The following is an excerpt from my book Everyday Miracles: The Sacraments as Ordinary Means of Grace.
The Synoptic Narratives of the “Last Supper.”
The word “synoptic” means “seeing together.” We give this name to the first three Gospels–Matthew, Mark, and Luke–because their narratives are very similar to one another and, for the most part, everything “lines up.” There are some narratives that are unique to each of these Gospels, but for the most part, the synoptics recount the same events in the same order. We use the term “Last Supper” as the traditional name for this Passover Seder that Jesus shared with his disciples the night before he died on the cross, but he shares post-resurrection meals with them, including one with the disciples on the road to Emmaus, one in the Upper Room, and a breakfast on the beach, so it really is not the “Last Supper.”
The narrative of this Passover Seder is found in Matthew 26:17-30, Mark 14:22-26, and Luke 22:14-20:
On the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Where do you want us to make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?” He said, “Go into the city to a certain man, and say to him, ‘The Teacher says, My time is near; I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples.’” So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the Passover meal. When it was evening, he took his place with the twelve; and while they were eating, he said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.” And they became greatly distressed and began to say to him one after another, “Surely not I, Lord?” He answered, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me. The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.” Judas, who betrayed him, said, “Surely not I, Rabbi?” He replied, “You have said so.”
While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. (Matthew 26:17-30)
While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. (Mark 14:22-26)
When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” Then he took a loaf of 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.” And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” (Luke 22:14-20)
Note some important elements of these narratives:
“The First Day of Unleavened Bread” – The Feast of Passover is followed by the seven-day Feast of Unleavened Bread. It was, and is, common for the name of either of these feasts to refer to the entire period. So, “Passover” can refer both to the night of 14 Nisan, when the “big” Seder is held (there is usually a Second Seder the next night, and there were two consecutive Seders this particular year: more on that later) or to the whole period encompassing both Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. In the same way, the Jews of Jesus’ day often referred to both observances together as simply “Unleavened Bread,” since no leaven could be consumed during either feast.
“The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me.” Already by Jesus’ time, the first course of the Seder meal was a dish of green vegetables. Today, the green vegetable of the seder (usually celery or parsley) is dipped in a dish of salt water. In Jesus’ day, the vegetable would have been dipped in a dish of red wine. The rabbis said that Israel’s slavery in Egypt began and ended with a dipping in blood: the dipping of Joseph’s coat into an animal’s blood by his brothers to convince Jacob that Joseph had been killed, and then the dipping of a hyssop branch into the blood of the Passover Lamb to spread on the doorposts. The dipping of the green vegetable into red wine symbolized those two “dippings.” Today, in the Seder, there are two separate dippings: the dipping of the green vegetable in salt water (which today is said to represent the tears of slavery), and the dipping of the bitter herbs into the charoses (a fruit mixture made with red wine). It is the first dipping, the one that recalls Joseph’s betrayal by his brothers, that is here connected with Jesus’ betrayal by Judas. It should be noted here that the narrative at this point is not in any way a reference to intinction (dipping the Eucharistic bread into the chalice of wine). I have heard people speak of intinction as “celebrating Communion the way Jesus did, by dipping the bread in the wine.” Jesus did not dip the bread into the wine: he dipped a green vegetable in wine. This action had nothing to do with the institution of the Eucharist.
Fourfold Action – All three Synoptic accounts relate to us the fourfold action by Jesus: he took the bread, gave thanks to God for it, broke it, and gave it to them. This fourfold action is repeated in Luke 24:30, when Jesus sits down to eat with the disciples who were on the road to Emmaus (the night of the first Easter). In this fourfold action, which recalls the institution of the Lord’s Supper, we read that the disciples’ eyes were opened and they recognized Jesus. Later, they relate to the other disciples how Jesus “had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread (Luke 24:35).” This phrase, “the breaking of the bread” is a synonym for the Lord’s Supper in both of the books written by Luke (Luke’s Gospel and the Book of Acts). Still today, in the Eucharistic liturgy, we take the bread (in the Offertory), give thanks to God (in the Eucharistic Prayer, which means “prayer of thanksgiving”), break the bread (in the sacramental action called the Fraction or “the Breaking of the Bread”) and give it to the church (in the Communion of the People).
“Blessing it” or “giving thanks” for it – did Jesus “bless” the bread and the cup, or did he “give thanks” for the bread and the cup? The answer is, yes. In the Jewish tradition, a “blessing” is always directed toward God, not toward an object. We “bless God,” or give thanks and praise to God, for giving us life, for giving us food and drink, etc.
Blessing the Bread – In the Passover liturgy, the blessing for the bread is, “Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe, who causes bread to come forth from the earth.” So the “blessing” for the bread is an act of thanking God, of blessing God, as the one who gives us bread. We saw in the last chapter how Jesus connects the idea of God’s “bringing forth bread from the earth” with his own Resurrection, which would take place just a few days later.
Blessing the Wine – The blessing for the wine in the Passover liturgy is, “Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe, who creates the fruit of the vine.” This explains Jesus’ use of the term “fruit of the vine” in these narratives. That is the liturgical name for wine in the Jewish tradition. This is the same blessing for the wine that is said every week at Sabbath dinners. In the same way, the liturgical name for the green vegetable is “the fruit of the earth.” That does not mean they were eating fruit instead of vegetables: that is just the poetic way the liturgy refers to the green vegetable in the Seder. So when Jesus says “fruit of the vine,” it is not because he is avoiding saying “wine” or because there was something other than wine in the cup. (Technically, of course, the actual “fruit of the vine” is the grape itself. No one thinks there was a grape sitting in the bottom of the cup. In blessing God for creating the grape, we are, poetically, blessing God for creating wine. In Psalm 104, the Psalmist says to God, “You bring forth wine to gladden the human heart,” an echo of this blessing from the Sabbath and Passover liturgies.)
When they had sung the hymn …” – “The hymn” in question is the Hallel, which is made up of six Psalms (113-118). The first part of the Hallel (Psalms 113-114) is sung during the Maggid portion of the Seder, which is before the festival meal. The second, longer part (Psalms 115-118) is sung after the meal, so this is the portion referred to in the Gospels. Since we know that the cup of wine of which Jesus said, “This is my blood of the covenant” was “after supper” but before they sang “the hymn” (the second part of the Hallel), that would make it the Third Cup of Wine in the Seder: the Cup of Redemption.
Where is the Fourth Cup? – Jesus has been so careful to observe the Seder according to all the ordinances so far, yet he dismisses the disciples before they drink the Fourth Cup of Wine and before the words of Conclusion: “The Passover Seder is now completed in accordance with its laws, according to all its regulations and statutes.” Why, after observing the Passover so closely, does Jesus leave it unfinished? Furthermore, after the Third Cup of Wine, Jesus says, “From now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” Why leave off the Fourth Cup? In order to answer this, we need to look for a moment at John’s Gospel.
The Witness of John’s Gospel
Unlike the Synoptics, John does not recount the Institution of the Lord’s Supper per se. He does, however, tell us “the rest of the story,” particularly with reference to the Fourth Cup of Wine and the Conclusion of the Seder.
From Chapter 1 of John’s Gospel, where John the Baptizer points out Jesus by saying, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!” Jesus is depicted as the Passover Sacrifice. In the Crucifixion narrative in John’s Gospel it’s rather confusing to many readers, because it seems that John indicates Jesus’ Crucifixion took place on the afternoon before Passover was to begin: John seems to have Jesus dying on the cross the same hour the Passover lambs were being slaughtered at the Temple. However, the Synoptics clearly indicate that the meal Jesus shared with his disciples the night before was the Passover meal. So which is right? Once again, the answer is, yes. For reasons too complicated to get into here, the Seder was celebrated on two consecutive nights on certain years, and this seems to have been one of those years. So the Last Supper was indeed a Passover Seder, and Jesus is indeed sacrificed on the Cross at the same time the Passover lambs are being sacrificed at the Temple.
John takes care to mention to us about Jesus’ seamless tunic. The word used here is the same word that is used for the garment worn by the High Priest when he offers the Passover sacrifice. Also, you may well remember that when the soldier breaks the legs of the thieves crucified on either side of Jesus, but does not break Jesus’ leg, John says this was to fulfill the Scripture that says “not one of his bones shall be broken.” Well, where is that written? It’s found in Exodus 12, in the instructions on how to handle the Passover lamb. It says, “Do not break any of his bones.” The message is clear: Jesus is the Passover Lamb, the Passover Sacrifice. St. Paul witnesses to this in I Corinthians 5:7 when he says, “Christ, our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed for us. Therefore, let us keep the feast.”
Now, what about that Fourth Cup of Wine? Why did Jesus leave the Seder unfinished the night before he died? Do you remember what happened after they left the Upper Room? Jesus took his disciples to the Garden of Gethsemane, and Jesus began to pray. What did he pray? “Father, if possible, let this cup pass from me.” Then, before Jesus was crucified, we read that the Romans tried to give him wine mixed with myrrh (as a kind of painkiller), but he refused it. Why?
In John 19:28-30, we read, “After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), ‘I am thirsty.’ A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” Why, after hours of suffering, after being scourged and after hanging on the cross for this whole time, does Jesus say he’s thirsty? Don’t you think he’s been thirsty for a long time now? After all, he has suffered greatly, and he’s lost a lot of blood. I’m sure he’s been terribly thirsty for a long time. But only now, right before he dies, does he say “I’m thirsty.” Why? The text says he said this because he knew that all was now finished and he said this to fulfill the Scripture. There is some sour wine nearby, and they put it on a branch of hyssop to get the wine up to his mouth. Hyssop is, incidentally, the kind of plant that was dipped into the lamb’s blood to smear it on the doorposts on the night of the first Passover. After Jesus drinks this wine, he says, “It is finished.” What is finished? We usually say that he’s referring to our redemption, and there’s an element of that here, but he’s not risen yet. St. Paul says that Christ was risen for our justification. He says that if Christ is not raised from the dead, then we are still in our sins. So redemption isn’t completely finished: not yet. No, the Seder is finished. “The Passover Seder is now completed in accordance with its laws, according to all its regulations and statutes.” The Passover Lamb, the Passover Sacrifice, has now been offered. The wine that Jesus drinks from the end of that hyssop is the Fourth Cup of Wine of the Seder. The Last Supper does not end when the disciples leave the Upper Room to go to the Garden of Gethsemane: it ends at the Cross. The Last Supper and the Crucifixion are all of one piece. Together, the whole story, from the Upper Room to Calvary, comprises the Passover Feast and thus comprises the Institution of the Lord’s Supper.
“Christ, our Passover, has been sacrificed for us: therefore, let us keep the feast (I Corinthians 5:7).”