Saint Thomas of Canterbury, Bolton

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Lent and Easter

During his stay in Jerusalem for the Passover ...

last supper.jpg

Jesus had gone up to Jerusalem for the Jewish Feast of Passover. Just what was going on in Jerusalem at that time? What was involved in celebrating the Passover? What was it all about? Why should we give attention to it still today? Although St. John puts this Passover visit to Jerusalem at the beginning of Jesus' ministry, we will focus on his sharing in Passover on the night before he died.

Jesus had come to celebrate the Passover, the Great Feast of Remembrance, when Jewish people recalled how God had saved them from slavery in Egypt and made them his own People. During the Passover Supper they would retell the story of the Exodus and, through eating bitter herbs and assorted dips, become one with the story and so renew their covenant with God. This ritual meal was to be eaten within the city and so every spare room, courtyard or rooftop of every house in Jerusalem was booked well in advance. Jesus had reserved the upper room of a house on Mount Zion.

Four days before Passover, they would have gone to the Temple to register and to purchase the paschal lamb needed for their sacrifice and Passover Meal. For this they would need to change their ordinary Roman coins for the Temple currency. Once they had purchased their lamb it would be carefully protected from any mishap so that it would be a perfect sacrifice to God. They recalled that it was through the blood of a lamb that they had been saved in Egypt. On the day of Passover everyone touched the lamb to express that the offering was theirs; they were offering themselves to God through this sacrifice. Then after midday they carried the lamb to the Temple for the sacrifice. In accordance with the Law, the blood of the lamb was poured out in offering to God, and the fat kept back to be burned later.

The rites of sacrifice completed, they returned to the upper room with the sacrificed lamb, which would then be carefully washed, prepared and roasted. All the other food needed for the Meal would have been prepared already. And so the Ritual began. First was the lighting of the festive lamps and the blessing over the first cup of wine, praising God for having given us "this day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the time of our freedom, a memorial of the departure from Egypt". At this point Jesus would have taken and broken the unleavened bread, or matzah, recalling that this is "the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt ... It is a symbol of the slavery and pain endured by the Jewish people".

Then began the ritual re-telling of the whole story of how God had brought their ancestors out of Egypt, an account which moved from slavery and genocide to salvation and freedom, and on to praise and joy. This was the very heart of the celebration for this was not just a remembering of something in ages past; rather, the Passover Meal was a way of bringing those events into the present: "Not our ancestors only did the Holy One redeem, but us also He redeemed with them". God be praised for what He did in the past and still does today!

The narrative completed, usually a younger member of the group, or even a servant, would have gone round the group to wash their hands before receiving the unleavened bread. On this night, however, Jesus himself took the pitcher of water and the towel and went round washing even their feet. This was his final statement about how to live the Law of Love: "If I, your Master, have washed your feet, you should wash each other's feet". There could be no more forceful expression of what his entire life had been about.

It is almost time now for the Supper. However, before the Supper could begin, Jesus must bless and share unleavened bread with everyone in the gathering. Jesus took the bread, said the traditional blessing and as he broke the bread he added these words: "Take this and eat it; this is my body given up for you". Clearly the disciples would not have thought immediately in terms of a sacramental presence as we know it, but they were well aware that this was a solemn moment of great significance.

At last the Supper commences. The lamb is now roasted and everyone can join in the paschal feast. Salads, bowls of herbs and dips, extra trays of matzah are placed around and cups are filled with wine mixed with water. Usually a joyful meal of celebration, tonight there was a heavy atmosphere as Jesus spoke about betrayal and death. The disciples meanwhile discussed among themselves what this could mean and who could betray him. So the meal eventually came to an end, a mix of sadness with festive joy.

When Supper was ended Jesus took the cup filled with wine which was handed to him for the Grace after the meal. This was the Cup of Blessing over which Jesus would say: "let us bless our God, of whose bounty we have all eaten". There followed a long prayer of blessing or thanksgiving in which all joined together. Then Jesus picked up the Cup of Blessing saying "Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of all creation, Creator of the fruit of the vine". He then drank from the cup and passed it to his disciples. It was probably at this point that he added something new: "Take this all of you and drink from it, for this is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven".