The Last Supper

by frankbeswick

Jesus' Last Supper with his disciples has a key role in Christian history, as it was when he instituted the Eucharist.

Table fellowship plays a key role in human societies, for example Aristotle said that we should not call people friends until we have shared salt together. In Jewish society there were certain sacred meals, one of which was the Passover, [Pesach] which celebrated the Hebrew's escape from Egyptian slavery. The Last Supper was a Passover ceremony celebrated according to the Galilean festival timetable, a few days ahead of the Judean one. It has a seminal place in the Christian story.

Photo courtesy of Falco

The Assembled Community.

Today is Spy Wednesday, and tomorrow the Christian church celebrates Maundy Thursday, Jesus' gathering with his twelve apostles to eat their final meal. Or were there only twelve apostles present? While Matthew 26 has Jesus eating with the twelve apostles, Mark 14 has Jesus speaking of a large upper room. Well, you could get thirteen at squeeze into my living room, which is not very large, so why have a large one unless there were more than just the apostles at the supper? We know that some women were with Jesus, and so, as the Passover is a meal for the assembled community, male and female, why would Jesus have excluded his own mother and other treasured women, such as Mary Magdalene? Moreover, Mark's Gospel says that Jesus was eating the meal with his disciples, a group wider than the twelve. So I believe that a larger group was present at the supper.  

The basis of the idea that only the apostles were present at the Last Supper is that it was then that Jesus instituted the priesthood, which has been traditionally male, so women could not have been present, but that is a weak argument, for the last supper was the first Eucharist, the ceremony in which the Christian community bands together. At this all members are welcome, so it is necessary that there were both women and men present at the supper.

So what is the significance of the Last Supper for Christianity? Like its sister faith, Judaism, Christianity is a community religion, and both of these faiths believe that religion involves being  member of  sacred community centred round God. Judaism is a faith founded on God's covenant with the sacred people of Israel; while Christianity celebrates the new covenant with all humankind instituted by Christ. Each of these faiths has its covenant meal; the Jews have the Passover feast to celebrate their liberation from slavery in Egypt; the Christians have their own Eucharist to celebrate Jesus' death and resurrection in which God took upon himself what the powers of evil could throw at him and came out victorious at the resurrection. The Jews celebrate the Passover once a year; Christians celebrate the Eucharist almost everyday, Good Friday being the exception.

Jesus must have enjoyed table fellowship with his disciples, where the assembled group gathered around their master, humans congregating around the incarnate word of God.But at the Last Supper a change was wrought. As this was to be the final meal that he would eat before his death he announced that the meal was to be in memory of him and that the bread and wine were his body and blood. The word for memorial is anamnesis, which mean a reliving, so the implication is that somehow Jesus' presence is relived in the Eucharistic ceremony and the church has taken this to mean that he is present in the sacred elements of bread and wine. This is a doctrine that puzzles many people, but I think it necesssary to assert that religion can and does contain elements of mystery, for it deals with realities that are beyond the reality of the physical world.   

Last Supper

Icon of the Last Supper
Icon of the Last Supper

Bread and Wine, Body and Blood.

There have been differences of opinion in the Christian community about the presence of Christ in the sacred elements of bread and wine. The Catholic tradition believes that in some way the sacred  elements become the body and blood of Christ, whereas the Protestant tradition tends to regard the presence as a mere memorial of the Lord. But the church has always disagreed with simplistic explanations. In 999 AD a cleric, Berengar of Tours,  was in trouble with the Catholic Church for propagating a simplistic account in which the faithful were told that in the Eucharist they actually chewed the flesh of Christ. The church has ever  rejected such simple accounts of what is a transcendent mystery. 

Some time in the 1970s the Reverend Ian Paisley, now deceased, a senior minister [indeed leader and founder] in the Free Presbyterian  Church in Northern Ireland, speaking at an Oxford Union debate, held up a Catholic host, the bread used in a Eucharistic ceremony, and made a claim that it was ridiculous to call that Christ.  I do not know whether the host had been consecrated or how he got hold of it, but he would not have been given it by the Roman Catholic Church, so I was unhappy about his possession of it and his caricature of a fundamental and much loved Catholic belief.  But what is the truth? Should Catholics or other Christians think that Christ is somehow "in" the sacred elements of bread and wine? They should not, for this is to misusunderstand and caricature their belief. Benedict the Sixteenth writing in Jesus of Nazareth, Volume 2, called Jesus' presence in the Eucharist a transcendent mode of presence, a mode of being with humans that goes beyond the ordinary. 

You can only begin to comprehend the Eucharist when you have an understanding of the true nature of the Christian Church. In Christian belief the church is not merely an institution composed of humans on Earth, but a fellowship of all Christian believers living and dead centred around the living Lord Jesus Christ, who through his resurrection is present in the world. Thus the church is a sacred reality, though sadly marred by the faults of her members. Thus all those who have become members of the church and have stayed members through faith live in a community in which Jesus is present and are in communion with him. The Eucharist is to be understood in the light of this belief. 

Thus when Christians congregate in the Eucharistic ceremony they are not just a visible congregation, but an element in a greater, sacred reality centred on Christ who is present through his Holy Spirit. The sacred bread [the host] and cup of wine are not to be regarded as containing Christ, but as being contained in the wider and greater sacred reality of the church in which Christ is the living centre. They are points of contact with the living Lord, reception of which renews the bond between them and Christ .  

Updated: 03/31/2018, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 01/09/2020

1: Aristotle specified salt because it was valuable and implied that something significant was being given.

2: Spy Wednesday is a traditional term now not commonly used, but still understood.

3:I had never heard of Judas' double face, but it might be a way of saying that he was "two faced" which is a term meaning treacherous. He could have been Christlike, as one side resembled Jesus, but he had another side. But nowhere in Scripture do we have a description of any apostle.

DerdriuMarriner on 01/08/2020

frankbeswick, Thank you for the beautiful article and photo.
Do we know why it is that Aristotle specified salt?
I'd not heard the phrase Spy Wednesday so I had to look it up! If the shoe fits... . Is it commonly used on your side of the pond (because perhaps it's not locally if not regionally or even nationally on this side)?
The mention of Judas in the comments below made me think of something -- that's related but in another direction from your article -- I've meant to ask you. A nineteenth-century Russian orthodox painter or writer painted or wrote about Judas as having a face whose two sides were different, with one of them somewhat resembling Jesus' face. Is this something that you've come across?

blackspanielgallery on 03/30/2018

Your depth of understanding theology exceeds that of many, indeed most, people.
Frank, check your first paragraph for the word Supper, a typo (Spuper). Then you can delete this comment.

frankbeswick on 03/30/2018

You are right about time being for our world, so it is the case that when dealing with the great act of salvation we are dealing with events that cannot be explained in terms of our human spatio-temporal conceptualiation of the world.

I believe that we can make a move to understanding how this event is present today by realizing that they key to comprehension is the Risen Christ, the event is still present because Christ is alive, so the person in whom the salvific event happened is still with us.

frankbeswick on 03/30/2018

1: We also use the name Ash Wednesday. 2: I think that there may be cultural differences between the two sides of the Atlantic, for we have people here who say that only males were present, though as you can see, I disagree with this claim. 3: I agree that the Eucharisr celebrates the whole redemptive act, but you must note that I could not contain the whole truth of tis transcendent mystery in a mere Wizzley article, so what you have said augments what I said.4: Catholics do not reject the concept of the Eucharist as a memorial, but of it as merely a memorial, which was a misreading of the text by Protestant scholars, for Jesus used the word Anamnesis, which is more than a memorial, but reliving of the event.

I have just realized that I said Ash Wednesday rather than Spy Wednesday, which was a typographical error on my part. Sorry

blackspanielgallery on 03/30/2018

The depth of my comment on the Redemptive Act and the eucharist brings a deeper understanding. In our world we have time. The original Holy Thursday predated the events of Good friday through Easter. And today, in our world, we are post the occurrence of time when these events happened. This gets to a point you mide in an earlier work, time is for us, not God. And the lock of understanding God is not constrained by time would have made it difficult for those present to comprehend what in their world had not happened, just as t is difficult for many to understand how an event from the past is present today. But, understanding God has no constraints and this becomes possible.

blackspanielgallery on 03/30/2018

Frank, a few comments. first, in America, we call the first day of Lent Ash wednesday, not the Wednesday of Holy Week. I suspect this is perhaps a cultural thing.
Second, often priests here do say women were likely there. I suppose the art depicts only the apostles since they were of significance to the establishment of the priesthood. I have always wondered f Judas should be shown.
And last, but deepest, in Christology class we were told that the eucharist is the Body and Blood of Christ, but had an even deeper meaning. It was said that the eucharist was the entire Redemptive Act from Good Friday through Easter Sunday made present, meaning the original and only Redemptive Act. Catholic theology does not allow for memorial or reenactment as a reason when such deny the presence of Christ.
Theology is well worth a study. There is too little time during Sunday sermons to fully grasp theology.

teddletonmr on 03/28/2018

Well done sir, thanks.

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