The Last Supper

The Life of Christ – Written by Frederick W. Farrar – Originally published in 1874.



οὐκ ἔφαγε τὸν νομικὸν ἀμνὸν… ἀλλ᾽ αὐτὸς ἔπαθεν ὡς ἀληθὴς aurós. 352 – Chron. Pasch., p. 12.

On the Tuesday evening in Passion week, Jesus had spoken of the Passover as the season of His death. If the customs enjoined by the Law had been capable of rigid and exact fulfillment, the Paschal lamb for the use of Himself and His disciples would have been set apart on the previous Sunday evening; but although, since the days of the exile, the Passover had been observed, it is probable that the changed circumstances of the nation had introduced many natural and perfectly justifiable changes in the old regulations. It would have been a simple impossibility for the myriads of pilgrims to provide themselves beforehand with a Paschal lamb.

It was on the morning of Thursday – Green Thursday as it used to be called during the Middle Ages that some conversation took place between Jesus and His disciples about the Paschal feast. They asked Him where He wished the preparation for it to be made. As He had now withdrawn from all public teaching, and was spending this Thursday, as He had spent the previous day, in complete seclusion, they probably expected that He would eat the Passover at Bethany, which for such purposes had been decided by rabbinical authority to be within the limits of Jerusalem. But His plans were otherwise. He, the true Paschal Lamb, was to be sacrificed once and for ever in the Holy City, where it is probable that in that very Passover, and on the very same day, some 260,000 of those lambs of which He was the antitype were destined to be slain.

Accordingly He sent Peter and John to Jerusalem, and appointing for them a sign both mysterious and secret, told them that on entering the gate they would meet a servant carrying a pitcher of water from one of the fountains for evening use; following him they would reach a house, to the owner of which they were to intimate the intention of the Master to eat the Passover there with His disciples; and this householder – conjectured by some to have been Joseph of Arimathæa, by others John Mark – would at once place at their disposal a furnished upper room, ready provided with the requisite table and couches. They found all as Jesus had said, and there “made ready the Passover.” Full reasons will, however, be given in the Excursus for believing that this was not the ordinary Jewish Passover, but a meal eaten by our Lord and His Apostles on the previous evening, Thursday, Nisan 13, to which a quasi – Paschal character was given, but which was intended to supersede the Jewish festival by one of far deeper and diviner significance.

It was towards the evening, probably when the gathering dusk would prevent all needless observation, that Jesus and His disciples walked from Bethany, by that old familiar road over the mount of Olives, which His sacred feet were never again destined to traverse until after death. How far they attracted attention, or how it was that He whose person was known to so many and who, as the great central figure of such great counter – agitations, had, four days before, been accompanied with shouts of triumph, as He would be, on the following day, with yells of insult – could now enter Jerusalem unnoticed with His followers, we cannot tell. We catch no glimpse of the little company till we find them assembled in that “large upper room” -perhaps the very room where three days afterwards the sorrow – stricken Apostles first saw their risen Saviour, perhaps the very room where, amid the sound of a rushing mighty wind, each meek brow was first mitred with Pentecostal flame.

When they arrived, the meal was ready, the table spread, the triclinia laid with cushions for the guests. Imagination loves to reproduce all the probable details of that deeply moving and eternally sacred scene; and if we compare the notices of ancient Jewish cus tom, with the immemorial fashions still existing in the changeless East, we can feel but little doubt as to the general nature of the arrangements. They were totally unlike those with which the genius of Leonardo da Vinci, and other great painters, has made us so familiar. The room probably had white walls, and was bare of all except the most necessary furniture and adornment. The couches or cushions, each large enough to hold three persons, were placed around three sides of one or more low tables of gaily painted wood, each scarcely higher than stools. The seat of honor was the central one of the central triclinium, or mat. This was, of course, occupied by the Lord. Each guest reclined at full length, leaning on his left elbow, that his right hand might be free. At the right hand of Jesus reclined the beloved disciple, whose head therefore could, at any moment, be placed upon the breast of his friend and Lord.

It may be that the very act of taking their seats at the table had, once more, stirred up in the minds of the Apostles those disputes about precedence which, on previous occasions, our Lord had so tenderly and beautifully rebuked. The mere question of a place at table might seem a matter too infinitesimal and unimportant to ruffle the feelings of good and self – denying men at an hour so supreme and solemn; but that love for “the chief seats” at feasts and else where, which Jesus had denounced in the Pharisees, is not only innate in the human heart, but is even so powerful that it has at times caused the most terrific tragedies. But at this moment, when the soul of Jesus was full of such sublime purpose – when He was breathing the pure unmingled air of Eternity, and the Eternal was to Him, in spite of His mortal investiture, not only the present but a strife of this kind must have been more than ever painful. It showed how little, as yet, even these His chosen followers had entered into the meaning of His life. It showed that the evil spirits of pride and selfishness were not yet exorcised from their struggling souls. It showed that, even now, they had wholly failed to understand His many and earnest warnings as to the nature of His kingdom, and the certainty of His fate. That some great crisis was at hand – that their Master was to suffer and be slain – they must have partially realized; but they seem to have regarded this as a mere temporary obscuration, to be followed by an immediate divulgence of His splendor, and the setting up on earth of His Messianic the seen throne.

In pained silence Jesus had heard their murmured jealousies, while they were arranging their places at the feast. Not by mere verbal reproof, but by an act more profoundly significant and touching, He determined to teach to them, and to all who love Him, a nobler lesson.

Every Eastern room, if it belongs to any but the very poorest, has the central part of the floor covered with mats, and as a person enters, he lays aside his sandals at the door of the room, mainly in order not to defile the clean white mats with the dust and dirt of the road or streets, and also ( at any rate among Mahometans ) because the mat is hallowed by being knelt upon in prayer. Before they reclined at the table, the disciples had doubtless conformed to this cleanly and reasonable custom; but another customary and pleasant habit, which we know that Jesus appreciated, had been neglected. Their feet must have been covered with dust from their walk along the hot and much frequented road from Bethany to Jerusalem, and under such circumstances they would have been refreshed for the festival by washing their feet after putting off their sandals. But to wash the feet was the work of slaves; and since no one had offered to perform the kindly office, Jesus Himself, in His eternal humility and self – denial, rose from His place at the meal to do the menial service which none of His disciples had offered to do for Him. Well may the amazement of the beloved disciple show itself in his narrative, as he dwells on every particular of that solemn scene. “Though He knew that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He came from God and was going to God, He arose from the supper and laid aside His garments, and taking a towel, girded Himself.” It is probable that in the utterness of self – abnegation, He entirely stripped His upper limbs, laying aside both the simchah and the cetóneth, as though He had been the meanest slave, and wrapping the towel round His waist. Then pouring water into the large copper basin with which an Oriental house is always provided, He began without a word to wash His disciples’ feet, and wipe them dry with the towel which served Him as a girdle. Awe and shame kept them silent until He came to Peter, whose irrepressible emotions found vent in the surprised, half – indignant question, “Lord, dost Thou seek to wash my feet?” Thou, the Son of God, the King of Israel, who hast the words of eternal life – Thou, whose feet Oriental kings should anoint with their costliest spikenard, and penitents bathe in precious tears – dost thou wash Peter’s feet? It was the old dread and self – depreciation which, more than three years before, had prompted the cry of the rude fisherman of Galilee, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord; it was the old self – will which, a year before, had expressed itself in the self – confident dissuasion of the elated Man of Rock- “That be far from Thee, Lord; this shall not happen unto Thee.” Gently recognizing what was good in His impetuous follower’s ejaculation, Jesus calmly tells him that as yet he is too immature to understand the meaning of His actions, though the day should come when their significance should dawn upon him. But Peter, obstinate and rash as though he felt, even more than his Lord, the greatness of Him that ministered, and the meanness of him to whom the service would be done – persisted in his opposition: “Never, never, till the end of time,” he impetuously exclaims; “shalt thou wash my feet?” But then Jesus revealed to him the dangerous self-assertion which lurked in this false humility. “If I wash thee not, thou hast no share with me.” Alike, thy self-conceit and thy self-disgust must be laid aside if thou wouldest be mine. My follower must accept my will, even when he least can comprehend it, even when it seems to violate his own conceptions of what I am. That calm word changed the whole current of thought and feeling in the warm-hearted passionate disciple. “No share with Thee? oh, forbid it, Heaven! Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head!” But no: once more he must accept what Christ wills, not in his own way, but in Christ’s way. This total washing was not needed. The baptism of his initiation was over; in that laver of regeneration he had been already dipped. Nothing more was needed than the daily cleansing from minor and freshly – contracted stains. The feet soiled with the clinging dust of daily sins, these must be washed in daily renovation; but the heart and being of the man, these were already washed, were cleansed, were sanctified. “Jesus saith to him, He that is bathed ( λελομένες ) hath no need save to wash ( νίψασθαι ) his feet, but is clean every whit. And ye are clean;” and then He was forced to add with a deep sigh, “but not all.” The last words were an allusion to His consciousness of one traitorous presence; for He knew, what as yet they knew not, that the hands of the Lord of Life had just washed the traitor’s feet. Oh, strange unfathomable depth of human infatuation and ingratitude! that traitor, with all the black and accursed treachery in his false heart, had seen, had known, had suffered it; had felt the touch of those kind and gentle hands, had been refreshed by the cleansing -water, had seen that sacred head bent over his feet, yet stained as they yet were with the hurried secret walk which had taken him into the throng of sanctimonious murderers over the shoulder of Olivet. But for him there had been no purification in that lustral water; neither was the devil within him exorcised by that gentle voice, nor the leprosy of his heart healed by that miracle – producing touch.

The other Apostles did not at the moment notice that grievous exception “but not all.” It may be that their consciences gave to all, even to the most faithful, too sad a cause to echo the words, with something of misgiving, to his own soul. Then Jesus, after having washed their feet, resumed His garments, and once more reclined at the meal. As He leaned there on His left elbow, John lay at his right, with his head quite close to Jesus ‘ breast. Next to John, and at the top of the next mat or cushion, would probably be his brother as we infer from the few details of the meal – at the James; and left of Jesus lay the Man of Kerioth, who may either have thrust himself into that position, or who, as the holder of the common purse, occupied a place of some prominence among the little band. It seems probable that Peter’s place was at the top of the next mat, and at the left of Judas. And as the meal began, Jesus taught them what His act had meant. Rightly, and with proper respect, they called Him “Master” and “Lord,” for so He was; yet, though the Lord is greater than the slave, the Sender greater than His Apostle, He their Lord and Master had washed their feet. It was a kind and gracious task, and such ought to be the nature of all their dealings with each other. He had done it to teach them humility, to teach them self-denial, to teach them love: blessed they if they learnt the lesson! blessed if they learnt that the struggles for precedence, the assertions of claims, the standings upon dignity, the fondness for the mere exercise of authority, marked the tyrannies and immaturities of heathendom, and that the greatest Christian is ever the humblest. He should be chief among them who, for the sake of others, gladly laid on himself the lowliest burdens, and sought for himself the humblest services. Again and again He warned them that they were not to look for earthly reward or earthly prosperity; the throne, and the table, and the kingdom, and the many mansions were not of earth.

And then again the trouble of His spirit broke forth. He was speaking of those whom He had chosen; He was not speaking of them all. Among the blessed company sat one who even then was drawing on his own head a curse. It had been so with David, whose nearest friend had become his bitterest foe; it was foreordained that it should be so likewise with David’s Son. Soon should they know with what full foreknowledge He had gone to all that awaited Him; soon should they be able to judge that, just as the man who receives in Christ’s name His humblest servant receiveth Him, so the rejection of Him is the rejection of His Father, and that this rejection of the Living God was the crime which at this moment was being committed, and committed in their very midst.

There, next but one to Him, hearing all these words unmoved, full of spite and hatred, utterly hardening his heart, and leaning the whole weight of his demoniac possession against that door of mercy which even now and even here His Saviour would have opened to him, sat Judas, the false sinile of hypocrisy on his face, but rage, and shame, and greed, and anguish, and treachery in his heart. The near presence of that black iniquity, the failure of even His pathetic lowliness to move or touch the man’s hideous purpose, troubled the human heart of Jesus to its inmost depths – wrung from Him His agony of yet plainer prediction, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, that one of you shall betray me!” That night all, even the best beloved, were to forsake Him, but it was not that; that night even the boldest – hearted was to deny Him with oaths, but it was not that; nay, but one of them was to betray Him. Their hearts misgave them as they listened. Already a deep unspeakable sadness had fallen over the sacred meal. Like the sombre and threatening crimson that intermingles with the colors of sunset, a dark omen seemed to be overshadowing them -a shapeless presentiment of evil – an unspoken sense of dread. If all their hopes were to be thus blighted – if at this very Passover, He for whom they had given up all, and who had been to them all in all, was indeed to be betrayed by one of themselves to an unpitied and ignominious end – if this were possible, anything seemed possible. Their hearts were troubled. All their want of nobility, all their failure in love, all the depth of their selfishness, all the weakness of their faith”

Every evil thought they ever thought, And every evil word they ever said, And every evil thing they ever did,

all crowded upon their memories, and made their consciences afraid. None of them seemed safe from anything, and each read his own self-distrust in his brother-disciple’s eye. And hence, at that moment of supreme sadness and almost despair, it was with lips that faltered and cheeks that paled, that each asked the humble question, “Lord, is it I?” Better always that question than “Is it he?” – better the penitent watchfulness of a self-condemning humility than the haughty Pharisaism of censorious pride. The very horror that breathed through their question, the very trustfulness which prompted it, involved their acquittal. Jesus only remained silent, in order that even then, if it were possible, there might be time for Judas to repent. But Peter was unable to restrain his sorrow and his impatience. Eager to know and to prevent the treachery – unseen by Jesus, whose back was turned to him as He reclined at the meal he made a signal to John to ask “who it was.” The head of John was close to Jesus, and laying it with affectionate trustfulness on his Master’s breast, he said in a whisper, “Lord, who is it?” The reply, given in a tone equally low, was heard by St. John alone, and confirmed the suspicions with which it is evident that the repellant nature of Judas had already inspired him. At Eastern meals all the guests eat with their fingers out of a common dish, and it is common for one at times to dip into the dish a piece of the thin flexible cake of bread which is placed by each, and taking up with it a portion of the meat or rice in the dish, to hand it to another guest. So ordinary an incident of any daily meal would attract no notice whatever. Jesus handed to the traitor Apostle a “sop” of this kind, and this, as He told St. John, was the sign which should indicate to him, and possibly through him to St. Peter, which was the guilty member of the little band. And then He added aloud, in words which can have but one significance, in words the most awful and crushing that ever passed His lips, “The Son of Man goeth indeed, as it is written of Him; but woe unto that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It were good for that man if he had not been born!” Words, “it has been well said,” of immeasurable ruin, words of immeasurable woe – and the more terrible because uttered by the lips of immeasurable Love; words capable, if any were capable, of revealing to the lost soul of the traitor all the black gulf of horror that was yawning before his feet. He must have known something of what had passed; he may well have overheard some fragment of the conversation, or at least have had a dim consciousness that in some way it referred to him. He may even have been aware that when his hand met the hand of Jesus over the dish there was some meaning in the action. When the others were questioning among themselves “which was the traitor?” he had remained silent in the defiant hardness of contempt or the sullen gloom of guilt; but now – stung, it may be, by some sense of the shuddering horror with which the mere possibility of his guilt was regarded – he nerved himself for the shameful and shameless question. After all the rest had sunk into silence, there grated upon the Saviour’s ear that hoarse untimely whisper, in all the bitterness of its defiant mockery – not asking, as the rest had asked, in loving reverence, “Lord, is it I?” but with the cold formal title, “Rabbi, is it I?” Then that low unreproachful answer, “Thou hast said,” sealed his guilt. The rest did not hear it; it was probably caught by Peter and John alone; and Judas ate the sop which Jesus had given him, and after the sop Satan entered into him. As all the winds, on some night of storm, riot and howl through the rent walls of some desecrated shrine, so through the ruined life of Judas envy and avarice, and hatred and ingratitude, were rushing all at once. In that bewildering chaos of a soul spotted with mortal guilt, the Satanic had triumphed over the human; in that dark heart earth and hell were thenceforth at one; in that lost soul sin had conceived and brought forth death. “What thou art doing, do more quickly,” said Jesus to him aloud. He knew what the words implied, he knew that they meant, “Thy fell purpose is matured, carry it out with no more of these futile hypocrisies and meaningless delays.” Judas rose from the feast. The innocent – hearted Apostles thought that Jesus had bidden him go out and make purchases for tomorrow’s Passover, or give something out of the common store which should enable the poor to buy their Paschal lamb. And so from the lighted room, from the holy banquet, from the blessed company, from the presence of his Lord, he went immediately out, and as the beloved disciple adds, with a shudder of dread significance letting the curtain of darkness fall for ever on that appalling figure- “and it was night.”

We cannot tell with any certainty whether this took place before or after the institution of the Lord’s Supper – whether Judas partook or not of those hallowed symbols. Nor can we tell whether at all, or, if at all, to what extent, our Lord conformed the minor details of His last supper to the half-joyous, half-mournful customs of the Paschal feast; nor, again, can we tell how far the customs of the Passover in that day resembled those detailed to us in the Rabbinic writings. Nothing could have been simpler than the ancient method of their commemorating their deliverance from Egypt and from the destroying angel. The central custom of the feast was the hasty eating of the Paschal lamb, with unleavened bread and bitter herbs, in a standing attitude, with loins girt and shoes upon the feet, as they had eaten hastily on the night of their deliverance. In this way the Passover is still yearly eaten by the Samaritans at the summit of Gerizim, and there to this day they will hand to the stranger the little olive-shaped morsel of unleavened bread, enclosing a green fragment of wild endive or some other bitter herb, which may perhaps resemble, except that it is not dipped in the dish, the very uior which Judas received at the hands of Christ. But even if the Last Supper was a Passover, we are told that the Jews had long ceased to eat it standing, or to observe the rule which forbade any guest to leave the house till morning. They made, in fact, many radical distinctions between the Egyptian ( פםח מצרים ) and the permanent Passover ( פםח דורות ) which was subsequently observed. The latter meal began by filling each guest a cup of wine, over which the head of the family pronounced a benediction. After this the hands were washed in a basin of water, and a table was brought in, on which were placed the bitter herbs, the unleavened bread, the charoseth (a dish made of dates, raisins, and vinegar), the paschal lamb, and the flesh of the chagigah. The father dipped a piece of herb in the charoseth, ate it, with a benediction, and distributed a similar morsel to all. A second cup of wine was then poured out; the youngest present inquired the meaning of the paschal night; the father replied with a full account of the observance; the first part of the Hallel (Ps. cvii. – exiv.) was then sung, a blessing repeated, a third cup of wine was drunk, grace was said, a fourth cup poured out, the rest of the Hallel (Ps. cxv. – cxviii.) sung, and the ceremony ended by the blessing of the song. Some, no doubt, of the facts mentioned at the Last Supper may be brought into comparison with parts of this ceremony. It appears, for instance, that the supper began with a benediction, and the passing of a cup of wine, which Jesus bade them divide among themselves, saying that He would not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God should come. The other cup – passed round after has been identified by some supper. with the third cup, the Cós ha – beráchah or ” cup of blessing ” of the Jewish ceremonial; and the hymn which was sung before the departure of the little company to Gethsemane has, with much probability, been supposed to be the second part of the Great Hallel.

The relation of these incidents of the meal to the various Paschal observances which we have detailed is, however, doubtful. What is not doubtful, and what has the deepest interest for all Christians, is the establishment at this last supper of the Sacrament of the Eucharist. Of this we have no fewer than four accounts. The brief description of St. Paul agreeing in almost verbal exactness with those of the Synoptists. In each account we clearly recognize the main facts which St. Paul expressly tells us that “he had received of the Lord” – viz., “that the Lord Jesus, on the same night in which He was betrayed, took bread; and when He had given thanks, He brake it, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body which is broken for you; this do in remembrance of me.” After the same manner also He took the cup when he had supped, saying, “This cup is the New Testament in my blood; this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me.” Never since that memorable evening has the Church ceased to observe the commandment of her Lord; ever since that day, from age to age, has this blessed and holy Sacrament been a memorial of the death of Christ, and a strengthening and refreshing of the soul by the body and blood, as the body is refreshed and strengthened by the bread and wine. “