Last Supper or Marriage Supper?

I attended Mass some time ago celebrated by an aged priest who was clearly of the 1970s ‘we are church’ brigade. He celebrated Mass reverently enough, but like many of his ilk, he altered the words when it suited his particular agenda.

When it came to elevating the host and saying, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, Happy are those who are called to his supper.” He said, “This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, Happy are those who are called to share in this Last Supper.” Now this interested me because, I must admit, I sometimes change the words here myself and (anticipating the new translation) say, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, Blessed are those who are called to the marriage supper of the Lamb” The new translation is: Behold the Lamb of God. Behold him who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those who are called to the supper of the Lamb.”

The contrast is between “Happy are those who are called to this Last Supper” and “Blessed are those who are called to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” Now, we don’t want to be too persnickety but the difference in the choice of words indicates an important difference in perspective on the Eucharist.

Is the Eucharist a re-enactment of the Last Supper? In the liturgical life of the church, the Eucharist is not actually a re-enactment of the Last Supper. The solemn re-enactment of the Last Supper is on Holy Thursday. The Holy Thursday liturgy is not only a re-enactment of the Last Supper, but also a commemoration of the establishment of the priesthood and the institution of the Mass.

The Mass is not therefore, (and never has been) a re-enactment of the Last Supper, but a re-presentation of the One, Full, Final Sacrifice of Our Lord Jesus Christ on the Cross. The Mass is a re-presentation of the mystery of the Death of our Lord–not a re-enactment of the Last Supper.

So why does a liberal priest impose on the Mass words of his own which are foreign to the sacrifice of the Mass? Because he does not like the idea that the Mass is a sacrifice. He wants it to be a fellowship meal, and the shift from sacrifice to fellowship meal is an attempt to make the Mass more ‘people centered’. He want the Mass to be all about our fellowship around the table of the Lord, and the Mass as re-enactment of Last Supper fits that agenda better. Furthermore, and at a deeper level, he is uncomfortable with the whole idea of the death of Christ being an atonement for sin. He doesn’t really like the ‘primitive’ idea of blood sacrifice ‘appeasing an angry God’. He feels that a supernatural explanation of the cross as a cosmic sacrifice of the Son of God which expiates the sins of humanity is somehow ‘inaccessible’ to modern man. It is ‘not helpful’ and ‘difficult for modern people to connect with.’ A fellowship meal, on the other hand, is more understandable–more relevant and more politically correct for a ‘fellowship meal’ can carry all sorts of justice and peace connotations as well. Suddenly the Mass is all about “caring and sharing for one another and welcoming all to the table.”

I am not saying these are concepts which are totally alien to the Mass, but they are subsidiary and secondary considerations of the meaning of the Mass. They are not primary.

So where does the Mass as ‘the marriage supper of the Lamb’ fit in? Well, this is an allusion to the Book of Revelation where the worship in heaven is said to be the ‘marriage supper of the Lamb.’ This builds on the nuptial imagery throughout the New Testament (especially in the Epistle to the Ephesians. In this language of mystery the church is the bride of Christ, and heaven is the final consummation of the mystical marriage between Christ and his Church. There in heaven the two are one. Bride and groom have been united in a mystical marriage of pure and eternal love.

The Mass is the re-presentation of the full, final sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, but if it is a supper it is not the Last Supper, but the Ultimate Supper–it is a foretaste of heaven. It is a glimpse of glory. It is a participation here on earth in the mystical and everlasting worship of heaven. It is the consummation of all things, the harvest of souls and the rapture of divine love within the human soul.

And these sublime ideas and these beautiful beyond words images should be reduced to some sort of fellowship meal? As if the Holy Mass were not much more than a pot luck supper?

Please. Give me a break.

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  • JFM

    Very helpful! You have written before of frustration and wanting to hang it up. Please, instead hang in there! No one else is doing what you are doing right now, esp. as a priest. Keep it up.

  • Alli R

    Thank you for this post. It helped me to understand why I am so uncomfortable at most masses where the priest injects his own changes (most especially in the Liturgy of the Eucharist). The small difference you make at the presentation does not change the meaning: most ad libs (or carefully planned changes) stand out immediately because they call attention to the priest instead of pointing to Christ.Many of the changes give me the feeling the priest somehow is in rebellion to the Church. Or, that they just cannot contain themselves and are somehow "acting" the part of priest as in a play; not participating in the real and continuous heavenly worhip of God.I know this sounds rather harsh.I'm very lucky to live in an area where I can go to several parishes for daily mass and not cringe at what the priest is saying. When I travel, I'm often "shocked and dismayed" by the liberties taken in the mass. I take refuge in prayer and try to still my critical thoughts.

  • Theocoid

    I would go with both/and here. Just as the passover was both a historical event and one into which the People of Israel re-enter annually (hence, in a way, an eternal event), so too is the wedding supper of the Lamb. The words of institution do not refer explicitly to the event as depicted in Revelation but to the last supper. I would suggest that both are present in the instance. The last supper is the moment when that eternal feast burst through the fabric of time.

  • Theocoid

    I would also suggest that the four-fold approach to interpreting scripture works as well on matters of tradition. There are literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical meanings to the event—none excluding the others.

  • Deacon Bill

    I realize this is not right on point but I am curious to learn how many ad libbing clerics will, because of the new translations, give up their ego driven instincts to see themselves and their own ideas of good liturgy superior to the liturgy as promulgated by the church. How egotistical we have become. God save us.

  • Augustine

    Fr. D,I'm not sure that it's fair to characterize what goes on in the depths of that priest, lest you mischaracterize him.Having said that, I abhor changes to the rubrics, including your changes, though to the better. I know what you're doing then, but it's equally distracting, dragging my attention from the Lamb to you.God bless and keep up being the good shepherd that you seem to be.

  • Steve

    Father, you belittle the view of the Eucharistic celebration as a re-enactment of the Last Supper. You belittle those who view the Eucharistic celebration as being closely tied to the Last Supper; you say that those folks want a "fellowship meal." (Did Jesus not seek fellowship with those who gathered with him at the Last Supper? Did he not unite them to him? What exactly is worthy of mocking in that fellowship meal?) You claim that the Last Supper is only re-enacted during the Holy Thursday liturgy. Really? The words from the Last Supper — why do they appear within the Eucharistic prayers? Is the Last Supper really of minimal importance in the gospel, as you seem to suggest? What meaning, exactly, would the passion and the resurrection have if we didn't have the Last Supper to make sense of it? In the Last Supper as part of the Mass, and through Christ's actions and words at the Last Supper, we see Christ's willing suffering the next day as a sign of how very much God loves the human race: us sinful folk. He's willing to sacrifice Himself, and so very painfully, for our sake. Without the Last Supper there to help us make sense of everything (and yes, help us achieve fellowship with God and with our brothers and sisters in Christ), Good Friday is simply a brutal killing of a dangerous rabbi, the Roman military machine doing its thing.The bread and wine, body and blood — how do we get to that if not through the Last Supper? Really? You want to say the Eucharist is all about sacrifice, and not ALSO about fellowship and Jesus gathering us to him, as he did the twelve in the upper room?

  • Belfry Bat

    Some amusing diversions occasioned by the words above…It's just possible that the senior Priest meant "Last Supper", at least partly, in the eschatological sense of "Last" — not confining itself to the traditional usage of "Last Supper" by which we refer to past historic events and famous paintings. It is amusing that the Last Supper is not the last supper eaten by Our Lord with his apostles; indeed, He made a point on more than one occasion of eating with them after His resurrection, to confirm His risen body over fears of a ghost. The Last Supper is His last supper before the Crucifixion. But in an eschatological sense, it seems reasonable to suppose that the last supper the happy souls partake of will be that for the Wedding of the Lamb indeed.I hope, good Father our host in whose sitting room we meet you now, that you have consulted with some bishop on your use/interpolation of "marriage" before "supper"; the phrase I'm used to hearing is wedding feast (though not at this point in the Mass!); most of the wedding feasts I've been to have indeed been suppers, but not all. My favourite have tended to be luncheons… if I ever am so blessed as to marry, I hope She will agree to a wedding early in the day and a luncheon feast… but I digress!

  • William Tighe

    The Eucharist was instituted at the Last Supper, but it is not the continuation or "representation" of the Last Supper.The classical Catholic and Patristic Eucharist was simply the combination of two elements extracted from the Last Supper: the initial Blessing, or Thanksgiving over, bread at the beginning (which was then distributed) and the long solemn prayer, the "Birkat ha-Mazon," over the final cup of wine at its end (which was then passed around and drunk from). The residue of the Supper (whether it was a Passover Meal or not, and I think it was not), continued in the Church for some centuries, minus the extracted two elements, as the "Church Supper" or "Agape," which appears to have died out everywhere, or become residual, by the Sixth or Seventh Century.It is therefore inappropriate and erroneous to view the Eucharist as in some sense the continuing of the Last Supper, as to a greater or lesser extent all forms of Reformation Protestantism, with the considerable exception of the Lutherans, did — and as many so-called "Evangelicals" (judging from the way that they understand and celebrate it) seem still to do.

  • Savia

    Steve,The entire Mass is the re-presentation of Calvary and our participation in it. So we as a community take part in the sacrifice. Hence, it's both fellowship and sacrifice.Protestant early Church historian J. N. D. Kelly writes that in the early Church "the Eucharist was regarded as the distinctively Christian sacrifice. . . . Malachi’s prediction (1:10–11) that the Lord would reject Jewish sacrifices and instead would have "a pure offering" made to him by the Gentiles in every place was seized upon by Christians as a prophecy of the Eucharist. The Didache indeed actually applies the term thusia, or sacrifice, to the Eucharist. . . . "It was natural for early Christians to think of the Eucharist as a sacrifice. The fulfillment of prophecy demanded a solemn Christian offering, and the rite itself was wrapped in the sacrificial atmosphere with which our Lord invested the Last Supper. The words of institution, ‘Do this’ (touto poieite), must have been charged with sacrificial overtones for second-century ears; Justin at any rate understood them to mean, ‘Offer this.’ . . . The bread and wine, moreover, are offered ‘for a memorial (eis anamnasin) of the passion,’ a phrase which in view of his identification of them with the Lord’s body and blood implies much more than an act of purely spiritual recollection" (J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines [Full Reference], 196–7).

  • Fr Longenecker

    Savia, to be fair, J.N.D.Kelly was a noted Anglo Catholic scholar. While he was technically a Protestant because he was Anglican–all his sympathies as an Anglo Catholic were towards the Catholic faith.

  • Savia

    Fr. Longenecker,Thank you for the clarification.

  • Monk Augustine

    I agree with the spirit of your post, and I agree that the priest, whom you mention, probably had the Holy Thursday Supper in mind when he spoke of the Last Supper. However, one should be careful about having too narrow a view of the "Last Supper" and its meaning. I'm Orthodox; once, when one of our parishioners was giving tours of our Greek temple's interior during a parish festival, I heard him give a rather snarky explanation of the "Mystikos Deipnos" (Mystical Supper) icon, which traditionally hangs right over the Beautiful Gates of the Iconostasis. He said, "We don't call it the 'Last Supper,' because Jesus will have another supper with His apostles in the Resurrection, and He ate with them a few time after His own Resurrection." Lots of Orthodox take too many pains to portray everything about Eastern Christianity as being radically and mystically different from the West. Especially converts. But really, he was missing a rather big point: it is called the "Last Supper" with double meaning. Yes, it was the Last Supper that Jesus had with His Apostles before His death (and Resurrection). But, it is also the LAST Supper – the Supper of the Eschaton, the Supper of this age's ending and the commencement of the new and everlasting Age. And, even the actual Thursday supper was not a thing unto itself, but was the first "Mass" – the first enactment of the Sacrament of His (not yet temporally transpired) Passion and Resurrection and Ascension and Session and Mission, etc. So, in a real sense, the Last Supper is the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. We shouldn't stress the one as opposed to the other, but we should inculcate a more lively awareness in the minds of the faithful, of the essential unity between the two… and hence, the rich and very 'mystical' meaning of that term: "Last" Supper. Fr. Augustine

  • Musings

    I was thinking about this very thing last summer. I thought about what constitutes a meal in our modern society. I finally decided that a Happy Meal is a better descriptor than pot luck. At least at a pot luck most people bring something to the table. With a Happy Meal you expect it to be quick, tasty, easily consumed, can be eaten with others, but not necessarily, and you get a cheap prize. I was happy to return to view the Mass as the unbloody re-enactment of Calvary.

  • Marilyn

    I received Communion in the Presbyterian Church for many years – little cubes of crustless, fresh, Wonderbread served on a silver tray, along with a wee, plastic vial of grape juice. It’s not my intention to demean or diminish the Communion practices of this particular protestant church, but “pot luck supper” does make me grin and nod in agreement with Fr. Longenecker, although I’m aware he was not referring to the communion practices of protestant churches. I’m unable to receive Communion in the Catholic Church, but when I see that fragment of bread being received by others, I know that it consists of Him who is seated at the right hand of the Heavenly Father, in eternal glory with the Father and the Holy Spirit. St. Augustine said that if you receive the body of Christ well, you are what you receive. Marriage supper certainly seems appropriate to me when one desires and prays to be in union with Christ. The Eucharist would seem to be the sacrament of union as the word communion indicates.Admirable post, Fr. Longenecker

  • Alli R

    Marilyn,Thank you! thank you for your show of real humilty in the matter-of- fact and non self pitying comment you posted.I know so many peope who have left the Catholic Church in offended pride when they are told/gently reminded that they shouldn't be receiving the sacraments. I'll be praying for you that God will contine to bless your obedience: that, is truly "admirable".

  • Marilyn

    Alli R,Your comments and prayers are very deeply appreciated!

  • The Romish Papist


    Do you celebrate Mass ad orientum or versus populorum?

    Which Eucharistic prayer do you usually use?

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    I usually celebrate versus populum. I use Eucharistic prayers 1,2,3 regularly and occasionally 4

  • Ron

    Dear Fr. Dwight Longenecker,

    I googled connection between last supper and marriage. I was glad to find your article.

    If I can make futher suggestion; Jesus last supper on earth should be identical with Preparation of marriage on earth. Jew has tradition for preparation of marriage that called Mikveh. It includes , immersion body or bath. This understanding will unlock the secret of John 13:10 that word bath was represent mikveh.

    Regarding blood on the cross, This is very different view from main stream. Blood on the cross was a marriage process, a literal sign that Jesus is a virgin husband to us, people on earth as Jesus’s wife. This unlock the secret of John 13:16 . servant /wife cannot be greater than master/husband, but wife could be equal to husband. Therefore, The command of love one another (literally among wifes/servant) will be pretty much reasonable.

    Your article was the closest possible to this hidden understanding. Thank you .