The Last Supper and the Jewish Passover
At Mass on Holy Thursday night Catholics enter the journey of their Saviour who walked the path of suffering and death to resurrection. At home we may enter it also, with a Last Supper meal that draws the family into the rich symbolism of our Jewish and Christian heritage.
The Passover Seder is the Jewish ritual feast held each year on the first night of the Passover festival. It celebrates the story of the Hebrew liberation from enslavement by the Egyptians and their coming together as a proud and beloved people of God – the Exodus.
The Passover Seder is an enormously significant event in the Jewish calendar. Passover was already celebrated for twelve centuries at the time of Jesus. It was one of three festivals for which observant Jews were required to go up to Jerusalem. Central to the Seder is the preparation of a lamb, the retelling of the Exodus story, the passing of the cup of wine and the eating of unleavened bread.
What is the Passover?
The first Passover (Pesach in Hebrew) is documented in Chapter 12 of the book of Exodus. God promised to strike against the firstborn son in every household in Egypt, and the firstborn of their livestock, sparing the Hebrews who followed the Passover instructions. They had to take their best lamb for slaughter and use some of its blood to mark their front door with a hyssop branch. The angel of God would pass over the marked houses and leave the people inside unharmed. For the Egyptians it was the decisive stroke of misfortune and they immediately released the Hebrews from slavery. Blood, a hyssop branch, and a wooden post all featured at Jesus’s death on the cross.
The Last Supper
When Jesus met with his disciples to celebrate the Passover, he was already aware of his coming Passion. Thus the meal became infused with added meaning, as Jesus himself assumed the role of the sacrificial lamb, giving his body (bread) and shedding his blood (wine) for the salvation of all. Henceforth, followers of Jesus would make a vital link between the liberating act of God in the Exodus story and the salvation won through Christ’s death and resurrection.
As the early Church evolved and Christians came together to remember the death and resurrection of Jesus, the traditions of Judaism shaped their practices of worship. This included the celebration which we know today as the Mass. Each time we celebrate Mass we connect with a history that extends to our Jewish ancestors in faith. Having a Last Supper meal at home is one way we might explore this rich heritage.
“Celebrating a Last Supper meal as a family helps us connect with the history of the Catholic Mass and is a powerful gathering point in Holy Week. We like the way that there is something for everyone to do from the youngest (asking the questions) to the oldest (leading the prayers). In sensitivity to the Jewish people for whom the Passover Seder is a sacred ritual, we don’t attempt to replicate the ceremony as modern Jews practice it. Rather, we use the handout to connect with the story of Jesus’ Passion recalling how he and his disciples as faithful Jews would have experienced the Passover feast.” – Marie
Sources, Links and Further Reading:
- Brant Pitre, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist: Unlocking the Secrets of the Last Supper, Double Day Publishing Group, 2011.
- Judaism 101, Pesach: Passover
- Chosenpeople.com: The Meaning of Passover
This article featured in the April 2012 edition of the CathFamily e-Magazine. For featured activities, recipes and more, see: