We celebrate with the Body and Blood of Jesus at every mass, and also commemorate the Last Supper just before Good Friday. The liturgy, however, gives us this special feast to look at the history and reflect more deeply on the meaning of the Eucharist.
This account from the foundation of the Jewish religion gives us the background for Jesus’ words in the Gospel about the (new) covenant. It fit into the world view of that time that blood sacrifices were seen as the ultimate proof of dedication, a symbolic sign as it were of giving one’s own blood. It was also understood that a solemn agreement or ‘covenant’ needed a visible sign and commitment. God offered his promise as a gift of love and liberation, and the people agreed on their part to accept the covenant relationship by obedience to the Law.
Psalm 115/116:12-13, 15-18
The psalm verses fit so well that it hardly needs any comment: the ‘cup of salvation’ and the precious death of Jesus the perfect ‘servant’. Then comes our part in offering back to God in thanksgiving, as we do at mass in making the bread and wine our offering of the gifts he has given us.
The unknown author of this book is both showing the superiority of the new over the old covenant, and also using the Old Testament imagery to show how Jesus’ death worked as the perfect sacrifice. The reasoning is complex, especially if one does not know the details of the old Law, but the main point is easy to understand. Jesus’ sacrifice of his life (as symbolized by his blood on the cross) has superseded the old covenant with God and is a new and deeper reality, offered for all peoples and not just the Jewish nation.
‘Christ appeared as high priest’: the author in the verses before our selection has explained this perfect, everlasting priesthood of Christ and contrasted it with the temporary high priests who ministered in the Jewish temple. The first ‘tent’ was the portable temple the nomadic Jews carried with them, and where the inner sanctuary was thought of as the contact point with God. The ‘tent’ Jesus enters is thought of here as the ‘ideal’ which exists in heaven, and which Jesus ‘passes through’ taking his perfect sacrifice into the presence of God the Father. (‘Tabernacle’ is another translation for ‘tent’ and is the word we have taken for the place where the Blessed Sacrament is kept between masses.)
Another contrast the author makes is between the blood of the old sacrifices and the ashes which were used to end forms of ritual uncleanness, compared with Jesus’ sacrifice which liberates us from the real defilement of sinfulness. Ritual ‘uncleanness’ could relate to some sinful actions, but also applied to many more acts and conditions that were thought in the mind-set of that time as making a person unfit for worship, and sometimes contact with others. One example is coming into contact with a corpse; more serious in consequences was the uncleanness associated with leprosy. This idea lies behind some of the healing descriptions and statements in the Gospels.
Mark 14:12-16, 22-26
After Easter time with its special gospel selections, we return to Mark, who is especially featured during Year B. For this feast, we jump towards the end of the Gospel with Mark’s account of the giving of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. It seems short and simple, yet a number of questions hang over it which concern the scholars. There are more than we need to take up here, but some comment may be helpful in understanding the history and meaning.
Our selection opens with the preparations for the feast of Passover which was celebrated every spring in memory of the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. (For details see chapter 12 of Exodus.) It was one of the great feasts of the Jewish year, and people wanted to celebrate in Jerusalem if they could. The city then was very crowded and finding a place might not be easy. In our reading encounter two of several mysterious people in Mark’s gospel: the host who has a room ready and the man carrying a jar of water whom the disciples will meet and follow. Ordinarily carrying water was part of the household work of women, so a man with a water jar would be striking, but Mark gives us no details of how Jesus knew about him, and about the room. Some of the commentaries on the Gospel take it that Jesus had previously made the arrangements for the room and even the odd way they would be led to it. (This would be the obvious conclusion from the different wording in Matthew 26:18.) Others however, differ. D. E. Nineham: ‘There can be no doubt that St Mark regarded the incident as evidence of supernatural foresight on the part of Jesus.’ I like the idea of a ‘householder’ who is prepared to answer the request of ‘The Master’ even without previous arrangements, as an example of how all disciples should be open to the call of the Lord – often at unexpected times.
Preparing the meal was usually women’s work, and the four gospels all indicate that women disciples were in Jerusalem at this time and that some of them were present at the crucifixion and resurrection. Mark does not indicate one way or the other whether these women were there for the Passover meal, leaving us to our own decision on the matter. A ‘large’ room would hold more than twelve. Passover was also a family feast. Jesus, Mark has noted earlier, called ‘all those who hear his word and keep it’ his brothers and sisters, and the idea of celebrating with brother and sister disciples remains in the Christian tradition of the Eucharist. But once at the meal (in the section omitted in our reading) Jesus predicted his betrayal by ‘one of the twelve’ and so the emphasis is on the Apostles.
Mark does not have details as to how many of the typical Passover customs were followed. The bread was unleavened bread (as the ‘matzos’ used today in Jewish Passovers) and that would have been the bread that becomes Jesus’ body. (This is why our masses use unleavened hosts.) Taking bread and blessing it were traditional at Sabbath meals throughout the year. Several cups of wine were drunk, but the Gospel gives no indication if any of these traditional toasts provided the cup Jesus spoke over. Some think this was an additional cup he took up at the end.
Nor does Mark give us any indication of how the disciples reacted at what must have been an event totally beyond their immediate comprehension. Jesus speaks the words over the bread before he gives it to them, but he gives them the cup before he speaks of his blood. Perhaps this is because the old Law forbade drinking blood and this would have been too startling for them.
Some ancient manuscripts add the word ‘new’ before ‘covenant’, emphasizing as does St Paul that this replaces the old covenant. ‘For many’: language scholars point out that in the Aramaic Jesus spoke, ‘many’ is not restrictive (as it is in English where it implies ‘a lot but not all’). Rather in Aramaic it means a very large but unspecified number and was used for ‘all’. This is something to remember with the new English mass text which has changed to ‘many’ where we were used to saying ‘for all’.
Jesus has connected this meal with the past, and then he connects it to his death which is just ahead of him, and following that, to the coming time of the complete fulfilment of the Kingdom he has preached from the beginning of the Gospel. When we celebrate the Body and Blood of Christ, we are also drawn into the past of the old covenant, the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross of his body and blood, and then into the end of time when we will be invited to celebrate in the Kingdom of God.
It was customary to sing the ‘Great Hallel’ or great psalms of praise, 115-118, at the end of the Passover meal, and that is likely what concluded the meal that night, songs full of praise for all of God’s works and celebrating the rescue of his servant from death.