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The Lord’s Supper: Ancient Story, New Beginning

Image: Wikimedia Commons
Image: Wikimedia Commons

According to the accounts in Matthew, Mark and Luke, on the night before he died on the cross, Jesus celebrated a Seder, a Jewish Passover supper. Although Catholics know this Holy Thursday evening meal as the Lord’s Supper, Jesus and the Twelve were also celebrating the first night of Passover.

Born and raised in the Jewish faith, I became a Catholic over 10 years ago. Growing up, I celebrated many Passover Seders with my family. It came as no surprise to me that the Twelve expected Jesus to attend a Seder that evening. As Jews, they would be surprised if he did not. What they did not expect at this “last supper” was to hear him announce the eucharistic sacrifice of his body and blood. The apostles, called by Jesus, brought to this night of nights their Jewish traditions received from the Prophet Moses.

As a Catholic convert from Judaism, I carried these same traditions into my conversion and I felt the same call. As I prepared for my First Communion, this Passover Seder supper with Jesus and his 12 apostles took on a profoundly new meaning for me. Why did Jesus choose this ancient Jewish celebration to institute the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist?

To answer this question, I revisited my heritage to appreciate what experiences the Twelve brought to that Seder and what they heard there.

The Jewish Apostles

Jesus’ apostles viewed the world through their Jewish traditions, especially the great covenant that God gave to Moses and the Hebrews at Mt. Sinai. The heart of this covenant is: Keep my commandments and I will be your God. You shall be my special people if you obey my laws (see Exodus 19:5).

The Torah, the first five books of the Bible, contains the fundamental elements of Jewish law. In the centuries between the covenant at Mt. Sinai and Jesus’ birth, Jewish scholars expanded the Torah into a complex set of rules that governed nearly every aspect of daily life. The Twelve measured holiness mostly by how well someone understood and followed God’s law. As a child, I studied the Torah and was taught this same concept of holiness, and this remains true for many Jews today.

According to another Jewish tradition, the apostles were waiting for the coming of the Messiah (the “anointed one”). Directly descended from King David, the Messiah would conquer injustice and unite all people in peace (see Isaiah 11:1-9).

Palestine, home to the Jewish people, had come under the oppressive rule of the Roman Empire almost 100 years before Jesus began his ministry. Many Jews were praying for a Messiah who would lead the people in ending the Roman occupation of their land. For these first-century Jews, salvation was connected to the coming of the Messiah. I grew up in the 20th century, believing that we were still waiting for the Messiah to bring us salvation.

The Bible Passover

The Torah explains why the Passover Seder meant so much to the 12 apostles. As the Book of Exodus opens, the Israelites who were once welcomed into Egypt had become slaves. Fearing that the Hebrews, descended from Abraham and Sarah, had grown too strong, the pharaohs enslaved them with harsh labor for about 400 years.

Then God sent Moses to lead the people out of slavery, telling pharaoh that he spoke for the one, true, invisible God. Pharaoh, who worshiped idols and was used to being treated as a god himself, was not about to listen to Moses or any god he could not see. Even after God brought down nine plagues upon the Egyptians, pharaoh refused to let the Hebrews go. The 10th plague, however, brought death to every firstborn Egyptian.

To spare the Israelites and to prepare them for departure from Egypt, God instructed each family to obtain an unblemished lamb without any broken bones. After the lamb was slaughtered before the assembled people and its blood was applied to the doorways of their homes, the people were to be dressed and ready for travel, and to eat the lamb that night.

God carried out the 10th plague, but “passed over” the homes of the Israelite slaves, marked with the lamb’s blood (Exodus 12:1-13,46). Hearing great wailing over the dead in his city, pharaoh summoned Moses and told him to leave immediately with his people. The Hebrews left without waiting for their dough to rise for their daily bread (Exodus 12:34).

God commanded them to remember their freedom from slavery with a memorial feast observed annually by each generation, with pilgrimage to the Lord and a sacred assembly. During Passover’s seven days, nobody may eat leavened bread, as a reminder of the haste with which their ancestors had to leave Egypt. Eating bitter herbs recalls their harsh life as slaves, and roasted lamb links them to the animal that was sacrificed to save them.

Failing to observe this Passover feast meant a person would be “cut off from the community of Israel” (Exodus 12:14-20). Such sinners could not be allowed to remain in the community because their sin would contaminate everyone else.

Passover in Jesus’ Day

At the time of Jesus’ birth, about 12 centuries after Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt, the Jewish people were settled throughout Palestine (today Israel). As Passover drew near, those who were able made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and celebrated a Seder meal. The Hebrew word Seder means “order,” a reference to the meal’s prescribed order of special foods, symbolic liturgy and prayers. The Seder gathering fulfills God’s call for a sacred assembly, and those present bless and consume unleavened bread and wine.

At every Seder, a child asks: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” Then the elders recite the story of the Israelites’ enslavement, the coming of Moses, the night that God passed over their homes to strike down the Egyptians and their flight into the desert. This scripted tradition fulfills God’s command to tell the Exodus story to each generation (Exodus 12:26-27).

I still remember my childhood Seders. My grandmother cooked all week and served the meal with dishes and tableware used only at Passover. My great-grandfather, a deeply religious Russian Jew, had emigrated to America in 1899. He conducted our family Seders with an uncompromising zeal, making sure that nothing was changed or omitted.

If that was what the Twelve expected, they were in for a surprise. Jesus prepared them for a unique revelation at their last Passover supper together.

The Road to Holy Thursday

Jesus coaxed the apostles along a three-year journey of transformation and faith. They would carry on after him—minus one betrayer—and build his Church. Although Jesus tested their understanding of both the law and the Messiah, he did not reject their shared Jewish traditions. Instead, he fulfilled them, affirming what was of God while rejecting whatever was of man.

The apostles heard Jesus’ preaching, his parables and his challenge to Jewish religious leaders to examine whether their laws were centered on God. Jesus collapsed centuries of Jewish law into two simple principles: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself (see Matthew 22:34-40).

Jesus taught me that lawbreakers are no longer banished. They are shown mercy, invited to repent and welcomed back. Holiness is to be found not in mere obedience to the law, but also in how well one loves.

Many disciples followed Jesus, listening to his preaching and witnessing his miracles. Many called him Rabbi, “Teacher.” Some wondered aloud if he was the long-awaited Messiah, while others questioned how anyone who taught “Blessed are the meek” could lead them in battle against the Romans.

When a large crowd in Capernaum asked Jesus for a sign that he was the one sent from God, they reminded him of the bread or “manna” that their ancestors had received as a sign during the Exodus. After Jesus replied that true bread comes from his Father in heaven, the people asked for that bread.

Jesus, however, replied: “I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died….I am the living bread that came down from heaven….Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day” (John 6:48-51,54).

Finding the command to “eat my flesh and drink my blood” too difficult to accept, many disciples left Jesus. When he asked the Twelve if they also wanted to leave, Simon Peter answered for all of them: “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God”—that is, the Christ, the anointed one, the Messiah (John 6:67-69).

By recognizing Jesus as the Messiah, Peter made a fundamental leap of faith. The Jewish people had been waiting a long time for the Messiah, who they believed would usher in a new order. Even though Jesus was here, nothing had changed. The Romans still governed Palestine and people still died in Roman jails.

Jesus’ disciples changed when they began to understand that, in fact, he had come to establish a new order, where the merciful will receive mercy and the peacemakers will be called “children of God.” They did not arrive at this truth by logic or reasoning. It came from God because they were now ready to believe (Matthew 16:16-17).

Once I came to believe that Jesus was the Messiah awaited by my forefathers, this formed a powerful foundation for my decision to become a Catholic. Like Peter, I had to surrender my expectations about what it meant for me, a Jewish man, to encounter Jesus Christ and the mystery of faith. To my surprise, I found that Jesus was always there with me, waiting patiently for me to find him.

Once I believed in Jesus as Savior and Son of God, there was no turning back. When I read the New Testament for the first time as a Catholic, I felt as though I was walking with the Twelve each step of the way toward Easter Sunday. I was especially impressed by the events of Holy Week.

Jesus Enters Jerusalem

A week before the start of Passover, Jesus entered Jerusalem and soon went to the Temple to drive out the money changers, tipping over their tables and scattering their coins (Matthew 21:12-13). Jews from different regions needed to exchange their money into local currency to buy a lamb or other animal to offer as a Passover sacrifice.

The blood from these animals was collected in cups by the priests and poured onto the Temple altar. Based on Leviticus 17:11, the Jews believed that blood held special meaning because it was offered in atonement for their sins. By driving out the money changers, Jesus overturned the age-old custom of slaughtering animals for a sin offering.

Within the Temple area, Jesus repeatedly condemned those Jewish scholars and religious leaders who were hypocrites and blind guides (Matthew 23:13-36). He also predicted that the great Temple, where the Holy Ark of the Covenant once resided, would be destroyed, with no stone left standing (Matthew 24:1-2).

Finally, Jesus told his followers that he would be crucified in two days, at the start of Passover. In fact, some members of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish high court, were already plotting against Jesus. Unable to deal with Jesus and his radical teaching, which they viewed as blasphemy against God, the Sanhedrin concluded that Jesus must be executed (Matthew 26:1-5).

Now came the Lord’s Supper. Because the authorities were looking for Jesus, the air was charged with alarm. The apostles wondered: What will happen to Jesus, to the Messiah? And yet on the first night of Passover, everything stopped for the Seder. How would they observe it? Where would they observe it? Jesus knew their concerns and instructed the apostles how to find the place where they would celebrate the Passover (Matthew 26:17-19).

The Blood of the Lamb

The Twelve believed that they were simply gathering for a Seder, to commemorate the journey from slavery in Egypt and the great covenant with God at Mt. Sinai. They would bless, break and eat unleavened bread. They would bless and drink wine, remembering the blood of the unblemished lamb that saved their ancestors from the plague of death. The youngest in their group (probably Saint John) would ask: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” Then they would tell the Exodus story, the ancient story of salvation for the Jewish nation.

This night, indeed, became very different from all other nights. Jesus told the apostles that the blessed and broken bread was his body, and they were to eat it. He then told them that the wine he blessed was his blood, and they were to drink it. Like the blood of the lamb poured out by the priests on the altar, his blood would be shed for many for the forgiveness of sins.

I can imagine the silence in that room. Like me, these Jewish apostles had to absorb some startling new ideas. God had led the Jewish nation out of Egypt centuries ago, saved by the blood of sacrificial lambs, to free their ancestors from physical slavery. Jesus, the Son of God, had just announced that he would shed his blood to save all people from a greater slavery, a slavery to sin.

Jesus had also proclaimed a new covenant: Eat my body and drink my blood, and I will free you from the finality of death.

I now saw the Passover celebration with new eyes. Jesus is the Messiah, the incarnate law, the living Word of God. On this night he did not offer a parable. He spoke directly: Do this and you will have communion with me and life everlasting in the Kingdom of God. Jesus was instituting the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.

Within 24 hours, the apostles would see in Jesus the living transformation of their sacred Passover traditions. Like the lamb in Egypt, Jesus was sacrificed before the assembled people, and his bones were not broken (John 19:32-36). Although Jesus was beaten and scorned, he was unblemished by sin.

In the centuries following the Exodus from Egypt, Jews had sacrificed an untold number of lambs to atone to God for their sins. Now Jesus, the Lamb of God, became the ultimate sacrifice. Salvation is at hand. Christians no longer need to commemorate the journey out of Egypt, which remains important as a foreshadowing of our rescue from sin.

I realized my journey as a Jewish man was completed. It was the end of my Exodus and the beginning of my new life in Christ. My ancestral identity was merged into my new self-awareness as a Christian. I have received the Good News, and the Kingdom of God is truly at hand. In Jesus, there is a new beginning from an ancient story.

The final conversion of the Twelve from their Jewish roots to their new identity as Jesus’ followers began during that Holy Thursday Seder supper. Drawing on their bedrock Passover beliefs, Jesus initiated them into a sacramental life and a new relationship with God. In the days that followed, the apostles would unpack the parables and lessons they had learned from Jesus.

In my RCIA sessions, preparing to become Catholic, I would do the same. I rejoiced as I approached my Baptism and my First Communion. Through Jesus, I have a new covenant relationship with our Father in heaven. My ancestors ate manna in the desert, but they died. Through Jesus we triumph over death, for “whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” (John 6:54a).

Marc L. Greenberg worked as a corporate attorney for 25 years and is now business manager at St. Vincent Ferrer Parish in Cincinnati, Ohio. A musician, he is active in catechetical and liturgical ministries while also serving as a spiritual director and conducting parish Seders during Lent. He and his wife, Sharon, have a blended family of six children. This article appeared in the April 2010 edition of St. Anthony Messenger.