Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb

Father John A. Kiley

As good and faithful Jews, Jesus and his closest disciples made careful preparations for the celebration of the Paschal meal – which, of course, would sadly be Jesus’ last supper. Joining St. Matthew and St. Mark, St. Luke carefully observes, “He sent out Peter and John, instructing them, “Go and make preparations for us to eat the Passover.” A man they would meet would show them “a large upper room that is furnished.” They should make the preparations there. “Then they went off and found everything exactly as he had told them, and there they prepared the Passover.” When the four Gospel accounts of this Last Passover are read, along with St. Paul’s recollections, all of the traditional elements that even today comprise the Paschal Meal are mentioned.

The Passover was a family meal, not celebrated in the grand Temple supervised by the priests, but rather eaten at home gathered around the family table. The Last Supper accounts mention, of course, the bread that was shared reminiscent of the hastily prepared unleavened bread the Jews brought with them as they fled Egypt. Wine was an integral part of the prayerful blessings that punctuated the Paschal meal and wine was certainly prominent at Jesus’ last paschal meal. Even the bitter herbs that symbolized so much sad history to the observant Jew find reference here as Jesus and Judas dip their morsels at the same moment. And, of course, Jesus and his closest disciples were careful to sing the appropriate Pascal psalms at the proper time, as the evangelists duly note.

One vital element that was integral to every authentic Paschal meal both in the ancient times and in our modern era is, however, never mentioned. Neither Matthew, Mark, Luke, John nor Paul mentions the Paschal Lamb. There is, oddly, no reference at all to the presence of the most symbolic aspect of the Jewish nation’s fond recall of their deliverance from Egypt. The sacred authors do note that the Last Supper indeed took place during the week when lambs were being prepared for slaughter in the Temple. So the context is clearly Paschal. But there is no allusion at all to roasted lamb being consumed by Jesus and his disciples in the Upper Room. Lamb, a significant portion of the Passover Meal, is missing from all four Gospel accounts. Or is it?

The Paschal Lamb was the traditional symbol of the Jewish deliverance from slavery in Egypt. The lamb was slain in those ancient days and its blood smeared on the lintels and door posts of Jewish homes. The angel of death then spared the occupants of those homes from the slaughter of the first born that God inflicted on the hapless Egyptians. Having been spared by the blood of the lamb, the grateful Jews then made a meal of the lamb, eating its roasted flesh with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. This was the ritual decreed by Moses himself.

So how could a dozen loyal Jews omit the Paschal Lamb from their solemn ritual meal? In fact, the Paschal Lamb was indeed present at that paschal meal that the master celebrated with his faithful disciples. Jesus himself was the Lamb of God at this exceptional Paschal meal. Jesus was the lamb who was slaughtered to save mankind not from the death of any firstborn but from eternal death. Jesus was the lamb who was slain to release humanity not from slavery in Egypt but from slavery to sin. Jesus was indeed then and is now “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” Happy indeed are those who are called to his supper!

Since consuming the traditional paschal lamb is omitted from the Gospel accounts and since Jesus is the new Paschal Lamb, the eating and drinking of Jesus’ own body and blood at the Last Supper and at every Eucharistic celebration is most relevant. The ancient Jews were strictly told by Moses not only to slaughter the lamb but also to consume its flesh. As the authentic new Lamb of God, Jesus now commands his followers to eat his flesh and drink his blood in order to participate in the fullness of redemption. Actual communion with flesh and blood of the Lamb of God is just as vital in the New Testament as it was in the Old Testament. Blessed indeed are those who are called to the supper of the Lamb!