And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the forgiveness of sins. - Matthew 26:27f.
It would be hard to exaggerate the depth to which the New Testament is rooted in the Old. The Gospel of Matthew is particularly attentive to the theme of fulfillment of prophecy, but that may be no more than the most obvious connection. Although there are no such labels in the story of the Last Supper, much of its literal significance is lost unless we read the signs that are there.
The occasion was, of course, the Passover. As I noted last week, this is the celebration of the beginning of the nation. It centers in the story of miraculous deliverance from slavery and the beginning of a new life. It is the feast of decisive liberation, of an event which once and for all changed the course of history.
The people who celebrated Passover were the descendants of those who had been liberated. That is, Jesus and his disciples celebrated the Passover because they were Jews, members of the nation that had been constituted more than a thousand years earlier, worshipers of the God who had performed the miracles of deliverance. As far as the disciples were concerned, then, they were not gathering to institute a new sacrament for a Christian church. They were gathering, as Jews gather in our own times, to celebrate the Passover.
The Passover story does not end with the crossing of the Reed Sea, though. The climax comes at Sinai, in a story we rarely pay much attention to. It is one thing for God to proclaim the Ten Commandments. That is one side of the covenant. The other side, without which there is no covenant, is the people’s acceptance of those terms, the story we heard in our Old Testament reading. This is the climax, the moment of decision.
It is a three-phase story, then. First, God delivers a people from slavery. This frees them to be an independent nation and places them under an obligation of gratitude. Second, God spells out this obligation. It is no accident that the Ten Commandments begin with the statement, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” Third, in a solemn ceremony, the people accept this obligation.
And he took the book of the covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people, and they said, “All that the Lord has said we will do, and be obedient.” And Moses took the blood, and sprinkled it on the people and said, “This is the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you concerning all these words.”
That should sound familiar.
“This is my blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the forgiveness of sins.” We could hardly ask for a more direct reference, and there could be no doubt that the disciples heard it. This was no longer a remembrance of times past, a memorial of things that had happened centuries ago. This was an event in its own right, a new deliverance, from another kind of slavery. The concrete meaning of the word translated “forgiveness” or “remission” is “letting go” or “release.” The tyrant now was not Pharaoh or Herod or Rome, though, but “sins”—not the enemy outside, but the enemy within.
It was not an easy message for the disciples to understand or to accept. It would take the crucifixion to demolish their vision of Jesus as the earthly Messiah, restoring the dynasty of David in Jerusalem. We who know what lies ahead may think of the disciples as rather obtuse, or as sadly materialistic, clinging to their political hopes when it was so obvious that the Lord had something much deeper in mind.
In our own times, though, we may be no less obtuse. It is still hard for us to hear the message that changing our circumstances will not necessarily bring us contentment. If we look honestly at the people we know, it is really quite obvious that there is no one-to-one ratio between wealth and happiness. There are prosperous people who are insecure and driven, and there are much less prosperous people who radiate affection and joy. There are also lovely wealthy people and embittered poor people—there is no inverse ratio, either.
“If only”—there is just enough truth to our “if onlys” to lead us astray. Circumstances do make a difference. It is a question of being candid about the kind of difference they make. Not to mince words, it would seem that having more resources enables us to accomplish more. It removes some of the obstacles, that is, to doing what we want to do. It does not change what we want to do, though, so it does not really change how we feel. If we want enough money for a new car, that is a possible goal. If we want enough money to be free of anxiety, that is not a possible goal because there is no such amount. Anxiety is an inner attitude, focused on what we fear may happen in the future. That future is as yet unreal: as someone put it, “Today is the tomorrow you were so worried about yesterday.”
When we turn to the spiritual sense of the story of the Last Supper, then, we find ourselves in the place of the disciples. As they were attached to material expectations, so are we. As the Lord tried to turn their attention to the realm of causes, so he is trying to turn ours. “Divine providence focuses on eternal matters, and on temporal matters only to the extent that they agree with eternal ones” (Divine Providence 215). We get ourselves into trouble because we attach so much importance to things that are too fragile, too short-lived, to bear the weight of our concern. Physical things are temporary.
This is one of the facts we are reminded of whenever someone close to us dies. We have to rethink what really matters, or more precisely, what matters most, because everything matters to some extent. We find ourselves talking about the life of the departed one in a different way.
Part of the reason is very simple. Suddenly, this individual is beyond our reach. We can no longer help or hurt. Our thoughts are therefore substantially freed from our self-concern, and we can afford to see more clearly. For example, if we have disagreed with that individual, we can admit that we were wrong without losing face, or we can decide that we were right without defensiveness.
Eventually, we may discover that people do not have to die in order for us to accept them as they are. However, the only way we can afford to do this is to be freed from anxiety about our own worth. As long as we need their approval, as long as we have to be better than they are, as long as we have anything to prove, our perceptions of others and our judgments of others will be biased.
Now, the fact is that we do need each other. We are created to live in community, and we suffer in isolation. The solution, that is, does not depend on our not caring what other people think of us. The solution depends on our caring that other people understand us, which is a very different matter. Anxiety presses us to conceal what we do not want others to know. The desire to be understood presses toward self-disclosure.
At this point, strange as it may seem, we are very close to the message of the Last Supper. Perhaps the easiest way to make the connection is to call attention to the supper as the Lord’s gift of himself. The Lord wanted, and wants, to be understood. The Last Supper is an extraordinarily poignant image of the central quality of divine love, the will “to give everything it has to everyone.”
Our individual eternal worth depends entirely on the extent to which we accept what the Lord offers. What is offered is the bread, or the very love we are talking about, and the wine, which is the truth of mutual understanding. Wanting to be understood, that is, is a matter of truth, and wanting to be accepted is a matter of love.
To the extent that we accept what the Lord offers, our own love takes on that same self-giving quality. This is not blind, foolish self-sacrifice, not at all. It is wanting our lives to be genuinely good for other people. It is wanting our obituaries to say less about what good people we were and more about what benefit we were to those around us. In other words, acceptance of the Lord’s love solves the dilemma of our worth by making it largely irrelevant. It isn’t “our” worth any more, it is a gift.
It is a gift which, like the manna of the wilderness story, does not store well. What we accepted yesterday will not nourish us today. In every situation in which we find ourselves, there is something new. In everyone we meet, the Lord is present in a distinctively different way. People can be full of surprises if we will let them, if we will let go of our stereotypes. The flaming liberal will turn out to have a strong personal moral code and the staunch conservative a tender heart. Life will seem much less predictable.
That, however, is only the outward appearance. What has happened is that we have found what is absolutely reliable, absolutely predictable—the Lord’s love of us, the Lord’s self-gift to us. With that inner assurance, we no longer need to impose our regularities on the world around us in order to feel safe. We are safe, liberated from our fears, delivered from our bondage.