In Jewish circles this is a most holy and a most joyful night: it is a night of family feasting in grateful remembrance of God’s wondrous blessings. It is a family night because the Passover feast was, from the times of Moses, not a Temple feast celebrated according to minute details of public ritual, but a family gathering in the privacy of the home, a celebration with family and friends.
On returning home for this celebration, and after prayer, the head of the family-gathering had to consider himself a prince: decorating his table with the best food and the most acceptable wines: it was his duty to prepare sumptuously according to the measure of his possibilities. We are told in the Gospels that Jesus reclined at table with His disciples for what we call the Last Supper. This was prescribed for faithful Jews; they would have been seated for an ordinary meal, but for this special Passover meal they had to eat reclining, stretched out on their left side with head towards the food; it was a symbol of the liberty they were enjoying and celebrating, the liberty God had won for His Chosen People by the wonders He had worked in Egypt and throughout their desert wanderings, whereby He had delivered them from slavery and brought them to freedom in their own land. They had, indeed, much to be grateful for, and this was the night on which they gave whole-hearted expression to that gratitude in accordance with the Lord’s command. Each successive generation of faithful Israelites was taught to consider that they themselves had been brought out of Egypt and saved from slavery by the Lord their God; they were not celebrating something that happened in the past to their fathers only; no, they had to realize that they themselves were among those that had been saved. The sages, the wise men, of Israel, when speaking of this night’s celebration, tell us that when it is celebrated with such dispositions, the God of Israel, the Holy One Himself, leaves His normal, familiar, entourage of angels and of the righteous in the Garden of Eden, and comes this night, to watch with delight the children of Israel here on earth rejoicing in the deliverance He won for them, gratefully singing His praises and loyally observing His commandments.
This was an occasion to which Jesus had really been looking forward, for it would serve as a launching-pad -- so to speak -- for the ultimate deliverance and freedom of God’s People that Jesus was about to win and hand over to His Apostles’ care:
And he said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. (Luke 22:15)
Thus the Last Supper was no sad occasion for saying “Good-by”, nor should our memorial of it be overshadowed by impending loss and grief. How on earth could Our Lord have eagerly desired to eat such a sorrowful leave-taking meal with His disciples? This was, on the contrary, something to be eagerly desired, something towards which His whole life’s work had been leading, something that would express the fulfilment of all His previous efforts and presently-consuming desires for His Father, His disciples, and for us. This was to be a celebration based on the grateful remembrance of God’s historic goodness indeed, but much more, one looking forward to something memorable beyond measure, for they were now prefiguring and indeed actually setting in motion the ultimate fulfilment of the mission Jesus had been given by His Father, for which Israel had been prepared over many centuries, and for which the nations had been waiting ages long; a fulfilment the disciples had been chosen to serve with their lives, and one that would – drawing them through Calvary to the Resurrection and Gift of the Holy Spirit -- totally transform them into most loving and devoted Apostles of the Risen Lord and selfless servants of His Church on earth:
I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.
This meal was both the symbol of, and the ultimate preparation for, that heavenly banquet that will celebrate by consummating the salvation brought by Jesus: freedom from sin, and membership -- as adopted children and members of Christ -- in the family of God, where all call Him “Father” and share in His eternal blessedness, according to the words:
Happy are those who are called to His Supper.
That was the blessing the Son had come to bring to a humanity which had long been in darkness, alienated from true happiness and life: a humanity created by God and for God, but deceived by Satan and enchained by sin; a humanity which stirred such compassion in the Father that He sent His only Son to share in and to save the weakness of human flesh by dying sinless and rising again; and in the power of His Resurrection pouring out His Holy Spirit upon those who would believe in His name, the Spirit who would form those disciples in the likeness of their Lord for the glory of the Father.
It was now so near to fulfilment; this was, therefore, no time for sad reminiscences of the past but for ardent aspirations to what was to come: Jesus was indeed to suffer and to die but that was for a divine purpose which would be surely achieved through His human suffering and death and subsequent glorious Resurrection on the third day.
Let us now just look at that suffering and death, which was so close at hand but which, Jesus refused to allow to deter Him:
Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:2)
It might have seemed that Jesus’ life was to be taken from Him by the superior power of death after having been betrayed by human treachery and condemned by human hatred. Had that been the case, then indeed, Jesus’ death would have been the supreme tragedy and the Last Supper an occasion for agonizing farewells and deep-felt loss. That was not what Jesus wanted and was not what Jesus was going to allow, because at this Supper He most deliberately offered His coming crucifixion and death to His Father, resolving to accept it and embrace it out of obedient love and in total commitment. Neither would His suffering and death be a result of the tragic betrayal that Judas’ action would seem to signify; because that Passion and Death was being dedicated and offered by Jesus now to wipe away the sins and betrayals of men and women of all times. The whole tenor of tomorrow’s crucifixion was being pre-determined now, at this very meal, by Jesus. He would die out of obedient and loving zeal for His Father, out of redeeming love for the whole human race, and in accordance with and fulfilment of the wisdom, the beauty, the goodness of divine Providence
At the Passover Meal the Jews celebrated God’s wonders which saved the nation from physical slavery in Egypt; how much more should we, the new People of God, celebrate the wonder of God’s love for us manifested in the gift of His Son to us and for us? How much more should we rejoice in the love which Jesus had and has for us; that love which led Him to endure the Cross and to scorn its shame so that He might enable us to have access and attain, in Him, to our heavenly home:
Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
Tonight Jesus rejoices that by dying He is going to destroy death and turn betrayal into faithful love; He rejoices that soon He will meet up, once again, with His disciples in the great joy of a heavenly banquet shared among friends; friends to whom, in the meantime, He is about to bequeath this final liturgy of love with its divine Food along with His confident and consoling request:
Do this in memory of Me.