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Questions & Answers

What happened at the Last Supper?

Francisco Varo

Tags: Doctrine, Church, Jesus Christ
The hours leading up to Jesus’ Passion and Death were deeply engraved on the minds and hearts of his companions. As a result, the New Testament includes considerable detail about what Jesus did and said at his Last Supper. Joachim Jeremias says that this is one of the best-testified episodes in his whole life. At the Last Supper, Jesus was alone with his twelve Apostles (Mt 26:20; Mk 14:17, 20; Lk 22:14). Neither his Mother nor the holy women were there. St John tells us that at the beginning, in a gesture charged with meaning, Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, setting them an example of humble service (Jn 13:1-20). There followed a dramatic incident: Jesus announced that one of them was about to betray him, and the Apostles were left staring at each other in stupefaction. Jesus unostentatiously indicated Judas (Mt 26:20-25; Mk 14:17-21; Lk 22:21-23; Jn 13:21-22).

During the Supper itself, the most surprising fact was the institution of the Eucharist. There are four accounts of what happened: the three synoptics (Mt 26:26-29; Mk 14:22-25; Lk 22:14-20) and St Paul (1 Cor 11:23-26), and all four are very similar. In each case, the account is given in just a few verses, recalling the words and actions of Jesus that brought about the Sacrament, and that are the heart of the new rite: “And he took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me’” (Lk 22:19 and parallels).

These words express the radical newness of what was happening at that meal shared by Jesus with his Apostles, compared with ordinary meals. At his Last Supper Jesus did not give bread to those who were at table with him, but a different reality under the appearance of bread: “This is my body.” And he gave the Apostles who were there the necessary power to do what he did on that occasion: “Do this in remembrance of me.”

At the end of the meal, likewise, something singularly meaningful took place: “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Lk 22:20 and parallels). The Apostles understood that, as he had given them his body under the appearances of bread, so now he was also giving them his blood to drink in a chalice. In this memory of the giving of his body and his blood separately, Christian tradition perceived an effective sign of the sacrifice that would be consummated on the cross a few short hours later.

Moreover, during the whole of this time, Jesus was speaking lovingly, bequeathing his last words to his Apostles’ hearts. St John’s gospel conserves an account of that long, moving discourse over the supper-table. This was when Jesus gave them the New Commandment, whose fulfilment was to be the distinguishing mark of Christians: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:34-35).

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Joachim Jeremias, The Eucharistic Words of Jesus (SCM Press, 1990); Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, part 2, (Ignatius Press, 2011).