The Passover Meal

The account of Jesus’ last supper is an important and key narrative in the Christian community. It provides the foundation of our Eucharistic celebration, a poignant theology of the Messiah’s death, and more. In our Catholic tradition, Jesus’ words convey the sacramental understanding of Real Presence of Christ in our celebrations. These ten short verses contain more than a simple commentary can provide.

14 When the hour came, he took his place at table with the apostles. 15 He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer, 16 for, I tell you, I shall not eat it (again) until there is fulfillment in the kingdom of God.” 17 Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and said, “Take this and share it among yourselves; 18 for I tell you (that) from this time on I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” 19  Then he took the bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which will be given for you; do this in memory of me.” 20 And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which will be shed for you.”

21 “And yet behold, the hand of the one who is to betray me is with me on the table; 22 for the Son of Man indeed goes as it has been determined; but woe to that man by whom he is betrayed.” 23 And they began to debate among themselves who among them would do such a deed. (Luke 22)

In these brief notes we should remember as Fr. Donald Senior notes: “Luke’s Gospel delights in portraying Jesus at meals: the supper in the house of Simon the Pharisee where the woman had anointed Jesus and washed his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair, and in turn received the gift of unconditional forgiveness (7:36-50); meals with sinners that provoked the ire of his opponents (15:1-2); breaking bread with the crowds who hungered for his word (9:10-17).”  While Christian denominations have debated which congregation faithfully celebrates Jesus’ intention of that last meal, we should remember that this meal is an eloquent sign of Jesus’ entire mission – the gathering of one people, breaking one bread in order that all might be one in God.

Luke Timothy Johnson (Luke, 342) explains:

“Nowhere in Luke’s story is there such a weight of interpretation given to every gesture, and nowhere is this interpretation so thoroughly self-referential as here.  Note for example, Jesus’ first statement over the cup (22:17), He blesses the cup. He passes it to his apostles, telling them to “share it among yourselves” since he will not drink it again until the kingdom of God comes. The symbolism of sharing implicit in drinking from the same cup is here exploited to signify…the role of the disciples after Jesus’ death… [A]t one level, this is an implicit bestowal of authority and fellowship, for such was the status of those who drank from the same cup as the king… The apostles are to continue Jesus’ authority after the resurrection.

At another level, sharing equally in the cup signifies as well as a sharing in the suffering of the Messiah, for as we will shortly learn, this is the cup of suffering in which his blood is being poured out for them…. It is also, in a very real sense, through the fellowship meals of believers that Jesus as the resurrected one will share again in the fruit of the vine of the kingdom of God. The time of “final liberation” will come only with the return of the Son of Man (21:28); but in the meals of the community, the “liberation” accomplished by Jesus will be realized.”

But the words of blessing over the cup: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which will be shed for you” is rich in reference – first of all to the Passover celebration itself. Each of the fours cups in the Passover celebration mingle praise for God and petitions for the people – all centered on the elemental experience of liberation that was the Exodus. It was an escape from Egypt, but more it was the formation of a people made explicit in the giving of the Torah, establishing the covenant, and the promise of a land. Just as the covenant was sealed by the sacrificial blood then, it is by the giving of life in sacrifice that a regeneration of God’s people can take place.


22:14 with the apostles: In this verse Luke makes three subtle changes (to Mark 14:17)

  • the hour” replaces “when evening came” – Luke’s solemn proclamation of the “hour,” a recurring marker of importance in his gospel (cf. 1:10, 2:38, 7:21, 10:21, 12:12, 12;39, 12:40, 12:46, and 13;31), also makes the contrast to the betrayal in the Garden: “this is your hour, the time for the power of darkness.” (22:53)
  • apostles” replaces “the twelve” – perhaps this is some later sensitivity to the betrayal of Judas, but given Luke’s missionary imperative, he is connecting apostleship (being sent) with the centrality of the  Eucharistic setting.
  • the apostles recline with Jesus rather than he with them emphasizing the central role of Jesus as teacher and host.

22:15 eagerly desired: epithymia epethymesa literally is “I have desired with desire”

this Passover: Luke clearly identifies this last supper of Jesus with the apostles as a Passover meal that commemorated the deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. Jesus reinterprets the significance of the Passover by setting it in the context of the kingdom of God (Luke 22:16). The “deliverance” associated with the Passover finds its new meaning in the blood that will be shed (Luke 22:20).

before I suffer: this constitutes a reminder of the three predictions of his suffering and death and points to the deeper significance of the meal. This is unique to Luke.

22:16 until there is fulfillment in the kingdom of God: The natural subject of fulfillment is the Passover meal itself. This then raises the question on how the fulfillment will occur. There are two possibilities:

  • An eschatological banquet (cf. 13:29 and 14:15-24) in which the Passover liberation theme is complete when the time of the Second Coming and there is true liberation.
  • The celebration of the Eucharistic meals by the Christian community at which the risen Lord is present.
  • …and of course, in true Catholic tradition, both together.

22:17 gave thanks: eucharisteo which refers to the berekah or blessing prayer spoken over the elements at the Jewish meal

a cup: Luke has two blessings over “a cup” – one before and one after the breaking of the bread (cf. vv.17, 20) – where the other gospels have one cup blessing followed by the breaking of the bread.  According to most ancient discussions of the Passover there are four cups of wine.  Each has its own blessing

22:18 I shall not drink…until the kingdom of God comes: This phrase appears to echo one of the later cup blessings in which the berekah prays that God will reign over the people of Israel for ever and ever. This gives a context for the earlier command to share the cup among all present.

22:19 took…blessing…broke…gave: This is the same sequence in the feeding of the multitudes in 9:16.  Luke is identical to the other synoptic gospels save one respect. Where the others use eulogeo (bless), Luke uses eucharisteo (give thanks).  Luke’s narrative is closer to the Pauline description in 1 Cor 11:24 than the other synoptic gospel accounts.

This is my body, which will be given for you: In the Passover haggadah (the telling of the story) the words interpret the bread as “because our fathers were redeemed from Egypt.” These words are told before the bread is broken and given – for that part there are no words. When Jesus speaks these words he is proclaiming that his own body will be broken for redemption.  In the Catholic understanding, this also points to the Eucharist where the Body and Blood of Christ are sacramentally present.

22:19c-20 which will be given . . . do this in memory of me: these words are omitted in some important Western text manuscripts and a few Syriac manuscripts. Other ancient text types, including the oldest papyrus manuscript of Luke dating from the late second or early third century, contain the longer reading presented here. The Lucan account of the words of institution of the Eucharist bears a close resemblance to the words of institution in the Pauline tradition (see 1 Cor 11:23-26) which was written some 30 years prior to Luke.

22:19 do this in memory of me: the “do” in this verse is in the present imperative and is thus a command to continue the practice. The word anamnesis is more than simple memory.  While certainly requiring a longer explanation, in haggadic liturgical use, the Hebrew zakaron (which the LXX translates as anamnesis) is far more than psychological memory. The biblical concept of anamnesis is not an abstract concept or mere recollection, but in the Old Testament it is always closely bound up with an action. Remembrance is not only an activity which is concerned with the past, but one commits the will, soul and body to that past which is being made present (cf. Isa 47:7 and Eccl 11:8). It is neither a question of aesthetic recollection nor of epistemological speculation, but rather that a person remembers God means that he or she is placed in a context—a context which consists of God’s activity in the past, the present and the future – in a single moment which exists before us.

22:20 the new covenant in my blood: the covenant (berith/diatheke) is a binding relationship and is the central bond of loyalty and love between God and his people.  The OT symbolism of blood is the divine principle of life: “without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb 9:22). That Jesus points to this new covenant being formed in his blood means that “divine blood” is being poured out – not only for forgiveness – but also a source of divine life.  What has previously prohibited (drinking blood, that which is reserved to and returned to God) is now freely given.

shed for you: The OT background of the phrase in 22:20, “in my blood which will be shed for you” (en tō haimati mou to hyper hymōn ekchynnomenon), is less clear. Scholars see (1) a material allusion to the sacrificed paschal lamb, with its redemptive shedding of blood, thus to Exod. 12:6–7, 13 (2) a material allusion to the bloody sacrifice that established the Mosaic covenant, thus to Exod. 24:8; Zech. 9:11; (3) a verbal allusion to the Hebrew text of Isa. 53:12 (Suffering Servant); and (4) a phrase that simply expresses violent death.

22:22 as it has been determined: Jesus has made clear the necessity that the Son of Man suffer (9:44, 17:25). The perfect participle of orizo shows that this is God’s will that directs events.


  • Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, vol. 3 of Sacra Pagina, ed. Daniel J. Harrington (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991) 336-85.
  • Donald Senior, The Passion of Jesus Christ, an unpublished booklet
  • Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995)
  • Scripture quotes from New American Bible

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