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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Holy Thursday - The Last Supper - Passover

Holy Thursday

Pope Benedict XVI
Examines the Last Supper and the Jewish Passover  

Each Lent I re-read the gospels pertaining to Holy Week. And each year, the Lord peels back another layer giving me just a little more “insight” into these events. We cannot fully understand the Pascal mystery but by the grace of God bits and pieces are revealed which strengthen and deepen our faith.

In his book, Jesus of Nazareth - Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrectionm,  Pope Benedict XVI discusses the “difference” in the dating of the Last Supper between the Synoptic Gospels and John. Making reference to the continued dispute between some scholars as to if Jesus was truly celebrating the Jewish Passover at the Last Supper.

The Synoptic’ note that preparations for Last Supper took place on or around the first day of the Unleavened Bread (Matthew 26:17; Mark 14:12; Luke 22:7) The Navarre Bible commentary on Matthew 26:17 states that “In Jesus’ time the Passover supper was held on the first day of the weeklong feast of Unleavened Bread,” making the Last Supper in the Gospel of Matthew the Passover meal.

The Gospel of John opens chapter 13 with “Now before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” (John 13:1) In the next verse we are at supper when Jesus washes the feet of his disciples, with verse 1 leading us to draw the conclusion that the Last Supper when Jesus washed the feet of the disciples was not a Passover meal.

Furthermore the following day at the trial in front of Pilate, John refers to this day as “the day of Preparation for the Passover; it was about the sixth hour,” (John 19:14) when Jesus was condemned to die. The sixth hour was about midday, the hour the Passover lambs began to be slaughtered at the Temple for the meal that night. John is making the connection that the old perpetual sacrifice of the lambs in the Temple was being replaced with the once and for all sacrifice of Jesus “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29) With Jesus being sentenced to die in John gospel on the Day of Preparation, this would suggest that the Last Supper took place the previous evening, the day before the Passover meal.

Many attempts have been made to reconcile the chronologies of the Synoptic Gospel’s and John. One solution states that the Jews at the time of Jesus celebrated two Passover meals. Another speaks of two difference calendars observed by different sects within the Jewish community at the time. Or possibly the term “Passover” was a figure of speech that referred to every day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread.

The Navarre Bible’s commentary on the 19th chapter of John states, “The fact that Jesus was sentenced on the Preparation day suggests that in holding the Last Supper the previous evening, Jesus and his disciples may have been using a calendar, adhered to by some Jews, which put the Passover day one day earlier than the day specified by the calendar in general use.”

What is to be concluded? Pope Benedict XVI covers all of these attempts to reconcile the date of the Last Supper in detail in his book Jesus of Nazareth Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection. He does so to “offer insight into the complexity of the Jewish world at the time of Jesus, a world that we can reconstruct only to a limited degree, despite all the knowledge of sources now available to us.” (Jesus of Nazareth Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection, pg 111-112)

So was the Last Supper the Passover? “One thing emerges clearly from the entire tradition: essentially, this farewell meal was not the old Passover, but the new one….It was Jesus’ Passover. And in this sense he both did and did not celebrate the Passover: The old rituals could not be carried out…he had given himself, and thus he had truly celebrated the Passover with them. The old was not abolished; it was simply brought to its full meaning.” (p. 114)

The death and Resurrection of Christ is the celebration of the new Passover, the Passover that endures, that Passover that covers all sin, past, present and future. “Jesus’ Last Supper – which includes not only a prophecy, but a real anticipation of the Cross and Resurrection in the Eucharistic gifts – was regarded as a Passover: as His Passover. And so it was.” (p. 115)
For items related to the Catholic Church
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The Last Supper - Franceso Fontebasso
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The Last Supper - Franceso Fontebasso


  1. This book was started before Benedict became the Pope, and he continued the work on it during the first two years of his pontificate. It is inspiring and admirable to see such a sharpness of mind in an octogenarian. The book, however, has been without the inclusion of the passion and infancy narratives. The pope has expressed a hope to be able to finish those parts as the time permits. We can all hope that God gives him strength and good health in the years to come, so we can be enriched for yet another spiritual gem.

  2. Hi Espana - from your lips to God's ears to Pope Benedict's pen!