow in verses 22–25.

The Institution of the Eucharist. The interpretation of detailed elements in the meal was a fixed part of the Passover liturgy conducted by the head of the household. This occurred after the meal had been served but before it was eaten. When Jesus lifted the platter of unleavened bread he may be presumed to have spoken the Aramaic formula prescribed in the liturgy: “This is the bread of affliction which our fathers ate in the land of Egypt. Let everyone who hungers come and eat; let everyone who is needy come and eat the Passover meal.” Each of the other elements was also introduced in the context of Israel’s experience in bondage. The bitter herbs served to recall the bitterness of slavery, the stewed fruit, which possessed the consistency and color of clay, evoked the making of bricks as slaves, while the paschal lamb provided a reminder of God’s gracious “passing over” of Israel in the plague of death that came to Egypt. While the wording of Jesus’ paschal devotions has not been preserved, it is evident that the disciples were prepared for understanding the significance of the words of institution preserved in verses 22–24 by the manner in which Jesus interpreted the components of the meal.

The blessing of God for the gift of bread immediately preceded the meal itself. The head of the family sat up from his reclining position, took a cake of unleavened bread, and recited the blessing over it in the name of all: “Praised be Thou, O Lord, Sovereign of the world, who causes bread to come forth from the earth” (Mishnah Berachoth VI. 1). Those present identified themselves with the blessing by saying “Amen.” The family-head then broke for each person present a piece and gave it to him, the bread passing from hand to hand until it reached all the guests. The distribution normally took place in silence, for the explanation of the elements belonged to the Passover devotions, not to the grace before the meal. Contrary to paschal custom, Jesus broke the silence by interpreting the significance of the bread in terms of his own person.

Interpreting the significance of the bread and wine varies by denomination. What is clear is that in the Catholic tradition.  As described in the Catechism of the Catholic Church §1323: “At the Last Supper, on the night he was betrayed, our Savior instituted the Eucharistic sacrifice of his Body and Blood. This he did in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the cross throughout the ages until he should come again, and so to entrust to his beloved Spouse, the Church, a memorial of his death and resurrection: a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity, a Paschal banquet ‘in which Christ is consumed, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us.” (original in Lumen Gentium 11). This is the language of covenant.

Following the main meal (cf. 1 Cor. 11:25) of the Passover, the head of the household rose again from his reclining position and exhorted those present to “Speak praises to our God, to whom belongs what we have eaten,” to which those present replied, “Praised be our God for the food we have eaten.” With his right hand he then took the third cup of red wine mixed with water, and with his eyes on the cup pronounced the prayer of thanksgiving on behalf of all, with the concluding words: “May the All-merciful One make us worthy of the days of the Messiah and of the life of the world to come. He brings the salvation of his king. He shows covenant-faithfulness to his Anointed, to David and to his seed forever. He makes peace in his heavenly places. May he secure peace for us and for all Israel. And say you, Amen.” After the company had affirmed their participation in the blessing with their “Amen,” Jesus passed the common cup from which all were to drink, and spoke the second word of institution.

Jesus’ saying relates the cup with the red wine to the renewal of the covenant between God and his people. The primary reference here is to Jesus’ blood shed in the context of covenant sacrifice. The reference to the covenant established in Jesus’ blood contains an allusion to Exod. 24:6–8, where the old covenant at Sinai was ratified by the sprinkling of sacrificial blood and serves to set the whole of Jesus’ messianic action in the light of covenant renewal. It also evokes Jer. 31:31–33 where God promises to establish a new covenant with his people in the last days. That promise is now sealed through Jesus’ action and the death it anticipates.

The saying over the cup directs attention to Jesus as the one who fulfills the divine will to enter into covenant fellowship with his people on a new and enduring basis. The latter part of the saying explains the vicarious character of Jesus’ death in terms of Isa. 53:12 and calls to mind the similar formulation of Mk 10:45. The “many” are the redeemed community who have experienced the remission of their sins in and through Jesus’ sacrifice and so are enabled to participate in the salvation provided under the new covenant. Jesus’ second gift to his disciples, then, is the assurance that he will be with them as their Savior who establishes the new order through his death. He freely yields his life in order that God’s will to save his people may be affected. By his prophetic action in interpreting these familiar parts of the ancient paschal liturgy Jesus instituted something new in which the bread and wine become the pledge of his real presence throughout time.

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