Last Supper, communion, eucharist, mass

The Last Supper

The Last SupperJesus arranged to eat a Passover meal with his disciples on the night before his crucifixion, hence its name, the last supper (see Big ideas: Passover). Three of the gospels give accounts of this (Matthew in chapter 26, Mark in chapter 14, and Luke in chapter 22), recording that Jesus referred to the bread as ‘my body' and the wine as ‘my blood'. Paul the Apostle gives a summary in 1 Corinthians 11:23-25:

The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is given for you; do this in remembrance of me.

In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.' For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.

The new covenant

The reference to a new covenant describes the new way of relating to God and receiving forgiveness through the death of Jesus. This contrasts with the old covenant system involving repeated sacrifices as a way of asking for forgiveness.

The death of Jesus also echoes the sacrifice of the lambs at Passover. On the night when the Israelites escaped from Egypt (see Big ideas: Passover), the lamb's blood smeared on their doorposts saved the Israelites when the angel of death passed by.

Paul commented: ‘Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed' (1 Corinthians 5:7).

Jesus is frequently described as the Lamb of God. John the Baptist referred to him this way:

‘Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!' (John 1:29).

Communion, eucharist, mass

CommunionFrom the earliest days of the Christian Church, its members re-enacted the events of the last supper. This act of remembrance came to be seen as a sacrament, that is, a particular way of receiving God's grace. It is known as holy communion, the eucharist, the mass or simply breaking bread. This enactment continues to be of central importance within the Church.

The question of whether the consecrated bread and wine are symbolic or actually become the body and blood of Christ, the real presence, was one reason for the separation of Protestants from the Catholic Church at the Reformation, Catholics believing that the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ. This idea is know as transubstantiation.

The Roman Catholic Church believes it is very important for a dying person to receive the sacrament of bread and wine. Hence, in Shakespeare's Hamlet, Hamlet's father's anguish at the manner of his death:

‘Cut off even in the blossom of my sin,
Unhousel'd (ie without receiving communion), disappointed, unanel'd,
No reckoning made, but sent to my account
With all my imperfections on my head.' (Hamlet I.v. 77-9)

John Betjeman refers to the sacrament in his poem On Christmas:

‘No caroling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare—
That God was Man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.'

Another significance of the communion service, eucharist or mass is its bonding together of Christian believers. There are many ways in which this can be celebrated. It can be very simple, known as ‘the breaking of bread', passing bread and wine from person to person in a room. Alternatively, the mass or eucharist can be celebrated with a great deal of ceremony in elaborate buildings.

Paul's words:

‘Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf' (1 Corinthians 10:17)

are often still spoken in the communion service today. A prayer of consecration dating back to about 100 AD says:

‘As this broken bread was grain scattered upon the mountains, and gathered together became one, so may Thy Church be gathered together from the bounds of the earth, into Thy Kingdom.'

The Second Coming of Christ

The observance of the Last Supper ‘proclaims the Lord's death until he comes'. These words look forward to the Second Coming of Christ. Christians believe that the words Jesus said to his disciples,

‘I tell you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it anew with you in my Father's kingdom' (Matthew 26:29)

will be fulfilled at that time.

Related topics

Big ideas: Passover

Other cultural references

Shakespeare's Hamlet

Betjeman's, On Christmas

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