The Last Supper

Mk 14:12-25   At the start of the Preparation Day for the Festival of Unleavened Bread (the Passover festival) – on the Thursday eveningJesus and his disciples return to Jerusalem to eat their Passover meal in a house with a large upper room or guest room.

 

Walls of Old Jerusalem

The room was probably provided by one of Jesus’s followers. The house had several storeys, and the owner was wealthy enough to have servants who collected the water from one of the wells or ‘pools’ in heavy stone jars.

Jesus had sent two of his disciples in advance to make final preparations, and they had been able to identify the correct house as they had followed a man carrying a jar of water. This would have been an unusual sight as it was generally regarded as women’s work to collect water (see John 4:7 & 28).

Outside the Old City of Jerusalem
(Mark 14:13)

 

               The Upper Room

It is not known exactly where Jesus celebrated the Passover meal that has become known as ‘The Last Supper’. The Coenaculum or Cenacle, an upper room above the supposed Tomb of David, in the area now called Mount Zion, resembles the sort of ‘guest room’ where the disciples met. This room was re-built by the Franciscans in 1335, but is unlikely to be the actual site of the Last Supper.

It is more likely that the disciples shared their Passover meal at the home of John Mark and his mother Mary, where the early church met shortly after Jesus’s death and resurrection (see Acts 12:12-13). St Mark’s Church, in the Armenian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, is believed to mark the site of the house belonging to John Mark’s family (see 1 on Map 13).

 

Jn 13:1-17      As they arrive for the Passover meal, Jesus acts like a servant, washing the dust off his disciples’ feet to welcome them and to teach them humility by his own example.

 

Jesus’s Last Supper

Jn 13:18-30    As they recline at the low table (a ‘triclinium’), the disciples rest on their left elbow and eat with their right hand. Jesus then tells the disciples that one of them will betray him, and that he will die.

He then performs a traditional Jewish custom used to welcome the most important guests at a feast. He dips a piece of unleavened bread into the meat course and puts this ‘sop’ into the mouth of Judas Iscariot.

The most honoured guests at a feast always sit to the right and left of the host. John’s gospel records that John himself is reclining to the right of Jesus (see John 13:23), so it is quite likely that Jesus asks Judas to sit beside him on his left, where he can dip his hand in the same bowl (see Matthew 26:23). Shortly after, Judas leaves under cover of darkness, to betray Jesus.

Jn 14:1-14      Jesus comforts his disciples about his approaching death, promising that they will join him “in my Father’s house” (John 14:2). Thomas says he doesn’t understand where Jesus is going, to which Jesus replies, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. The only way to the Father is through me” (John 14:6). Philip says, “Lord, show us the Father” (John 14:8), to which Jesus responds, “Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” (John 14:10).

Jn 14:15-31    Jesus promises that, after his death, God the Father will give them another helper – the Holy Spirit – who will live in them. “But the helper will teach you everything and will cause you to remember all that I told you. This helper is the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in my name” (John 14:26).

Jn 15:1-3        Jesus uses the image of a vine to explain his disciples’ relationship with God the Father. “I am the true vine; my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch of mine that does not produce fruit. And he trims and cleans every branch that produces fruit so that it will produce even more fruit” (John 15:1-2).

 

Vines are pruned to encourage new growth and plentiful fruit. If branches are not producing fruit, they are cut out and burnt.

 

An old grapevine
(John 15:1)

 

 

Jn 15:4-17      Jesus continues,A branch cannot produce fruit alone but must remain in the vine” (John 15:4). He is likening his disciples to ‘branches’ that can only ‘produce fruit’ (live fruitful lives) if they get nourishment from the vine (from Jesus himself).

 

Vineyards

Vineyards were a common feature of Palestine in the time of Christ. Hillsides were often dug up, cleared of stones and planted with vines in an age when wine – the ‘fruit of the vine’ – was regularly consumed at mealtimes because of a lack of clean, unpolluted water.

Having planted a vineyard, the owner would build a watchtower to protect his crop from thieves (see Isaiah 5:1-2). He would also dig out a winepress where the harvested grapes could be trampled underfoot (see Matthew 21:33) before being transferred into new wineskins (see Mark 2:22).

When Jesus taught his disciples,A branch cannot produce fruit alone but must remain in the vine” (John 15:4), he was referring to the practise of having a main ‘stock’ on the vine with the branches growing from it. After the harvest, branches are cut back almost to the stock, and for much of the year the stock grows round the branches. The branches ‘remain’ in the stock, while new branches grow out. In the same way, Jesus’s disciples must remain together and grow in fellowship and love for one another.

Today, visitors to the Biblical Landscape Reserve at Neot Kedumim near Lod (Lydda) can see a re-constructed vineyard and watchtower, and can taste samples of the seven Biblical species promised by God to the settlers of the ‘promised land’ – wheat, barley, vines, figs, pomegranates, olives and honey (see Deuteronomy 8:7-8).

 

Jesus gives new meaning to the Bread and the Wine

Mk 14:22-25  While Jesus and his disciples are eating the Passover supper, Jesus takes some unleavened bread, gives thanks and breaks it. He gives it to the disciples as a symbol of his own body, which is to be broken on the cross, and says “Take it; this is my body” (Mark 14:22).

Then he takes the cup, gives thanks and passes it round his disciples, saying, “This is my blood which is the new agreement that God makes with his people. This blood is poured out for many” (Mark 14:24).

 

The Passover Supper

At a Passover meal (a Seder ceremony), Jewish families celebrate God’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt, when God passed over the houses of the Israelites without killing their firstborn sons (see Exodus 12:21-30). Blood is seen as a sign of protection (see Exodus 12:13), and a roasted lamb shank is eaten to represent the Passover lamb whose blood was smeared on the doorframes to protect the Israelites from death.

 

A Passover plate

Family members and guests dip their hands in a dish of haroseth – a sugary mixture of apple, walnuts and cinnamon, shared symbolically with friends at Passover to sweeten the bitter memories of slavery in Egypt. Pieces of unleavened bread (matzos) are also eaten to remember that, at the first Passover, the Israelites didn’t have time to let their bread rise before escaping from Egypt.

Passover plate with haroseth
and a lamb shank (Gilabrand)
The bowl of salted water represents bitter tears
                        

 

During the Passover supper, three pieces of unleavened bread are broken symbolically. The middle piece (the Aphikomen) – representing the Passover lamb – is broken and shared towards the end of the supper. Jesus probably broke and shared this piece of bread to show that he would be killed (just like the Passover lamb) to save people from death and to give them eternal life (see John 1:29).

During the supper, four cups or ‘chalices’ of wine are symbolically passed round, reminding people of God’s four promises to rescue the Jews from Egypt (see Exodus 6:6-7). The first cup – the Cup of Holiness – is accompanied by an opening blessing (the Kiddush) and by ceremonial handwashing. After a dish of bitter herbs (Karpas) is passed round, the second cup – the Cup of Instruction – is accompanied by reading the Biblical narrative of the Passover (the Maggid) and by singing the Little Hallel (Psalm 113).

When Jesus took the cup after supper, this probably refers to the third cup (the Cup of Redemption) which symbolises God’s promise to rescue his people from wrongdoing, to forgive them and to restore a loving relationship with them.

The Seder ceremony concludes by drinking from the fourth cup – the Cup of Hope – which looks to the coming of the Messiah – and the singing of the Great Hallel (Psalms 114 to 118).

Throughout the supper, another cup the Cup of Elijahstands at the centre of the table. This cup is only to be drunk when the prophet Elijah appears as a forerunner of the Messiah, the Christ (see Malachi 4:5 & Matthew 11:7-14 and the feature on Was John the new Elijah? in Section 2).

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