Holy Thursday

Meaning of the last supper- John 13

I would like tonight to look as closely as I can at the original meaning Jesus gave to the last supper, in contrast with meanings of it that understandably developed in early Christian groups after his resurrection.  We are dealing with an inexhaustible mystery, and many meanings have been suggested for it, and all of them have something to tell us.  But history is history, and tonight we want, as far as we can, to understand Jesus at this supper in his own historical and Jewish context.

I recognise that in all the Synoptic Gospels the last supper is presented as a Passover meal.  In Jn it is not, but is rather a meal on the day before the Passover.  For Jn it was on the evening before the evening when the Jewish Passover meal would have been held.  For Jn, then, it is not a paschal meal.  I think there is value in following Jn here, and I have grown to believe that his dating is more historically right than that of the Synoptics.  I think that we can explain (later in this talk) how and why the Synoptics gave the meal a paschal colouring and a properly paschal dating. 
I am warming to the view that Jn knew the story in Mark (which the synoptics follow), and in Paul too in 1 Cor 11.  He alludes, and more, to the supper in Jn 6 (the bread of life), in Jn 15 (the true vine), and Jn 21 (the resurrection meal).  He doesn’t tell of the ‘institution of the Eucharist’, as we call it, in his story of the last supper (as the synoptics do).  We can have at look at some reasons for that.


During this last supper, Jesus took bread and wine and said it was his body and blood, and gave it to his disciples, and told them to eat and drink it.  That is the core of our faith as Christians.  But what did it mean to Jesus himself as a Jew, and to the Jews who were at table with him on that night?

As a preliminary, I need to say that blood was something special for Jews.  It was not just alive (they thought that ‘the life is in the blood’), it belonged to the God of Life and to that God alone. Blood (Hebrew: dema) was sacred.  That was true of the blood of animals, and it was far more true of human blood.  As a result, no Jew would ask another Jew to drink blood.  It was repugnant to do so, a religious offence, about as bad as blasphemy.  A shocking thing.
In Jesus’ time, good Jews expected the coming of the Kingdom of God.  They thought and hoped and prayed that it would come soon, possibly at Passover time. They knew that when it did come, it would offer them all a festal – ‘paschal’ - meal in Jerusalem. 

Jesus had the practice of having meals with those around him – it was possibly the most significant thing he did, and it was more important than his healings or his teachings. In these meals, he was all inclusive.  Everyone, no matter who he or she was, was welcome.  No one was unacceptable.  This could be said to be the core of his message.  That was what angered those opposed to this universality.  You could say that he died because they objected to the way he had his meals. 

Jews were in the habit of having sacrifices offered at the Jerusalem temple.  At the temple of Jerusalem, sacrifices were offered by the temple priests.  For that they needed animals, pure animals, and these were available for purchase (with special temple money obtained – at an exchange price - from money lenders there) by pilgrims in the temple area.  People, peasants from the country, came and bought these animals, and then took them to the priests to slaughter and to offer in sacrifice. It was the flesh and blood of these animals that they offered through the priests.  When the priests did that offering, they said something like ‘this is so-and-so’s animal’. This put the ordinary people one step removed from actually offering their own animals themselves: only the priests could offer their bought animals for them. 

Jesus strongly disagreed with this practice.  He honoured the temple and its sacrifices.  He respected the priests.  But he believed that every Jew had the right to offer his own animal, to offer its flesh and blood to God – and not to be limited to animals bought from the priests for that purpose, animals the priests would then offer.  Behind this was his idea of purity.  It was not right, Jesus thought, to say that only ‘priests’ animals’ were pure enough to be offered.  All animals, from all farms, from all peasants, were as pure as any others.  That is why Jesus upset the tables of the money changers in the temple.  They were enabling people to buy the special animals, and so upholding the system and saying that the people had no right to offer their own. Jesus was not taking the place of the priests in what he did at the supper, or starting a new group of similar priests: he was affirming the right of all Jews everywhere to offer their own property – and the life of their own animals - directly to God. 

It is possible that some of Jesus’ followers (perhaps Judas, and/or others) were disaffected by the stand Jesus took, and informed the authorities.  I am sure the authorities (chief priests themselves) were upset by this, but they saw it as an acted out debate about purity and perhaps just liturgy, and they did not take action immediately against Jesus. 

After that, Jesus never returned to the temple.  But he gathered some of his friends for a meal.  In fact it would be the final one.  In that meal, he did a new ritual with bread and wine, something neither he nor anyone else had previously done.  It was as if he were telling the group, we won’t go to the temple any more, it has missed the point, so let’s say that this bread and wine is as good a substitute as we can get for the body and blood of a special animal in a temple sacrifice.  Let the bread replace, for us, the body of that animal, and let the wine replace, for us, the blood of that animal.  In fact, Jesus was equivalently saying, I think it is a better sacrifice to do it this way – it is less violent!  The bread stood for the ‘flesh’ that was offered (Hebrew: bisra) and the wine stood for the ‘blood’ that flowed (Hebrew: dema). 

That, I think, is Jesus’ own original and historical understanding of what he did.  When the authorities discovered this, they would perhaps have thought he was starting a new religion that was not true Jewish second-temple religion: he had changed the central temple rite.  They moved on him immediately and arrested him before he could get home from that meal.


After Easter, perhaps some time or even well after Easter, various groups of believers in Jesus began to do the ritual he had done that night, to keep alive his memory.  He had told them to do so.  We can look at the Peter group, at the James group, at the Paul groups, and at some later ones.

The Peter group (as we can read in Matthew) saw Jesus as the New Moses.  Moses had sealed the Covenant between the people of Israel and their God.  Moses had done that with blood (Ex 24, 6-8).  So this group, when they interpreted the ritual Jesus had done at the last supper, the same ritual they were now doing in his memory, saw Jesus using the wine (equivalent to blood) to seal a new and everlasting kind of covenant between them and Jesus and his God.  The wine was the equivalent of covenant blood.  They were ratifying that covenant.  At mass, at the consecration, we say the blood of Jesus is the blood of the ‘new and everlasting covenant’…Those words come from Matthew. 

The James group’s main interest was to maintain the purity of their group – that is, to keep it exclusive to circumcised Jewish males who believed in Jesus.  So in their enactment of the supper ritual, they wanted to restrict the sharing in the meal to such Jews.  Non-Jews who believed in Jesus were not admitted.  That is why they interpreted what they did (and what Jesus had done) in the light of the Jewish Passover from Egypt.  That is why they did the ritual on the evening when all Jews celebrate the Passover Meal.  That is why they used the Seder (Jewish ritual for the Passover meal) for their meal.  It is interesting that as far we can discern, at Jesus’ final meal there was no lamb, no unleavened bread, and no bitter herbs.  But these ‘essentials’ of the Passover meal were there in the James group’s ritual meal in memory of Jesus.  It was this James group that seems to have given a paschal character to the ritual of the supper.   Obviously, it has remained in our traditions.

Paul fought for the admission of non-Jewish believers to the Christian church and its ritual, on equal footing with Jewish believers in Jesus.  The foundation of their presence was faith, not ethnicity (or gender). They could and should all come to the same meal.  That is why Paul’s groups celebrated the last supper of Jesus not as a Paschal Meal on the evening of Passover, but on an earlier evening around that time, on ‘the night when he was betrayed’.  In doing so, they thought they were very much acting as Jesus had done. 

When the narrative of the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus developed, and even more when it became part of the gospel story, astonishment at the death of Jesus tended to overshadow the memory of his words and teachings.  He had indeed given his body and blood on the cross.  We are talking now of his own real body and his own real blood.  As the gospels put it, he shed that blood for the many (that is, the many different nationalities of ethnics, as well as the Jews) and, as Paul would put it, for you (the ones who primarily made up the Pauline communities and were there at Eucharist). For John in his gospel, chapter 6, to eat this body and drink this blood, that is to interiorize and assimilate them, is the sine qua non of eternal life.  So the bread they used in the ritual they thought of as being Jesus’ own body, and the wine they used in the ritual they thought of as being Jesus’ own blood.  In the Greek of the gospels, soma means body, not exactly flesh (in Greek sarx – flesh - conveys the Hebrew sense of bisri – the fragility and dependency of it on God), and aima means blood (Hebrew: dema), but they point to and mean the real body and blood of (the risen) Jesus now.

Much later, as Pauline Christianity spread throughout the Greek cities and around the Mediterranean, it was natural for local people to interpret the supper ritual in terms of meals that took place in the worship of the pagan gods they knew.  There were many such Hellenistic gods.  To worship these gods, they had many ‘mystery cults’ that included meals.  They celebrated the death and rising of a god.  The ritual enabled people to participate in that ‘mystery’.  A good example is the god Dionysius.  He gave himself to his devotees as flesh and blood.  Post-Pauline Christians in some places interpreted the supper they shared together in this light, and thus they looked to their pagan neighbours like a new religious sect with a new ‘mystery’ ritual. 

It would seem unnecessary for us now to think in terms of those ancient pagan mystery cults.  We can let those interpretations remain in their own historical context.  But somehow, through the whole development of many ongoing interpretations of the supper, a sense of the realism of Jesus’ presence, in body and blood, has come through to us, and we rightly – and gratefully - regard it as a core part of our faith.  The bread-breaker has become our broken bread.  We commune with HIM.

When, on Holy Thursday evening, we go back and look again at what Jesus meant by it all, I hope we might experience, not just the realism of it, but also the openness and the gentleness of it all.  The openness: it is a normal peasant meal.  Like all peasant meals of people ‘in the country’, the gate is always open to the traveller and the wanderer, and there’s a place for them all at table.  I imagine Jesus to be almost overcome by the ‘all-in’ character of God in this.  I can imagine there being a real conviviality at the supper, with no one left out.  The gentleness: there is no violence intended or dramatized here.  This is not bloody sacrifice (in the temple sense).  It is not even bloody sacrifice in a non-bloody manner.  It is intrinsically non-violent, in the most positive way – in the way of gentleness.  Jesus has invented tonight a form of ‘sacrifice’ (note the quotation marks) that is new because it is not violent, and gentle through and through. 

He is here, in that realism, with us tonight. He is here, in that openness, with us tonight.  He is here, in that gentleness, with us tonight.  Welcome, whoever you are tonight, to the supper of the Lord.  Take and eat, take and drink, it is the body and the blood of the Lord.

Holy Thursday night – after the liturgy is over

Lamentation

O all ye who pass by the way, attend and see, if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow
- Lam 1,12

There was a time when the church entered into a time of lament on Holy Thursday evening, for the loss of its Lord.  It was a time of prayer in darkness.  The liturgy was known as ‘tenebrae’: it is the Latin word for ‘many darknesses’.  Incipit lamentatio…let the lament begin…the lament for Jesus, gone from us.

There is a very Jewish background of this.

There was a Jewish tradition of lamentation: the Christian church inherited it.  It was a lament for the destruction of Jerusalem.  Alas, Jerusalem, the holy city, is destroyed, at the beginning of the Exile.  Elegies were sung for it, by the rivers of Babylon.  Their lament eternalized that act of destruction, and included every catastrophe that ever befell Israel, past, present, and future….indeed every destruction of every dream. 

Israel is alone, lonely, ashamed like a shamed woman, abandoned by all her lovers, emptied of all that had been held dear, mocked, disgraced, without grace, numb, forlorn, a thing unclean.  Her heart is sick.  ‘Is there any agony like mine?’ (Lam 1,12).  In the Hebrew of the Book of Lamentations, the second part of each line seems to die away, giving a special cadence that evokes a plaintive melancholy. Laments over destroyed cities were frequent in the Ancient Near East (laments over the cities of Ur and Sumer are found in the Hebrew bible itself), but this lament is unique.  Jerusalem is not one more human city.  It is the place of the presence of the Lord.  It is now the place where the Lord is no longer present.  The heart of Israel is sick.  Its God is gone. 

The Lamentations in the bible (five of them) date from after the destruction and the exile (586) and were in all likelihood collected around 520 after the return.  The author(s) is anonymous. 
The Lamentations are often linked with Jeremiah, the priest prophet who led Israel for 40 years from the time of Josiah to that of Zedekiah, and who grappled more than anyone with the implications of the destruction of the city and the nation.  Most people in the second temple period assumed Jeremiah had written the lamentations. Incipit lamentatio Jeremiae prophetae….

In the gospels, only Matthew ever refers to Jeremiah by name, and Matthew takes from Jeremiah his attitude to the passion of Jesus.  When Jerusalem fell again, this time to the Romans in 70 ce, the people thought immediately of its fall in 586.  The lamentations were sung again. 

Why is this lament so deep?

The Lamentations do not hide the reason.  God did it.  God did to us.  God did it to us to punish us. God did it to us for our sins.  There is no attempt to exonerate the people.  It is a confession of guilt, even without specifying what they did wrong, and without argument about their responsibility.  God has moved against Israel.  The Lord has acted without pity (Lam 2,2). There is no possible comforter (Lam 1,16). 

But the Lament is so deep there is hope of a new kind, indeed it is more than hope….’The kindness of the Lord has not ended, His mercies are not spent, they are renewed every morning, ample is your grace!

You have turned my lament into dancing…
- Lam 21,23

Perhaps the classic lament in the consciousness of Israel is that of David for the dead Saul and Jonathan (2 Sam).  David has defeated the Amalakites.  An Amalakite comes from the battlefield to David, with his clothes rent, with earth on his head, and flings himself to the ground.  He confesses that Saul is dead, that he himself saw it, that he witnessed it, indeed that he was a participant in his death, that he ‘finished him off’, so that Saul would never rise from where he was lying.  He hands the crown and armlet of King Saul to David, the King. 

David cannot cope with the message.  He kills the messenger.

Then he sings The Song of the Bow.  [No commentator seems to know the meaning of ‘the Bow’ or why it is the title of this lament.]  He laments not for Israel as a people or even for those slain in battle, but personally for Saul and Jonathan.  The lament lacks national and religious motifs.  It is purely personal.  He addresses Israel, but Israel cannot hear his lament or respond to it.  He does not mention the name of the Lord. 

Tell it not in Gath, or in Ashkelon, or on the hills of Gilboa.  Saul and Jonathan never parted, in life or in death.  They were swifter than eagles, stronger than lions. How the mighty ones have fallen.  Weep, weep over Saul…

Jonathan, slain on your heights, I grieve for you my brother Jonathan, you were most dear to me, your love was wonderful to me, more than the love of women.


The same kind of lament comes again from David when Absalom is slain.  David had instructed his officers, watch over my boy Absalom for my sake.  A messenger comes, and says, I saw a large crowd gathered, but I don’t know what it was about.  It was about the slaying of Absalom.  David laments: ‘My son Absalom, O my son, my son Absalom, if only I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!’

There is a deeply personal touch in these laments.  David, personally, laments for them as persons.


Jesus himself lamented over Jerusalem.  He said that the Shekinah (the divine presence) would depart from the house of Israel, and he embodied its removal by walking out of the temple himself. 

Matthew reflects on the death of Jesus, by recalling the murder of a prophet Zechariah who was stoned in the temple of Jerusalem.  He goes on to recall all the righteous blood that has been shed in the midst of Jerusalem, at the instigation of her own religious establishment.  Matthew has always presented Jesus as the righteous (dikaios) one (indeed Joseph his father was said by Matthew to be just).  Jesus’ righteous blood is shed in and by Jerusalem. They gave Jesus on the cross some gall to drink, or wine mixed with gall (Mk) or with myrrh (Mt).  Remember the gift of the Magi. 

Mt addresses his lament to those who pass by that way….to us, who are passersby tonight, in our secular city without God.  The Gospel of Thomas has a logion of Jesus, ‘be passers by…’


Jesus laments for Jerusalem, as if its God has gone, and has died.  It is a personal grief – Jesus, in person, laments for the person of the God that has gone.  In Gethsemane he is said to be ‘grieving’ (Greek: lupeo).  He is ‘deeply grieved’ (Greek: perilupos).  He ‘falls on his face’ – in deep respect and reverence.

The church, on this night each year, laments, personally, for the person of Jesus who has gone.

I believe it is in the Italian and Spanish Baroque era (say, 1600 -1750) that Christian spirituality has known how to touch the extreme feeling in this.  Earlier, monks had indeed known how to grieve the loss of an ‘ordinary’ humanness they might have had, had they not become monks.  They had learnt detachment from both agony and ecstasy.  In the Baroque times, art, imagination, language, and a new sense of a new humanness invited believers to taste the romance of ecstasy in the love of a loving God.  But they did not get to it easily.  They had to know something of an annulment of love itself, a grieving for the loss of any ordinary-personal touch in it, even and especially the personal touch of their God.  They had to grieve for that God, and in their grief discover a love and a joy that no grief and no God could take away.  As Jesus had done, in his passion.   

There is a prayer known well by Jews as the Qaddish (the Holy).  It is sung at funerals and memorial services.  It is a lamentation, in which there is much, much more than grief.  It is discovery, and much more than discovery of God.

May his great Name be exalted and sanctified
in the world which he created according to his will.
May he establish his Kingdom
and may his salvation blossom and his Anointed be near,
during your lifetime and during your days,
and during the lifetimes of all the House of Israel,
speedily and very soon. 
And say: AMEN

May his great Name be blessed
forever, and to all eternity.
blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded,
May the Name of the holy one (blessed be he) be above and beyond
all the blessings, hymns, praises and consolations
that are uttered in the world.
And say: AMEN.

        Yitgaddal veyiqaddosh shmeh rabba

        Magnified and sanctified be the GREAT NAME