On Maundy Thursday, we celebrate two strange events that occurred at what is called the Last Supper. It was indeed the last supper Jesus had in his human lifetime, but in some ways, it is better called the First Supper.
That Jesus washed the feet of his disciples was startling, as Peter’s reaction makes clear. In the Greco-Roman world, a master would be the one to have his feet washed by those under him. For the master to wash the feet of his followers was to turn the world upside down. I wonder, though, if this was actually the first time Jesus did such a thing. In the synoptic Gospels, Jesus said more than once that the one who would be first of all must be the servant of all. If Jesus, as the master, called himself the servant, it seems likely that Jesus had performed many servile actions before the footwashing at the Last Supper. If this hunch should be correct, than it shows that Peter was having a hard time getting used to his master’s topsy-turvy way of doing things. In any case, John made sure that this action was remembered.
But it is what Jesus said and did during the meal that stretched intelligibility to the breaking point. Blessing bread and a cup of wine and passing them around was normal for a Jewish meal. Nothing strange about that. But when Jesus passed the bread, he said “This is my body.” Who knows what the disciples were thinking when they heard that! They could hardly consult any books on Eucharistic theology to help them with the matter. Even worse, when Jesus passed the cup, he said “This is my blood.” For Jews, this was very disturbing since they followed a Law that forbad consumption of blood with the meat of animals. When Jesus was crucified the next day, they surely did not understand the words any better than they did at the meal.
But somehow, the command to do this in memory of Jesus made enough of an impression that not only did the disciples continue to eat together, but they repeated the strange words Jesus had uttered. Eating together and recalling Jesus’ words became a common practice in the earliest Church as Paul’s reference to the ritual meal, stressing the fact that he is passing on a tradition, makes clear.
What did the followers of Jesus come to understand as they continued to eat bread and drink wine in remembrance of him? We have no way of knowing, but the Eucharistic overtones of the powerful story of Jesus appearing at an inn on the way to Emmaus suggest that the practice led to discerning the presence of the master at these meals, the master who had washed their feet at his last supper with them. It is this continuity of meals that makes the Last Supper the First Supper in the resurrected life in Jesus. Even today, we don’t really understand this presence, not even with the help of tons of books on Eucharistic theology, although all of the attempts to understand it show a strong devotion to the practice. But we don’t have to understand it. In receiving the bread and the wine, we are living a mystery that sustains us with the Resurrected life of Jesus.