At the Last Supper

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Let us begin by reading chapter six of St. John's Gospel.

Jesus shocked many of his followers by saying that he would give them his Body to eat and his Blood to drink, and that they would not have life in them unless they accepted it.  At this many of his followers left him.  Peter answered for those who remained faithful.  When Jesus asked them, "Will you, too, leave me?"  Peter said, "To whom shall we go, Lord?  You have the words of eternal life" (Jn 6:68-69).

Peter and the faithful disciples did not foresee how Jesus was going to do what he said; they didn't have the slightest idea how it could be possible.  But they had come to know and love Jesus; they had come to hunger for the words of eternal life that came from him; and they believed.

Just before he told them this, Jesus had demonstrated his power by feeding a crowd of about five thousand people with a few loaves and fishes, and he had announced greater things to come.  But he did not explain.  When the time came for him to leave his apostles, Jesus gave them a treasure of immeasurable richness - his own Self in the Eucharist.  With the utmost simplicity he found a way to give them his Body and Blood to eat and drink: he changed bread into his Body and wine into his Blood.

This wonderful event took place at Jesus' Last Supper with his apostles the night before he died.  They were celebrating one of the great festivals of the Jewish people, the Passover.  With Jesus' action the sacrifice of the Old Covenant was ended and the sacrifice of the New Covenant established.

The Passover

The Passover commemorated God's rescue of his chosen people from slavery in Egypt, when he worked great signs and wonders through his servant Moses to strike the fear of God into the hearts of the Egyptians so that Pharaoh would free the Hebrews and allow them to depart.  Actually, Pharaoh was very stubborn about it until one night the angel of death passed through Egypt, striking down the firstborn sons of the Egyptians.

 The Hebrews had been instructed by God through Moses to offer a special sacrifice that night: a spotless lamb, one for each family.  Every Hebrew dwelling was to be marked on the doorpost with the blood of the lamb so that the angel of death would pass over without harming those within.  After this event the Egyptians finally let the Hebrews go, for the fear of God had fallen on them.

All of this is important if we are to understand what Jesus did at the Last Supper.  We can see the slavery of the Hebrew people as an image of the slavery of all people in sin.  And just as God freed the Hebrews, he frees us.  The sacrifice that frees man from sin is the crucifixion and death of Our Lord Jesus Christ.  He is the Passover Lamb.

Each year the Hebrew people observed the anniversary of the Passover - and the mighty events that led to their freedom - with a special meal.  Each family would offer a Paschal lamb in sacrifice and would eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.  These were details that recalled the original Passover.

Jesus and his apostles were celebrating this special meal when Jesus "took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to his disciples. 'Take this and eat it,' he said; 'this is my Body.'  Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them.  'All of you must drink from it,' he said, 'for this is my Blood, the blood of the Covenant, to be poured out on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins'" (Mt 26:26-28).

                     The Perfect Victim                                         

From the time of Adam's fall, men have felt the need to make a public offering to God to make up for their sins and ask for mercy.  The first fruits of a harvest, a lamb or a goat - something needed for life - these things would be destroyed on an altar by a priest to indicate that, like everything that exists, they belong to God.  Men desired to be restored to that friendship with God which sin had broken.  Their sacrifices were an attempt to do this.

Offering a sacrifice has four distinct purposes: to adore God, to thank him, to make up for sin, and to ask his help.

Before the coming of Christ a great many sacrifices were offered to God, but not one them offered a victim that could atone for men's sins.  Alone, men were unable to offer to God anything so fitting and precious that it could make up for such a grave offense against God.  But God loves us so much and so much desired our reconciliation to him that he gave us an acceptable victim that would satisfy our debut.

Jesus, given to us by the Father, was that acceptable victim.  This divine victim was sacrificed upon the Cross to make peace between Heaven and earth once and for all.  The world oblation is used to indicate the total offering of a victim or gift in a sacrifice.  In the oblation of Jesus Christ, he was both priest and victim.  For he was held on the Cross by his love alone; at any moment he could have come down from the Cross, but he would not.  He truly offered himself.  To all appearances he died like a criminal, but, unlike anyone else who was ever crucified, he freely laid down his life.

Being God and Man

When Jesus took the bread at the Last supper and said, "This is my Body", he made himself present on the table as the gift of the sacrifice.  He stood over the gift and looked down upon it, but the gift was no longer bread; it was his Body, it was himself.  He did the same thing with the wine; it became his precious Blood.  Jesus could do this because he was God as well as man.

At the Last Supper, the apostles received the first Holy Communion, and each apostle received Jesus complete and entire - not part of Jesus but the whole Jesus - Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, God and man.  The whole Jesus went to Andrew, to Peter, to John, to Philip, to each one.  And so he come to us, too, when we receive Holy Communion.  The apostles were united with Christ and filled with grace.  So are we.

But what did the apostles see when Jesus said, "This is my Body . . .  This is my Blood"?  What they saw still looked like bread and wine.  What had been bread still had the same weight, color, and taste; what had been wine still had the same taste, odor, and color.  But its substance, the underlying reality which makes it what it is, had been changed.  The looks and other properties known by the senses are called the appearances; the Body and Blood of Jesus kept the appearances of bread and wine.  This mysterious change that took place in the bread and wine is called "transubstantiation", which means change of substance.

The Everlasting Sacrifice

After the apostles had each received Holy Communion, Jesus said to them, "Do this in remembrance of me" (Lk 22:19).  When he said this he made them priests; for by telling them to do what he had just done - to change bread and wine into his Body and Blood - he gave them the power to do it.

The greatest power of the priesthood is the power to offer this sacrifice of Jesus' Body and Blood.  It is the same sacrifice that Jesus offered at the Last Supper and the next day on the Cross.  Through this power the Body and Blood of Jesus continue to be offered to God under the appearances of bread and wine whenever the Mass is celebrated.

So God left us an everlasting sacrifice of such richness and power that nothing else can be compared to it.  The apostles used their powers to feed the new Church of Christ with the Bread from heaven; and they shared their power with other men, co-workers and their successors, so that the Church could continue from generation to generation to offer the great sacrifice, making it present to all who seek it, until the end of time.

"I will lift up the cup of salvation and will offer a sacrifice of praise."
(Psalm 115)

 Used with the permission of The Ignatius Press 800-799-5534

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