The Grammar of the Last Supper and Eucharistic Sacrifice

            Note: this article is being revised by the author 6/16/2005

A Grammatical Consideration of the Last Supper Eucharistic Discourses

by Vincent Arong

this section is being revised by the author

The Unity of the Sacrifice of Christ in the Cross and the Mass

The Catholic Church believes that the Mass, besides being a participation in the Resurrection, Ascension and intercession of Jesus before the Father, is the living memorial of the Passover celebration of Christ -- the Last Supper -- which makes present the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross at Calvary. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains it this way:

"At the Last Supper, on the night he was betrayed, our Savior instituted the Eucharistic sacrifice of his Body and Blood. This he did in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the cross throughout the ages until he should come again, and so to entrust to his beloved Spouse, the Church, a memorial of his death and resurrection: a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity, a Paschal banquet 'in which Christ is consumed, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us'" (CCC 1323).

The Mass expresses the Last Supper At the Last Supper, Jesus instituted the giving of his body and blood under the signs of bread and wine, and told his Apostles to carry out this celebration in remembrance of him. Christ’s Passover meal is found to the present day when Catholics follow what was done at the Last Supper: gather, listen to the Word of God, present bread and wine, consecrate the bread and wine with the words of institution and partake of the communion meal. In the Mass, the Catholic Church celebrates the Last Supper in memory of Christ. The apex of the Mass is the institution narrative, in which the words of the Word of God made flesh are prayed over bread and wine:

"This is my body...this is the cup of my this in remembrance of me."

Responding in obedience, the Catholic Church perpetuates the memory of the Passover banquet that Christ celebrated with his disciples. In the Mass, the Last Supper subsists through the words and actions done in imitation of Christ.

The Last Supper signified the Sacrifice of the Cross To explore the connection between the sacrifice of the Cross and the Mass, we need to examine the Last Supper itself. At the Last Supper, Jesus said that his body is given and his blood is shed for the remission of sins as he blessed and handed the Eucharistic elements to his Apostles. Afterwards, Jesus said, "Do this in remembrance (anamnesis) of me."

How can we analyze these statements? In showing a division between body and blood through the consecration of bread that is separate from the consecration of wine, Jesus signified his death that was to come on the Cross. The next day, Jesus did give his body and shed his blood as he was crucified, and in death his blood was separated from his body. Accordingly, there is a relationship between the Last Supper and the Cross in terms of a sign and its reality. At this point, all Christians can agree: Jesus' sacrificial language and actions at the Last Supper of giving his body and shedding his blood demonstrate that the Last Supper signified the sacrifice of the Cross.

The Last Supper was a Sacrifice On the other hand, the sacrificial language that Jesus employed also demonstrates that the Last Supper cannot be reduced to a merely symbolic foreshadowing of Calvary. Jesus' language of giving his body and shedding his blood was in the present tense. The action that was in progress at that point in time was the consecration, giving and consumption of the Eucharistic elements; the referent of Jesus' sacrificial language was the Eucharistic celebration of the Last Supper.

Thus, the Last Supper was a sacrifice. Furthermore, Jesus tells the Apostles to do what he did in memory (anamnesis) of him. In Scripture, the only other time when anamnesis is used, besides the Last Supper narratives in the synoptic Gospels and in First Corinthians, is in the sacrificial context of Hebrews 10:3 :

“But in those sacrifices there is a remembrance (anamnesis) again made of sins every year.”

In addition to the Greek New Testament, the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Old Testament likewise uses the term anamnesis in Leviticus 24:7 and Numbers 10:10, where it is connected to sacrificial offerings. Based on the present tense context of the sacrificial language that Jesus used and the sacrificial usage of anamnesis, the Last Supper demonstrates to be sacrificial in nature. Since the essence of the Mass is identical with that of the Last Supper, the Mass is consequently a sacrifice.

The Mass makes present the Sacrifice of the Cross The objection may arise: if Last Supper is a sacrifice, it would imply that there is another sacrifice besides the one Jesus gave on the Cross. However, such a conclusion would be in contradiction to Scripture, which mentions that there is only one sacrifice of Christ. Moreover, it is established that the Last Supper is a sign, while the sacrifice of the Cross is the reality. Is there not a separation between a reality and its sign? A clue may be found in exploring the connection between liturgical signs and realities the way the Hebrews and the early Christians (as well as the Catholic Church today) understood it -- certain unique signs make present the very realities they signify. In other words, the unique sign of the Last Supper truly brings the reality of the sacrifice of the Cross to Christians in the present here-and-now.

J.N.D. Kelly, the Protestant patristic scholar and church historian, in his book Early Christian Doctrines comes to the same conclusion:

"According to ancient modes of thought a mysterious relationship existed between the thing symbolized and its symbol, figure or type; the symbol in some sense was the thing symbolized" (p. 212, emphasis in the original).

The reality that is made present by the sign is especially significant in relation to anamnesis, which as discussed earlier, has sacrificial implications. The Catechism discusses this relationship in reference to the Mass:

“The Eucharist is the memorial of Christ's Passover, the making present and the sacramental offering of his unique sacrifice, in the liturgy of the Church which is his Body. In all the Eucharistic Prayers we find after the words of institution a prayer called the anamnesis or memorial.

“In the sense of Sacred Scripture the memorial is not merely the recollection of past events but the proclamation of the mighty works wrought by God for men. In the liturgical celebration of these events, they become in a certain way present and real. This is how Israel understands its liberation from Egypt: every time Passover is celebrated, the Exodus events are made present to the memory of believers so that they may conform their lives to them.

“In the New Testament, the memorial takes on new meaning. When the Church celebrates the Eucharist, she commemorates Christ's Passover, and it is made present the sacrifice Christ offered once for all on the cross remains ever present. ‘As often as the sacrifice of the Cross by which 'Christ our Pasch has been sacrificed' is celebrated on the altar, the work of our redemption is carried out’” (CCC 1362-1364).

Since the Last Supper is both sacrificial and signifies the Cross, the essence of Christ's Paschal banquet truly makes present the reality of his entire sacrifice, which Christ consummated the next day through his death at Calvary. The reality of Christ's offering was expressed on the Cross through sacrificial death, while the instrument that makes the same sacrifice present at Mass is through a deathless act: the separate consecration of bread and wine. That is why Paul could write,

"For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes" (1 Corinthians 11:26).

However, since Christ has eternally vanquished death, he can no longer suffer and die as he did on the Cross. Therefore the sign of the separate consecrations recall the means of Christ's sacrifice on Calvary -- which was death -- yet, at the same time, makes present the essential reality of that very same sacrifice-- which is himself. On the other hand, since the separate consecrations refer to the death of Christ, the sign-reality connection that exists between the Mass and Calvary is maintained. This leads to a profound implication: since the Mass makes present Christ's sacrifice, that would mean that the priest and the offering are synonymous and identical at both the Mass and at Calvary: Jesus Christ. Therefore, not only do the signs of bread and wine make present the reality of Jesus' sacrifice on the Cross, but they also make present the very reality of the body and blood of Jesus Christ himself. The union that exists between the Mass and the death of Christ is not just in the event of the sacrifice but also in Him who is given in sacrifice, namely, Jesus Christ.

Unequivocally, the sacrificial identity between the Cross and the Last Supper shows that in the Eucharist, Jesus is truly present -- body and blood, soul and divinity. In conclusion, the Mass makes present to the Church the very same sacrifice that Jesus Christ offered on the Cross two thousand years ago. The People of God, through the Mass, are given the gift that transcends time and space to worship He who Is in Spirit and in Truth through faith. This gift is the exact same reality that witnessed Christ's sacrifice of his life to the Father for his beloved at Calvary. Thus, the Mass and the offering of Christ on the Cross are one single sacrifice, which Jesus committed “once for all, when he offered himself” (Hebrews 7:27).

Vincent Arong

Recommended Source:

Sungenis, Robert A. Not By Bread Alone: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for the Eucharistic Sacrifice (Queenship Publishing, 2000).