Earlier today, I tried to answer a couple questions some people have on the Eucharist: namely, “does It re-Sacrifice Christ?” and “what does it mean to say that the Eucharist is an Unbloody Sacrifice?” I tried to keep the post short, but I’m willing to go into more depth. Here, I wanted to discuss a few other connections between the Last Supper and the Passion of Christ. This post also answers another commonly-raised question: “What did Jesus mean when He said, ‘It is finished’ (John 19:30)?”
I. The Incredible Chronology of the Passion of Christ
First of all, I’ve already taken one stab at this a few months ago. It’s not perfect, but it’s worth reading if you’re interested, especially because I’m going to not go into too much depth. In that post, I discussed the Passover imagery which is found throughout both the Last Supper, and the incredible timing. The major things you need to know about the chronology is that Jewish days are measured from sundown to sundown. Today, for example would be Preparation Day, is the Jews still celebrated it, and tonight through tomorrow afternoon is Passover. The Passover Lamb is normally slaughtered on the 14th day of Nisan (Preparation Day: Leviticus 23:5), and the Passover Meal is celebrated that evening, the beginning of 15 Nisan (Passover: Leviticus 23:6). However, when the Passover fell on the Sabbath, some traditional Jews — namely, the Qumran community, the same community which preserved the Dead Sea Scrolls — moved the observation of the feast to the day prior. In those cases, they would slay the lamb on the 13th, eat it on the 14th, and rest on the 15th. But here, there wasn’t unanimity.
All of this becomes very important, because John’s Gospel tell us that Jesus died on both Preparation Day (John 19:14), and the day before the Sabbath (John 19:31). Which means that the Last Supper and the Crucifixion of Christ both occurred on 14 Nisan. Which is fascinating, because it was the reason why Jesus and His Disciples had already begun the Passover meal, while the Pharisees still considered it Preparation Day. Because in ironies of ironies, Jesus was showing more respect for the Sabbath, and celebrating the Passover a day early, as was the pious tradition — the Pharisees were observing the letter of the law, even if it meant violating the Sabbath. From a Christian standpoint, it means that the Last Supper was instituted on Passover, and Jesus died on Preparation Day. So here’s the chronology:
- 13 Nisan (Wednesday night – Thursday afternoon): Jesus and His Disciples, along with the Qumran community, celebrate Preparation Day (Mark 14:1; Matthew 26:17).
- 14 Nisan (Thursday night – Friday afternoon): Jesus and His Disciples celebrate the Passover — and, of course, the Last Supper; the Pharisees celebrate Preparation Day. This is the day of the Lord’s Passion.
- 15 Nisan (Friday night – Saturday afternoon): the Sabbath. While the Pharisees celebrate the Passover, the Passover Lamb Himself respects the Sabbath by resting in the Tomb.
Now, by all right, we should find it surprising that Christ managed to eat His Last Supper on Passover, and die the following afternoon on Preparation Day, when Preparation Day is supposed to come before the Last Supper. To achieve this result, a number of factors had to come together quite remarkably: first, the Jews had to celebrate their calendar with sundown marking the new day (which, if you think about it, is one of the most counter-intuitive ways to set up a calendar); second, there had to be a great respect for the Sabbath; and third and finally, there had to a divergence in how to celebrate Passover when it fell on the Sabbath, because of a surprising schism within Judaism. This just couldn’t have happened simply by chance. It’s incredible.
Note also that this ties the Last Supper and Passover into a single day. So from the perspective of the Jewish calendar, Christ is still celebrating Passover as He’s dying, while the Pharisees are still waiting for their paschal lamb. That’s about to become very important.
II. The Four Cups of the Passover
Based on the four promises of God in Exodus 6:6-8, the Passover is celebrated with four cups of wine: Pharoah’s butler’s dream is considered a foreshadowing of this, since he says “cup of wine” four times (Genesis 40:11-13). Here’s the order, as well as the promise each cup recalls, as best as I can determine (admittedly, I ended up finding this kids’ site the most helpful for explaining what happened and when: you’re just sort of expected to know)
- First cup: The Cup of Sanctifiction. Recalls the promise, “I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians”
- Second cup: The Cup of Wrath. Recalls the promise, “I will deliver you from their bondage”
- Here, the Pharisees ate the lamb. The Qumran community did not, since they didn’t acknowledge Herod’s Temple as legitimate. They abstained from the lamb to signal their anticipation of a true Temple.
- Third cup: The Cup of Blessing / Thanksgiving– a prayer is said, and everyone drinks. Recalls the promise, “I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment.
- The youngest member opens the door to look for the Messiah, who they understood to be Elijah because of Malachi 4:5.
- Psalms 113-118 are recited (Hallel)
- Fourth cup: The Cup of Acceptance / Praise. Recalls the promise, “I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God.”
Scott Hahn compared this with the New Testament account, and was surprised at what he found (don’t get me wrong: Scott’s not the first guy to discover this, but he’s the one whose writings and teachings I learned it from, and he sort of stumbled into it). We know from 1 Corinthians 10:16 that the Eucharist was instituted at the third cup, because Paul explicitly calls the Eucharist “the Cup of Blessing (eulogia)” a term with a very precise meaning for a former Pharisee. As Pope Benedict noted, “Thanking and blessing God reached its culmination in the berakah, which in Greek is eulogia or eucaristia: praising God becomes a blessing for those who bless him.” In other words, the Eucharist gets its name from the Third Cup. Yet immediately after the Institution of the Eucharist, Jesus says (Matthew 26:29-30), “‘I tell you, from now on I shall not drink this fruit of the vine until the day when I drink it with you new in the kingdom of my Father.’ Then, after singing a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. “
So Jesus seems to announce that the Fourth Cup is going to be put on hold until He’s drinking it anew in the Kingdom, they sing the Hallel Psalms, and then instead of opening the door and waiting for the Messiah, they open the door and the Messiah leads them out to the Garden. In Matthew 26:39, He prays, “Abba, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will.” And again in v. 42, “Abba, if it is not possible that this cup pass without my drinking it, your will be done!” (See also Mark 10:38-39, where Jesus foretells either the Eucharistic Cup, or the Fourth Cup).
John 19 tells the climax of the story. At this point, Jesus has been on the Cross for three hours. John 19:28 tells us:
After this, aware that everything was now finished, in order that the scripture might be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I thirst.”
Note that. It’s not just that He’s thirsty. He’s been thirsty for a long time. He carried a heavy Cross for hours in the Mediterranean sun, and then hung on it. And yet earlier, in Matthew 27:33-34, He was offered wine mixed with gall (an early painkiller, as I understand), and refused to drink it. So He’s chosen now, because (a) everything He had to do was now finished, and (b) in order that the Scripture (John doesn’t say which one) might be fulfilled. John 19:29-30,
There was a vessel filled with common wine. So they put a sponge soaked in wine on a sprig of hyssop and put it up to his mouth. When Jesus had taken the wine, he said, “It is finished.” And bowing his head, he handed over the spirit.
So what’s finished? Not, as some Protestants claim, the work of salvation: Romans 4:25 says that Jesus “was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.” The Resurrection hasn’t happened yet, so that’s not finished. No, what’s finished is the long fore-shadowed Paschal Feast and Sacrifice. It’s all one thing. The Passover both celebrates God’s redemption of the Israelites from Egypt, and the coming Messiah, identified by the Israelites with Elijah. It both recalled a past event and prophesied a future one. So the Scriptures being fulfilled were all of the Passover Messianic Scriptures, particularly Exodus 6:6, and what’s finished is the ultimate Passover. On this Passover unlike any other, Jesus lifted the Cup which recalled the promise, “I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, and with great judgments.” And then He got up and did it, stretching out His arms on the wood of the Cross. And it was there, on the Cross, where we were able to become His people, fulfilling His promise, “I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God.”
This becomes clearer when you compare it with Matthew 27:45-50,
From the sixth hour until the ninth hour darkness came over all the land. About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”—which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of those standing there heard this, they said, “He’s calling Elijah.” Immediately one of them ran and got a sponge. He filled it with wine vinegar, put it on a stick, and offered it to Jesus to drink. The rest said, “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to save him.” And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.
Psalm 22, which Jesus is reciting the opening line of, is written by David, not Elijah, so I always found this strange. But it turns out that the Israelites recognized this as a Messianic Psalm, just like the ones they’d were about to (or had just finished) singing, Psalms 113-118. And as I mentioned earlier, they tied Elijah to the Messiah because of Malachi 4:5, which declares, “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes.” So people were madly looking for Elijah to return from Heaven (see 2 Kings 2:11), taking the prophesy overly-literally. So in John 1:20-21, John the Baptist explains he’s neither Christ nor Elijah. Likewise, people suspected that Christ might be Elijah (Matthew 16:14). And now, they’re thinking Elijah might come and save Christ! Of course, John the Baptist is the figurative Elijah (Matthew 11:14), while the literal Elijah did show up at the Transfiguration to signal to Peter, James and John exactly who Jesus was (Matthew 17:3).
Remember that at the Passover, someone (usually the smallest kid) traditionally goes to the door and looks for the Messiah, Elijah. On this Passover, the Messiah which the new Elijah prophesied fulfilled what every Passover was waiting for. Sadly, for many of the people there, the day which Malachi 4:5 calls “that great and dreadful day of the Lord” is upon them, and they’ve missed their sign, in John’s call to repentence, and his proclaimation that Jesus is the Christ (Matthew 17:12).
III. What This Means for the Eucharist and Hebrews 9
The Last Supper begins on Holy Thursday night, and doesn’t end until Jesus drinks of the Fourth Cup and dies on the Cross. This, by the way, is why there is no Good Friday Mass: we have a “Good Friday Liturgy,” using the Eucharist from the night before — to signal that this is all one Mass and one Meal. Now consider this passage from Hebrews 9:16-22,
Now where there is a will, the death of the testator must be established. For a will takes effect only at death; it has no force while the testator is alive. Thus not even the first covenant was inaugurated without blood. When every commandment had been proclaimed by Moses to all the people according to the law, he took the blood of calves (and goats), together with water and crimson wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, saying, “This is ‘the blood of the covenant which God has enjoined upon you.'” In the same way, he sprinkled also the tabernacle and all the vessels of worship with blood. According to the law almost everything is purified by blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.
Given what we know from the above, this makes a lot of sense:
- The Last Supper wasn’t completed until Jesus actually shed His Blood on the Cross: that’s when the New Covenant kicked in, we became His people, and He became Our God (although He was always the True God, of course).
- This shedding of Blood was necessary for forgiveness of sins, and for the creation of the Covenant. This was true of even the first Covenant, and much more true of the New Covenant.
- Check out Hebrews 9:20. The author is comparing the Old and New Covenant, and how both rely upon Blood. And the words he keys in on are Moses’ words from Exodus 24:8, establishing the Old Covenant and Mosaic Law, “”This is the blood of the covenant which the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words of his.” Now compare that with Jesus’ words in Matthew 26:27-28, establishing the New, “Drink from it, all of you, for this is My blood of the Covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins.” If “even the first covenant” required real blood to be inaugurated, and these are the words which let us know that real blood was being used, the fact that the Eucharist requires Jesus’ real Blood to create a Covenant is obvious.
- This ties directly into the theme of Hebrews 9, which is that the New Covenant fulfills, and is superior to, the Old. In Hebrews 9:1-8, the comparison is made between the Ark and the Veil of the Covenant. Hebrews 9:9 refers to these things as “a symbol of the present time,” which are then overshadowed by Christ’s coming “as high priest of the good things that have come to be” (Hebrews 9:11). The Catholic understanding, where Christ uses His real Blood at the Institution of the Eucharist and New Covenant, is best summarized in Hebrews 9:13-14,
“For if the blood of goats and bulls and the sprinkling of a heifer’s ashes can sanctify those who are defiled so that their flesh is cleansed, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from dead works to worship the living God. “But if you believe that the New Covenant was instituted with just red wine or grape juice, this passage makes no sense. The Protestant understanding is that Moses used real blood, while Christ used only a symbol… which by the logic of Hebrews 9, has Christ pointing backwards to Moses, instead of Moses pointing forward to Christ.
- Finally, the hyssop branch (Hebrews 9:19) is used at the Passover for the lamb (Exodus 12:22), and at the Passion, for the Lamb (John 19:29). So again, the Last Supper and Passion are one event, not two.
So if Christ’s Last Supper and Passion are a single event in the eyes of a Christian, just as the slaying and eating of the Lamb constituted one Passover, and just as the slaying of the calves and goats and sprinkling of their blood was one sacrifice, not two, then Hebrews 9 makes perfect sense. Christ came and replaced animal blood with His real Blood as atonement for sins. He was uniquely able to offer Himself, because He is both High Priest and Victim, as Hebrews 9:11-12 makes clear (see also John 10:18). His Disciples ate His Flesh and drank His Blood at the Passover dinner to end all Passover dinners, and then He offered Himself up on the Preparation Day to end all Preparation Days: one single day, one single Sacrifice.