The purpose of this post is to follow up my last one on why the Last Supper was not the First Mass. The next post on Holy Thursday will try to explain exactly what it was: An eschatological banquet enacting a surrogate for sacrifice. But first things first. Four points:
1. A Mass requires the whole Paschal Mystery. The Mass is an anamnetic moment. It is a moment in which the believing community is brought back to the dynamic movement of the Paschal Mystery so as to enter into that moment and imitate the loving self-sacrificial actions of Christ.
Side note: There has been a danger in post-Tridentine theology to speak of the Mass as a re-presentation of the sacrifice of Christ. But this interpretation both fails to take the book of Hebrews seriously and also misunderstands the Jewish concept of “remembrance,” azkarah. Jewish remembrance does not mean that the past event is brought into the present and enacted again. Rather, it means that those who partake in the ritual action are themselves re-presented to the past event. At the Mass, the community of believers becomes present to the Paschal Mystery. Christ is not re-offered or re-presented on the altar of the priest. Rather, the believing community is re-presented to the sacrifice of Christ and, through the power of the Spirit, made part of that self-offering to the Father. Side note over.
The Mass is a memorial of the Paschal mystery. But without that mystery, there could not be a Mass at the Last Supper.
2. A Mass requires the Resurrection. It would only lead to heresy, in my opinion, to posit that when Jesus said at the Last Supper: “This is my body,” the bread became his body. What body did it become? His physical body? That is heretical. His resurrected body? More likely… except the resurrection had not happened yet. Catholic theology has always taken temporality and history very seriously, so I think it is important that we not think that Jesus could somehow offer himself to his disciples in his resurrected form before the resurrection had even taken place!
3. A Mass requires the sending of the Holy Spirit. Without an Epiclesis, there is no Mass. yet, according to whichever tradition you prefer, the Holy Spirit was not sent until, in John’s gospel, Jesus died and rose, and in Luke’s gospel, until the feast of Pentecost. Either way, while the traditions don’t agree completely with one another, they do agree that Christ sent his Spirit. And that Spirit is the one who transforms both the eucharistic elements and us into the living body and blood of Jesus.
So to summarize thus far, a Mass includes: The Last Supper, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension, Sending of the Spirit. It is a memorial of all those, not just of Jesus’ last meal with his disciples. The Mass we take part in as believers re-presents us to all of the events that took place from Last Supper to Sending of the Spirit. None of those moments are lost in the process. So that last meal was something very important. But it was not a Mass.
4. A Mass requires… a Mass. I’m not trying to be snarky here. My point is that, just as we have to be very careful about, say, calling Peter the “first pope,” or the first disciples of Jesus “the first Catholics,” so in a similar way, we should be careful — but even more so, in view of the arguments above — about calling the Last Supper the “first Mass.” The Mass itself took a long time to develop, nor has there ever been one Mass. This second point is very important. There is a reason that there are at least 22 rites in the Catholic Church, including one that does not even have “words of institution.” This is because there has never been one Mass, but only many Masses. Historical critical scholarship, despite its best efforts, has never been able to give us the exact words of Jesus at that Last Supper, and that is almost certainly because it was never remembered in one way. The Last Supper was remembered in different ways in different communities using a variety of words and rituals. As Basil the Great explains to us:
Have any saints left for us in writing the words to be used in the invocation over the Eucharistic bread and the cup of blessing? As everyone knows, we are not content in the liturgy simply to recite the words recorded by St. Paul and the Gospels, but we add other words both before and after, words of great importance for this mystery. We have received these words from unwritten teaching.
There have always been many Masses and many traditions of the words of Jesus. That first generative moment led Jesus into his Passion and sparked many forms of ritualized prayer that we call many rites of the Mass. But that supper never gave us ‘one Mass.’
So what was the Last Supper? That I will discuss on Thursday. In the meantime, let us enter into this week remembering the words of the author of the Gospel of John: “Having loved his own who were it the world, he loved them to the end.” The Last Supper was the beginning of this loving to the end, and it for the sake of learning how to love to the end that we participate in Mass.