The Lord’s Supper

mysteries_eucharist22 While they were eating, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them, and said, “Take it; this is my body.” 23 Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, and they all drank from it. 24 He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed for many. 25 Amen, I say to you, I shall not drink again the fruit of the vine until the day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” 26 Then, after singing a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.

The actions and words of Jesus are expressed within the framework of the Passover meal but also point to and indicate a transition to a new covenant that is sealed in the shedding of blood – as are all covenants (cf. Ex 24:1-8; Heb 9:19-21; 10:9-30). But as Jesus has been predicting, he will be the sacrificial offering and it will be his blood that will be shed as part of his passion and death. There are strong allusion to the rite described in Exodus 24:4-8 and thus indicates the new community that the sacrifice of Jesus will bring into being (Matthew 26:26–28; Luke 22:19–20; 1 Cor 11:23–25).

The Passover liturgy was normally conducted by the head of the household. In this setting, Jesus has already been labeled as “Teacher” (v.14) with his disciples for the celebration of the Passover. One wonders what will be taught. The role of the leader of the Passover was to give an interpretation of detailed elements in the meal that were a fixed part of the Passover liturgy. This occurred after the meal had been served but before it was eaten.

Each of the elements of the meal was introduced in the context of Israel’s experience in bondage. The bitter herbs served to recall the bitterness of slavery, the stewed fruit, which possessed the consistency and color of clay, evoked the making of bricks as slaves, while the paschal lamb provided a reminder of God’s gracious “passing over” of Israel in the plague of death that came to Egypt. While the wording of Jesus’ paschal devotions has not been preserved, it is evident that the disciples were prepared for understanding the significance of the words of institution preserved in verses 22–24 by the manner in which Jesus interpreted the components of the meal.

When explaining the element of bread, Jesus would have lifted the platter of unleavened bread explaining: “This is the bread of affliction which our fathers ate in the land of Egypt. Let everyone who hungers come and eat; let everyone who is needy come and eat the Passover meal.” But explaining the element of bread is not necessarily the same as blessing the bread. The blessing of God for the gift of bread immediately preceded the meal itself: “Praised be Thou, O Lord, Sovereign of the world, who causes bread to come forth from the earth” (M. Berachoth VI. 1). Those present identified themselves with the blessing by saying “Amen.” The family-head then broke for each person present a piece and gave it to him, the bread passing from hand to hand until it reached all the guests. The distribution normally took place in silence, for the explanation of the elements belonged to the Passover devotions, not to the grace before the meal. Contrary to paschal custom, Jesus broke the silence by interpreting the significance of the bread in terms of his own person: “Take it; this is my body.” (v.22) The brief formula associated with the bread looks back to the betrayer’s dipping his bread in the common dish. The gesture of handing the bread/body to the disciples may be an invitation to participate in Jesus’ suffering (8:34).

Many have noted that it is interesting that Jesus does not interpret the significance of the lamb in terms of his own person. But then again, “Lamb of God” is a Johannine feature, but still the Passover lamb being slaughtered and Jesus’ being crucified would not be a compassion easily missed. Many have also pointed out that what we know about the Passover celebration and what St. Paul mentions in 1 Cor 11:25 is that the cup of wine was “after supper.” In effect what we have is the primary element of Catholic Eucharist as bookends to the Passover meal and yet framing the narrative of Israel’s freedom from the bondage of slavery.

Jesus’ word about the cup looks away from the betrayal to the divine necessity that brings him to make this sacrifice. The association between wine and the blood of a covenant sacrifice shed for the people (Exod 24:8; Zech 9:11) makes the symbolism of the cup more significant than that of the bread as the soteriological significance of the Eucharist is bound to the words associated with the cup: 23 Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, and they all drank from it. 24 He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed for many. It is in the pouring of the blood that the covenant is formed – and that is clearly done via the body of Jesus shown in the bread. Yet it is the blood of Jesus, shed in death, that is the foundation of the new covenant between God and humanity.

The cup symbolism takes on a further eschatological meaning by anticipating the wine of the banquet that Jesus will celebrate with his followers in the kingdom of God (v. 25; cf. Isa 25:6–8; 55:1–2; 65:13–14). Like the earlier resurrection and parousia predictions, this notice reminds the reader that the death of Jesus is not the end of the story. Jesus’ sacrificial death is part of the divine plan that brings the kingdom into existence. This celebration anticipates the meal that will take place when the messianic king and priest come to establish God’s rule over the elect. Amen, I say to you, I shall not drink again the fruit of the vine until the day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” Although the Christian meal looks forward to the heavenly banquet with the Lord, it remains focused on the sacrificial death of Jesus. Paul tells the Corinthians that the celebration, “proclaim the death of the until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26).

Notes

Mark 14:22 took…blessing…broke…gave: This is the same sequence in the feeding of the multitudes (6:41). Mark is identical to the other synoptic gospels save one respect. Where Mark and Matthew use eulogeo (bless), Luke uses eucharisteo (give thanks). Luke’s narrative is closer to the Pauline description in 1 Cor 11:24 than is Mark’s account.

Mark 14:23 this is my bodythis is my blood: It is beyond the scope of this commentary to begin to unpack (and debate) the meaning of the words on a sacramental basis – that is for other studies. The historical reconstruction of Mark alone is complex enough without trying to harmonize the other traditions – while similar are certainly not exact: Consider – (placed in likely chronological order from oldest on)

  • 1 Corinthians 11: 23 For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread, 24 and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, “This is MY BODY that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in MY BLOOD. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.
  • Mark 14: 22 While they were eating, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them, and said, “Take it; this is MY BODY.” 23 Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, and they all drank from it. 24 He said to them, “This is MY BLOOD of the covenant, which will be shed for many.
  • Matthew 26 26 While they were eating, Jesus took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and giving it to his disciples said, “Take and eat; this is MY BODY.” 27 Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you, 28 for this is MY BLOOD of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins.
  • Luke 22: 17 Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and said, “Take this and share it among yourselves; 18 for I tell you (that) from this time on I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” 19 Then he took the bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is MY BODY, which will be given for you; do this in memory of me.” 20 And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in MY BLOOD, which will be shed for you.
  • John 13:1-30 – The above “words of institution” are not narrated in John, but replaced with the story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. Yet the setting is clearly Jesus’ last meal before his death, as mentioned in vv. 4, 12, and 26-30. The “Eucharistic teaching” of John’s Gospel is found earlier, at the end of the “Bread of Life Discourse” (6:22-59; see below)

The text above (NAB translation) highlight the common “took, blessed, broke, gave” language, emphasizes with all caps the common reference to MY BODY and MY BLOOD, while also noting the similar “bread” and “cup” – even though there is variations in the Greek for these last two.

Sources

  • William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark in The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974) 505-7
  • Pheme Perkins, The Gospel of Mark, vol. 8 of The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville, TN: Abington Press,1994) 8:704-5
  • The New American Bible available on-line at http://www.usccb.org/bible
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