Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
On the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed, his disciples said to him, “Where do you want us to go and make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?” So he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him, and wherever he enters, say to the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher asks, Where is my guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ He will show you a large room upstairs, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there.” So the disciples set out and went to the city, and found everything as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover meal (Mark 14:12-16 – NRSV).
While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God” (Mark 14:22-25 – NRSV).
When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives (Mark 14:26 – NRSV).
There are distinct echoes of Mark’s account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem here – see Mark 11:1-6. On both occasions, Jesus sends two disciples ahead of him – secretly – to make preparations; they meet a certain unknown person who is key to making the preparations; things turn out exactly as Jesus has said they would. And the words of Mark 14:13 are almost exactly the same as the words of Mark 11:1-2. Both passages tell us that Jesus knows what is happening here and he is quiet consciously and deliberately embracing it. One commentator writes: “The effect of both stories is to show Jesus’ knowledge and complete governance of events as his ‘hour’ (14:35) of death approaches. Jesus is not a tragic hero caught in events beyond his control. There is no hint of desperation, fear, anger, or futility on his part. Jesus does not cower or retreat as plots are hatched against him. He displays, as he has throughout the Gospel, a sovereign freedom and authority to follow a course he has freely chosen in accordance with God’s plan. Judas and others may act against him, but they do not act upon him.” (J R Edwards, The Gospel according to Mark, Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: Eerdmans; Apollos, 2002, 419.)
Interestingly enough, the preparation for the supper is given more attention in the text than the actual supper.
Exodus 12:3-4 instructs the fathers of each household to gather the family around the table to consume the Passover Lamb. If the family is too small, neighbours must be invited to join them at table. Jesus is shown to be a faithful Jew. Firstly he follows the rituals as set down by Torah. Secondly – and most importantly – he actually becomes the Passover Lamb: “This is my body” …. “This is my blood”
While they were at supper: In the context of the Passover, what was to quickly become the celebration of Eucharist among the first Christians, was instituted by Jesus’ action and words: “The rich and symbolic elements of the Passover have become subsumed in Jesus’ simple but momentous words of institution. Already before Mark the Lord’s Supper had achieved liturgical form in the early church, although slight variations in the NT are still evident. The words of institution are shortest in Mark 14:22 and Matt 26:26, “‘This is my body.’” Paul adds “‘which is for you’” (1 Cor 11:24), and Luke, evidently in dependence on both Mark and Paul, adds “‘given’” (22:19). In contrast to Mark and Matthew, Paul and Luke also contain a command to repeat the observance. From earliest times the Last Supper has been regarded by the church as the truest representation of its fellowship with Christ.” (J R Edwards. Op cit, 425.)
It is worth noting that nowhere does Mark mention the eating of the lamb – a central part of the Passover. Daniel J Harrington observes: “At a Passover meal the bread would be shared towards the beginning and the cup (actually three cups) in the course of it. Here the cup follows after the bread (cf 1 Cor 11:25; Luke 22:20), which suggests that it was not an official Passover meal” (Daniel J Harrington, “The Gospel according to Mark” in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, edited by Raymond E Brown et al, Geoffrey Chapman, 1990, 626).
Take: The Greek word used here is the imperative of the verb lambanō. It can mean “take” or “receive”. Whatever its literal meaning, it is definite! Who would refuse?
poured out for many: Daniel J Harrington writes: “The ‘poured out for many’ alludes to Isaiah 53:12 (one of the Suffering Servant passages) and gives the action a sacrificial dimension. The two OT allusions serve to characterize the death of Jesus as a sacrifice for others. The phrase, hyper pollōn, ‘for many’ is based on the Hebrew of Isaiah 53:12; it means ‘for all’, not just for one or a few” (Ibid).
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. Our Gospel – Mark 14:12-16 & 22-26 – gives us an intriguing description of the final meal Jesus has with his disciples. Is this a formal, Passover ritual or a more informal meal?
Mark does set the meal within the formal structures of the annual Passover festival: “On the first day of Unleavened Bread etc”. But he never once alludes to the Passover liturgy. And according to John, Jesus was crucified on the day before Passover – see John 18:28. “Most authors today doubt that it was a paschal celebration, or leave the question open” (José A Pagola, Jesus: An Historical Approximation, translated by Margaret Wilde, Convivium Press, 2015, 346).
Mark’s description is stylized: “‘Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him etc.” Mark says the same thing of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem – see 11:1-6. On both occasions, Jesus sends two disciples ahead of him – secretly – to make preparations; they meet a certain unknown person who is key to making the preparations; things then turn out exactly as Jesus has said they would.
We could reasonably conclude that the meal Jesus shared with his friends that night, was not the ritual Passover meal but a more informal meal – the kind of ordinary meal that he had shared with his disciples many times in Galilee. Recognizing it as an ordinary meal, takes nothing from the momentous nature of what happened that night: “He took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, ‘Take; this is my body’. Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many’.”
Understood as an ordinary meal, what happened that night is the pre-eminent instance of sacramentality. In the human is the divine, in the temporal is the eternal, in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup is our redemption! St Paul – writing within twenty years of this moment – indicates that the followers of the Way have already begun to recognize this as an ongoing event in the life of the community: “The Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me’. …. ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me’. For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).
We continue this breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup, for it is ‘the source and summit of the Christian life’ (Lumen Gentium, #11)’.