Eucharistic Appetizer: The Last Supper

Eucharistic Appetizer  •  Sermon  •  Submitted
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Introduction to a 10-part series on "The Eucharist" in short form (5-10 minutes) as a precursor to an evening of reflection on Prayer & Presence. Chosen to compliment the 3-year USCCB Eucharistic Revival

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Continuing where we left off...

Good evening!
*First off, a big thank you to Meaghan for her phenomenal words in December on the Eucharistic nuggets in Jesus’ early ministry. She helped us see a lot of those clues that God sets out for us as He prepares our hearts for the Eucharist.
But, how do we get from the signs and wonders of Jesus in his early ministry to the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist as we understand it today?
The key is the *Paschal Triduum, and this evening, we’ll start with the Last Supper, the Passover meal that Jesus shared with his 12 apostles the night before he died...
But, before we get there…with the theme of this evening being “memory,” it’s important to understand *what Passover meant to the Jewish people in the 1st century and how the concept of memory functioned in the spirituality of Judaic worship.
The Passover story occurs in Chapter 12 of the Book of Exodus, and in Exodus 12:14, the people are commanded to memorialize the day as a feast to the Lord. This term “memorial” doesn’t have a simple translation in English. *It conveys a sort of breaking of the space-time continuum where a past event is relived in the present as a promise for the future. The closest way that I’ve heard it analogized is that our English word “memorial” is like a wedding anniversary, whereas the Jewish understanding of “memorial” is more like the renewal of marriage vows. You’re not merely acknowledging a past event (like an anniversary), and you’re not getting married over again in a sacramental sense, but you’re having a formal ceremony where you call to the present the vows you’ve made in the past, renewing them again, with an eye towards your future together.
*So, this is what is being done during the Passover where each individual considers themselves as part of that first Exodus in the past through the Passover ritual being performed in the present in the hope of future deliverance. So, with that concept of collective, transcendental, living memory in mind, let’s examine what we know from the Bible about the Last Supper.
*At the start of Luke chapter 22, Jesus calls on his disciples Peter and John to prepare the Passover. This preparation entails a great deal of ritual, namely the procuring and sacrificing of the Passover lamb, in Greek, the Paschal lamb. *This sacrifice could only occur in one place, the temple. According to Flavius Josephus, a first century historian, there were roughly 250,000 lambs sacrificed in the temple complex on the Passover feast day. Can you imagine? What an assault on the senses!
*In order to accomplish sacrifice on this scale, there would have been an assembly line of men bringing their lambs to priests who would cut the lamb’s throat, pour out it’s blood, and hand the lamb’s body back to take home for roasting.
Two key points pertaining to the Last Supper here: First, blood, in the Jewish tradition, carries the life of a being…it’s most intimate characteristic. So, the blood of the sacrifice belongs to God and can only be poured out at the temple by a priest. The second point is that the sacrifice ritual is not considered completed until the lamb’s flesh is consumed by the faithful. This requirement is repeated 5 separate times in the Bible: *it is not merely a sacrifice but a meal where the faithful must participate by eating the flesh of the Paschal lamb.
Now, there’s so much in the Last Supper that we could discuss that points to the Eucharist, but for brevity’s sake, we’re going to focus on what we call the words of institution.
Remember, that the Passover meal is a liturgy, so the words are formulaic. They’re said the same way every year. *So, the disciples would be expecting Jesus to say and do the formula of Passover, the same formula they would have heard all their lives.
As would have been tradition, Jesus, the Passover host, took the unleavened bread and gave thanks. This action and prayer would have been in line with millenia of Jewish tradition for the Passover. But, instead of gesturing to the flesh of the lamb and describing it as the “body of the Passover” or describing the unleavened bread as the bread of the Exodus, Jesus calls the bread “MY body.” He doesn’t say that the bread offered for the Chosen people but, very personally for YOU, those seated in the room. Jesus doesn’t say that the breaking of the bread is in remembrance of what Adonai does for the Chosen people but in remembrance of ME, Jesus.
This would have been shocking, to change the words of this ritual and to take the focus off of Adonai, the historic Exodus, and the nation of Israel and place the focus on Jesus himself and the 12 other men in the room. All of that would have been unsettling to the disciples, but not nearly as shocking as this next bit...
As I said earlier, blood was sacred in the Jewish tradition because the life force of a being was in the blood. Any Jew who came into contact with blood outside of the temple context was considered unclean and shunned from worship, so it was a BIG deal. *In the Passover of the Last Supper, it would be traditional for the host to raise the final cup of wine, called the cup of blessing, and offer praise to Adonai. *But Jesus says this cup is “poured out”…that language is indicative of what the Levitical priests would do with the blood of the sacrifice in the temple. So, the apostles would know that Jesus is referencing a priestly role here. That would be heretical enough, it’s well-established that Jesus would have no claim to the Levitical heritage required to be a 1st century Jewish priest, but he goes on to call this cup the NEW COVENANT IN MY BLOOD and instructs his disciples to drink from that cup. This would have seemed scandalous: to proclaim a new covenant, which we’ll discuss more when we consider the crucifixion, but Jesus goes on to say that his blood is in the cup that needs to be drunk by his disciples.
*Interestingly enough, the reason that the Jews should not contact blood is EXACTLY why Jesus instructs his followers to drink his blood, because as we discussed, the life, the intimacy of another is in the blood, so it would make sense, from the perspective of the fulfillment of the Jewish covenants, to establish an intimate covenant with Jesus, his followers would need to pour out and drink HIS blood. John 6:56.
This is the covenant that we bring to memory at every Mass. Through that ritual, we become part of that sacred meal in the upper room. We are making present that past moment in the hope of our future with God in heaven. It is through that ritual that we call ourselves truly brothers and sisters in Christ, with the same blood, the same life flowing through our veins through the Eucharist we consume.
But, Jesus’ sacrifice wasn’t merely the institution of a new ritual at the Last Supper. At the beginning, I said the key was the Triduum, and we have a few more days to journey with Jesus before He makes it clearer how his followers are supposed to access his body-bread and wine-blood, and that will be our discussion next time.
For now, let us pray...
Dear Heavenly Father,
Thank you for the gift of memory, for allowing us to share in your own concept of time that exists yesterday, today, and always, through memorial as we do at the sacrifice of the Mass. Help us to accept, in faith, what your Son instructed of us, to eat his flesh and drink his blood. We thank you and praise you for the gift of the new covenant through your Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen,
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