I have always believed (and continue to do so) that the Last Supper instituted by Our Lord on the night before he suffered and died for us was, in fact, a Passover meal. I know that there are some who disagreed, but I continue to hold my opinion, at least for the time being. Additionally, I believe that, mining through the depths of the origin of a ritual or tradition, we can gain a richer understanding of that ritual or tradition. That being said, let us look at the Last Supper and the Passover and see if we can find even greater treasures.
First off, Jesus told the twelve apostles, “I have fervently desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.” (St. Luke 22:15) One would think that might be conclusive, but if one needs more evidence they need only look a few verses earlier where Jesus “sent Peter and John saying, ‘Go and prepare the Passover for us, that we may eat.’” (St.Luke 22:8) In St.Matthew’s Gospel, Our Lord instructs his Apostles to tell the householder that Jesus has said, “My time is at hand; I will keep the Passover at your house with My disciples.” (26:18) A parallel passage can be found in St. Mark 14:12-14. This would, hopefully, lay to rest most questions about whether or not the Last Supper was a Passover meal.
The Passover meal itself is a long and complicated ceremony that full of meaning from start to finish. One aspect of the meal that is particularly rich with meaning, especially to Christians, is the consumption of four glasses of wine during the meal. Each of these cups of wine represents one of the four “I will” promises made by the Lord in Exodus 6:6-7, where the Lord instructs Moses to proclaim:
“I am the LORD; I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, I will rescue you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. I will take you as My people, and I will be your God. Then you shall know that I am the LORD your God who brings you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.” (Emphasis added.)
Based on these promises, each cup has a special name. The first cup is the Cup of Sanctification; the second is the Cup of Deliverance; the third is the Cup of Redemption; the fourth is the Cup of Restoration.
Those participating in the Passover will drink the first cup almost immediately after the opening blessing. After drinking the Cup of Sanctification, there is ritual washing of hands and feet known as Urchatz. This may have been the time when Our Lord washed the hands and feet of His disciples. (St. John 13:2-17) Those participating in the feast use the Cup of Deliverance to remember the Ten Plagues The Almighty sent against Egypt to free His chosen people. (Exodus 7-12) St. Luke makes it clear that Our Lord passed around at least one cup, instructing His disciples to drink, before offering up the Bread and the more notable cup of wine. (22.17ff)
After the full Passover meal has been consumed, the third cup, the Cup of Redemption is offered. St. Luke makes this the most clear when he writes, “Likewise [Jesus] also took the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for you.’” (22:20) The fact that this cup is consumed “after supper” points to the Cup of Redemption as the cup over which Our Lord spoke the blessed Words of Institution. Consider how awesome and magnificent it is that Our Lord used the cup which represented the promise from God that “I will take you as My people” to speak the words “this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.” (St. Matthew 26:28) We are the redeemed of the Lord because Jesus shed His blood for us. His Blood in the Cup of Redemption, the cup of which we partake every time we approach the altar and receive His most precious Body and Blood, is an everlasting reminder of the Blood which was shed during Our Lord’s Passion and on His glorious Cross, which was also foreshadowed over a thousands years before Christ’s birth in the sacrifice of the first paschal lamb, whose blood covered Israel.
There is one cup which remains, the Cup of Restoration which is also known as the Cup of Elijah. Those celebrating the Passover recite various Psalms of praise, thanking God for His wondrous deeds in redemption before consuming this fourth cup. In St. Mark’s Gospel, we read that Our Lord declared, “Assuredly, I say to you, I will no longer drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” (14:25) Some suggest that Jesus consumed no wine at the Last Supper; others believe that, rather than consuming no wine, Our Lord abstained from drinking the fourth cup. There is an aspect of this idea which is particularly triumphant. In essence, in delaying His partaking of the Cup of Restoration, Our Lord promises, “when you are with me in Heaven, and together we celebrate the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, then we will drink the Cup of Restoration together and then you will be fully restored.”
These are the promises we see in Maundy Thursday. These are the promises we see in the Last Supper as a Passover Meal. As we move forward into Holy Week and relive Our Lord’s final hours before His Passion and death, let us never forget His promises that, “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” (St. John 3:14-15)