If the Last Supper wasn’t the first Mass, then the Mass isn’t what the Last Supper was…

Dr. Gregory S. Neal, UM Elder, presides at the...

Dr. Gregory S. Neal, UM Elder, presides at the Eucharist. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Short story shorter, I have lately become aware of Sam Rocha, find I don’t much care  for his writing style or his persona, and today I followed his bio to Vox Nova, where I guess he was a previous contributor, then followed another contributor’s link, Nathan O’Halloran, SJ, from Vox Nova to a blog, “Whosoever Desires”, which I used to enjoy when I inhabited the blogosphere more than I do now.  Alas, I was met by a blog post by O’Halloran to which, as shall become evident, I took much exception.

O’Halloran’s thesis is that “the Last Supper was not the First Mass.” He adds the following side-note:

“There has been a danger in post-Tridentine theology to speak of the Mass as a re-presentation of the sacrifice of Christ.  But this interpretation both fails to take the book of Hebrews seriously and also misunderstands the Jewish concept of “remembrance,”  azkarah.  Jewish remembrance does not mean that the past event is brought into the present and enacted again.”

This strikes me as both a false dichotomy and a failure of imagination: to be brought into the past by a sacrament is but to have that event brought to oneself by the sacrament. (You didn’t know Einstein was a sacramental theologian by night, did you?) That is, however, a quibble, and I left a series of comments, which comprise this post, to express my immediate and fundamental objections to O’Halloran’s claims.

In contrast to the Catechism and orthodox tradition, O’Halloran’s blog post is sadly very wooden and, well, jesuitical in the worst sense. Too clever by half, indeed. I believe I am not alone in thinking this post is a sophistical blight on the Easter season. It strikes me, sadly, as a rather pretentious “bonerkiller” only days before Easter.

In any case, to the matter at hand.

Just as each Mass is the Parousia of Christ in anticipation of His eschatological return in glory, so the Last Supper instituted the memorial participation in union with Christ’s whole Passion in kenosis. If the Mass cannot occur without the epiclesis, then, by the same (fundamentalist, literalist) logic of this post, forgiveness of sins could not happen without the shedding of blood (Heb 9:22), yet Christ forgave sins before His death on the cross, so, by modus tollens, the Last Supper could and did partake of the Passion even before the historical procession of the Spirit at Pentecost.

Tridentine Canons, session XIII, ch. 1 — “…our Redeemer instituted this so admirable a sacrament at the last supper, when, after the blessing of the bread and wine, He testified, in express and clear words, that He gave them His own very Body, and His own Blood….”

Council of Trent, DS 1740 — “…because his priesthood was not to end with his death, at the Last Supper “on the night when he was betrayed,” [he wanted] to leave to his beloved spouse the Church a visible sacrifice …by which the bloody sacrifice which he was to accomplish once for all on the cross would be re-presented, its memory perpetuated until the end of the world, and its salutary power be applied to the forgiveness of the sins we daily commit.”

CCC 1323 —At the Last Supper, on the night he was betrayed, our Savior instituted the Eucharistic sacrifice of his Body and Blood. This he did in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the cross throughout the ages until he should come again, and so to entrust to his beloved Spouse, the Church, a memorial of his death and resurrection: a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity, a Paschal banquet ‘in which Christ is consumed, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us.’”

CCC 1340 —By celebrating the Last Supper with his apostles in the course of the Passover meal, Jesus gave the Jewish Passover its definitive meaning. Jesus’ passing over to his father by his death and Resurrection, the new Passover, is anticipated in the Supper and celebrated in the Eucharist, which fulfills the Jewish Passover and anticipates the final Passover of the Church in the glory of the kingdom.””

CCC 1350 ––[When] the bread and wine are brought to the altar; they will be offered by the priest … [and] It is the very action of Christ at the Last Supper – “taking the bread and a cup.

I Cor 13 — 23 “For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you [thus] proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

Note that Christ says at the Last Supper that this IS (not will be!) His Body and Blood. His entire life was an offering in the Spirit to the Father. His Passion had begun even before its consummation on the Cross. The Last Supper established the covenant IN HIS BLOOD even before He shed it on the Cross. This proleptic participation enjoyed by the Apostles is mirrored in our amamnetic participation of it after the fact.

Luke 22 — 14 When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. 15 And he said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. 16 For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.” 17 After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, “Take this and divide it among you. 18 For I tell you I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”

The hour of redemption had come, and in that kairos Christ established His sacrament of life, the Eucharist–the Thanksgiving for Grace (“he gave thanks” – εὐχαριστήσας!). Christ emphasizes the proleptic nature of the participation (desired, again, until, fulfillment, etc.). He also connects the unity (“this [unified-singular] Passover”, “it [the very same]”) of the Last Supper Pascha with the Pentecostal fulfillment in the Spirit. It is a profound but beautiful detail and an irreformable pattern for the Church–indeed, it is the very essence of the Church!–that Christ freely gave Himself to His Apostles AT THE LAST SUPPER BEFORE He gave Himself to the Father and to the world on the Cross. For it was precisely by first entrusting Himself to them sacramentally at the Last Supper that their faithful communion with Him that night, and their priestly mediation for Him after Pentecost, could be, and was, drawn up into His one sacrifice on the Cross and ultimately stirred into a global mission at Pentecost.

[Incidentally, St. Thomas addresses the issue of what body Christ gave at the Last Supper even prior to the Resurrection (ST III, q. 81, esp. a. 1 & 3): http://www.newadvent.org/summa/4081.htm For now I merely note this passage, though I will perhaps expand upon it later. **]

Consider also St. Thomas’ discussion of a similar problem vis-à-vis baptism in ST III, q. 66, a. 2. As you read, replace the word “baptism” with “the Eucharist”:

“Objection 1. It seems that Baptism was instituted after Christ’s Passion. For the cause precedes the effect. Now Christ’s Passion operates in the sacraments of the New Law. Therefore Christ’s Passion precedes the institution of the sacraments of the New Law….

“Objection 2. Further, the sacraments of the New Law derive their efficacy from the mandate of Christ. But Christ gave the disciples the mandate of Baptism after His Passion and Resurrection…. Therefore it seems that Baptism was instituted after Christ’s Passion. …

“On the contrary, Augustine says in a sermon on the Epiphany (Append. Serm., clxxxv): “As soon as Christ was plunged into the waters, the waters washed away the sins of all.” But this was before Christ’s Passion. Therefore Baptism was instituted before Christ’s Passion.

“… [S]acraments derive from their institution the power of conferring grace. Wherefore it seems that a sacrament is then instituted, when it receives the power of producing its effect. … But the obligation of receiving this sacrament was proclaimed to mankind after the Passion and Resurrection. First, because Christ’s Passion put an end to the figurative sacraments, which were supplanted by Baptism and the other sacraments of the New Law. Secondly, because by Baptism man is “made conformable” to Christ’s Passion and Resurrection, in so far as he dies to sin and begins to live anew unto righteousness. Consequently it behooved Christ to suffer and to rise again, before proclaiming to man his obligation of conforming himself to Christ’s Death and Resurrection.

“Reply to Objection 1. Even before Christ’s Passion, Baptism, inasmuch as it foreshadowed it, derived its efficacy therefrom; but not in the same way as the sacraments of the Old Law. For these were mere figures: whereas Baptism derived the power of justifying from Christ Himself, to Whose power the Passion itself owed its saving virtue.

That last proviso is important. O’Halloran’s very linear treatment of the order of grace suggests that the Passion is what made Christ a Savior, and thus what made the Sacraments salvific in the passage of time. In fact, however, it is because Christ is the saving Word of God that the Passion was efficacious at all. Likewise, the Sacraments derive their efficacy immediately from Christ, and only instrumentally, as it were, from the Passion (cf. ST III, q. 64, a. 2, below).

Consider also ST III, q. 83, a. 4 ad 9:

“[F]rom this the mass derives its name [missa]; because the priest sends [mittit] his prayers up to God through the angel, as the people do through the priest. Or else because Christ is the victim sent [missa] to us: accordingly the deacon on festival days “dismisses” the people at the end of the mass, by saying: “Ite, missa est,” that is, the victim has been sent [missa est] to God through the angel, so that it may be accepted by God.”

Insofar as Christ ‘sent’ Himself to the disciples and Himself to the Father in “giving thanks” (εὐχαριστήσας) at the Last Supper (cf. Luke 22:14ff), He manifestly celebrated the first Holy Mass at the Last Supper. For to offer the Eucharist just is to celebrate the Mass.

I would also like to address the historical-critical point about the disunity of the Mass, with––surprise!––another teaching from St. Thomas (ST III, q. 64, a. 2):

“Objection 1. It seems that the sacraments are not instituted by God alone. For those things which God has instituted are delivered to us in Holy Scripture. But in the sacraments certain [historically diverse] things are done which are nowhere mentioned in Holy Scripture; for instance, the chrism with which men are confirmed, the oil with which priests are anointed, and many others, both words and actions, which we employ in the sacraments. Therefore the sacraments were not instituted by God alone. …

“[However,] the sacraments are instrumental causes of spiritual effects. Now an instrument has its power from the principal agent. But an agent in respect of a sacrament is twofold; viz. he who institutes the sacraments, and he who [in the Holy Mass] makes use of the sacrament instituted [viz. the Eucharist], by applying it for the production of the effect [viz. as the Holy Mass]. Now the power of a sacrament cannot be from him who makes use of the sacrament: because he works but as a minister. Consequently, it follows that the power of the sacrament is from the institutor of the sacrament. Since, therefore, the power of the sacrament is from God alone, it follows that God alone can institute the sacraments.

“Reply to Objection 1. [Historically diverse human] institutions observed in the sacraments are not essential to the sacrament; but belong to the solemnity which is added to the sacraments in order to arouse devotion and reverence in the recipients. But those things that are essential to the sacrament, are instituted by Christ Himself, Who is God and man. And though they are not all handed down by the Scriptures, yet the Church holds them from the intimate tradition of the apostles….”

I don’t mean to pick a fight, I’m just being forthright that this post struck both a nerve and a chord with me. For instance, I highly commend this passage from O’Halloran’s post:

“At the Mass, the community of believers becomes present to the Paschal Mystery. Christ is not re-offered or re-presented on the altar of the priest. Rather, the believing community is re-presented to the sacrifice of Christ and, through the power of the Spirit, made part of that self-offering to the Father.”

That’s beautiful, and it reminds me a lot of Fr. Keefe’s Covenantal Theology, a book that truly changed my life as a Catholic.

The reason I chafe against bifurcating the Mass from the Eucharist is, paradoxically, for the same reason the author objects to referring to “one Mass”. Effectively he is arguing that a proper Mass must contain all the right elements––Pascha, Epiclesis, Resurrection, etc.––to count as a Mass, yet he also claims that there is no unified core or essential elements of “the Mass”! Even granting his minimalist theory of what the Mass ‘is’ (ahem), it still follows from Catholic dogma that all Christians’ historically diverse “Mass efforts” (the Liturgy is the work of the people, after all!) are mystically one with the mysteries celebrated in them WHICH INCLUDES regeneration in Baptism (cf. again ST III, q. 66, a. 2), life in the Eucharist (as instituted at the Last Supper), the Resurrection as the proleptic promise which illuminates and vindicates all the temporally prior mysteries, the Great Commission, and the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

Now, if

1) the Eucharist was established at the Last Supper, which I think is indubitable according to orthodox Catholic tradition, and

2) the Mass just is the historically concrete celebration and participation in the Eucharist by Christians, then it follows that either

3a) the Mass now is sacramentally unified with the Eucharist as celebrated at the Last Supper or

3b) the Mass now is not sacramentally united with the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper.

If the former, then the Last Supper was the first Mass in so far as the Mass just is the communion of the faithful with the Body and Blood of Christ.

If the latter, however, as the author argues, then Christianity is a Gnostic event that can only be accessed by secrets rather than by sacraments.


About The Codgitator (a cadgertator)

Catholic convert. Quasi-Zorbatic. Freelance interpreter, translator, and web marketer. Former ESL teacher in Taiwan (2003-2012) and former public high school teacher (2012-2014). Married father of three. Multilingual, would-be scholar, and fairly consistent fitness monkey. My research interests include: the interface of religion and science, the history and philosophy of science and technology, ancient and medieval philosophy, and cognitive neuroscience. Please pray for me.
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5 Responses to If the Last Supper wasn’t the first Mass, then the Mass isn’t what the Last Supper was…

  1. Tom K. says:

    Seems like straightforward Euclidean theology to me. Things that are equal to the same thing are equal to each other. I would have thought that, of the three equalities — between the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, and the Mass — the equality between the Last Supper and the Mass is the most self-evident.

  2. Agellius says:

    I would love to see you visit and comment at Vox Nova more often. They need you. ; )

  3. Thank you, but I don’t think they agree. They haven’t approved any of my comments after those I posted which comprise this post. I’m inclined to call it “Whatsoever Desires” or “Whatever”. 😉

  4. Agellius says:

    I was talking about vox-nova.com, not Whosoever Desires, although Vox Nova isn’t exactly a bastion of unfettered speech either. About 90% of my comments get through.

  5. Ah, yes, woops. I have thought about frequenting Vox Nova more.

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