On Our Lord's Prayer at the Last Supper

"When Trial Comes Upon the Disciples, Jesus' Prayer Sustains Their Weakness"

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VATICAN CITY, JAN. 11, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the Italian-language catechesis Benedict XVI gave today during the general audience held in Paul VI Hall. The Pope continued with his catecheses on prayer, reflecting today on Jesus’ prayer at the Last Supper.

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Dear brothers and sisters,

On our journey of reflection on the prayer of Jesus as presented in the Gospels, I would like to meditate today on the particularly solemn moment of His prayer at the Last Supper.

The temporal and emotional backdrop to the banquet in which Jesus takes leave of His friends is the imminence of His death, which He feels is now close at hand. For a long time, Jesus had spoken about His Passion and had sought to increasingly draw His disciples into this perspective. The Gospel according to Mark states that from the time of their departure on the journey to Jerusalem -- in the villages of the far-off Caesarea Philippi -- Jesus had begun “to teach them that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (8:31). Moreover, on the very day He was preparing to bid the disciples farewell, the life of the people of Israel was marked by the approaching feast of Passover; i.e. of the memorial of Israel’s liberation from Egypt. This liberation -- experienced in the past, and awaited anew in the present and for the future -- was relived in the family celebrations of the Passover.

The Last Supper takes place within this context, but with a fundamental newness. Jesus looks to His Passion, Death and Resurrection fully aware of them. He wills to experience this Supper with His disciples, but with a wholly unique character, different from all other banquets: It is His Supper, in which He gives Something totally new: Himself. Thus it is that Jesus celebrates His Passover and anticipates His Cross and Resurrection.

This newness is emphasized for us by the chronology of the Last Supper account in John’s Gospel, which does not describe it as the Passover meal precisely because Jesus intends to inaugurate something new, to celebrate His Passover -- certainly linked to the events of the Exodus. And for John, Jesus died on the Cross at the very moment when, in the temple of Jerusalem, the Passover lambs were being immolated.

What, then, is the heart of this Supper? The actions of the breaking of bread, of distributing it to those who are His own, and of sharing the chalice of wine -- with the words that accompany them and within the context of prayer in which they occur: It is the institution of the Eucharist; it is the great prayer of Jesus and the Church. But let us look more closely at this moment.

First of all, the New Testament tradition of the institution of the Eucharist (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:23-25; Luke 22:14-20; Mark 14:22-25; Matthew 26:26-29), pointing to the prayer that introduces the actions and words of Jesus over the bread and wine, uses two parallel and complementary words. Paul and Luke speak of eucharistía/thanksgiving: “He took bread, and when He had given thanks He broke it and gave it to them” (Luke 22:19). Mark and Matthew, on the other hand, emphasize the aspect of eulogia/blessing: “He took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them” (Mark 14:22). Both of the Greek words eucaristeìn and eulogein indicate the Jewish berakah; that is, the Jewish tradition’s great prayer of thanksgiving that inaugurated the major feasts.

The two different Greek words indicate the two intrinsic and complementary directions of this prayer. The berakah, in fact, is first and foremost thanksgiving and praise that ascends to God for the gift received: In Jesus’ Last Supper, it is bread made from the wheat that God brings forth from the earth, and wine produced from the mature fruit of the vine. This prayer of praise and thanksgiving raised to God returns as a blessing that descends from God on the gift and enriches it. Thus, thanksgiving and praise of God become blessing, and the offering given to God returns to man blessed by the Almighty. The words of the institution of the Eucharist belong within this context of prayer; in them, the praise and blessing of the berakah become the blessing and transformation of the bread and wine into Jesus’ Body and Blood.

Before the words of institution come the actions: the breaking of bread and the offering of wine. The breaking of bread and the passing of the chalice are in the first instance the function of the head of the family, who welcomes the members of his family to his meal; but these are also gestures of hospitality, of welcoming the stranger who is not part of the household to table fellowship and communion. These very gestures, in the meal with which Jesus takes leave of those who are his own, acquire an entirely new depth: He gives a visible sign of welcome to the meal in which God gives Himself. Jesus offers and communicates Himself in the form of bread and wine.

But how can this be? How can Jesus, in that moment, give Himself? Jesus knows that His life is about to be taken from Him through the torture of the Cross, the death penalty of men who are not free, what Cicero defined as the mors turpissima crucis -- [the most shameful death of the cross]. With the gift of the bread and wine that He offers at the Last Supper, Jesus anticipates His Death and Resurrection by bringing to fulfillment what he had said in the Good Shepherd discourse: “I lay down my life, that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again; this charge I have received from my Father” (John 10:17-18). He therefore offers in anticipation the life that will be taken from Him, and in this way He transforms His violent death into a free act of self-giving for others and to others. The violence suffered is transformed into an active, free and redemptive sacrifice.

Once again, in prayer -- begun in accordance with the ritual forms of the biblical tradition -- Jesus reveals His identity and His determination to accomplish unto the end His mission of total love, of offering in obedience to the Father’s Will. The profound originality of His gift of Himself to those who are His own through the memorial of the Eucharist is the summit of the prayer that marks the farewell supper with His disciples.

In contemplating Jesus’ actions and words on that night, we see clearly that His intimate and constant relationship with the Father is the locus where He accomplishes the act of leaving to His disciples, and to each one of us, the Sacrament of love, the “Sacramentum caritatis”. Twice in the Cenacle do the words resound: “Do this in remembrance of me” (1 Corinthians 11:24-25). He celebrates His Passover by giving Himself, by becoming the true Lamb that brings to fulfillment the whole of ancient worship. For this reason St. Paul, speaking to the Christians in Corinth, affirms: “Christ, our paschal Lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us, therefore, celebrate the festival … with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Corinthians 5:7-8).

The Evangelist Luke has preserved another precious element of the events of the Last Supper that allows us to see the moving depth of Jesus’ prayer on that night for those who are His own, His attentiveness to each one. Beginning with the prayer of thanksgiving and blessing, Jesus comes to the Eucharistic gift -- the gift of Himself -- and as He bestows the decisive sacramental reality, he turns to Peter.  At the end of the supper, He says to him: “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren” (Luke 22:31-32).

When trial comes upon the disciples, Jesus’ prayer sustains their weakness, their struggle to comprehend that God’s way passes through the Paschal Mystery of death and resurrection, anticipated in the offering of the bread and wine. The Eucharist is the food of pilgrims that becomes strength also for whoever is tired, exhausted and disoriented. And the prayer is especially for Peter, so that once converted, he might confirm his brothers in faith. The Evangelist Luke records that it was Jesus’ gaze that sought out Peter’s face at the very moment he consummated his triple denial, in order to give him the strength to continue on his journey after Him: “Immediately, while he was still speaking, the cock crowed. And the Lord turned and fixed his gaze upon Peter. And Peter remembered the word that the Lord had spoken to him” (Luke 22:60-61).

Dear brothers and sisters, in participating in the Eucharist we experience in an extraordinary way the prayer that Jesus offered, and continually offers, for each one of us in order that evil -- which we all encounter in life -- may not have the power to overcome us, and so that the transforming power of Christ’s Death and Resurrection may act in us. In the Eucharist, the Church responds to Jesus’ command: “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19; cf. 1 Corinthians 11:24-26); she repeats the prayer of thanksgiving and blessing and, with this, the words of the transubstantiation of the bread and wine into the Lord’s Body and Blood. 

Our celebrations of the Eucharist are a being drawn into that moment of prayer, a uniting ourselves again and again to Jesus’ prayer. From her earliest days, the Church has understood the words of consecration as part of her praying together with Jesus; as a central part of the praise filled with thanksgiving through which the fruit of the earth and of men’s hands are given to us anew by God in the form of Jesus’ Body and Blood, as God’s gift of Himself in His Son’s self-emptying love (cf. Jesus of Nazareth, II, pg. 128). In participating in the Eucharist, in nourishing ourselves on the Flesh and Blood of the Son of God, we unite our prayer to that of the paschal Lamb on His last night, so that our lives might not be lost, despite our weakness and infidelity, but might be transformed.

Dear friends, let us ask the Lord that, after having worthily prepared ourselves, also through the Sacrament of Penance, our participation in His Eucharist, which is indispensible for Christian life, might always be the summit of our prayer. Let us ask that, by being united deeply to His own offering to the Father, we too may transform our crosses into a free and responsible sacrifice of love to God and to our brothers and sisters. Thank you.

[Translation by Diane Montagna]

[The Holy Father then greeted pilgrims in several languages. In English, he said:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

In our continuing catechesis on Christian prayer, we now turn to the prayer of Jesus at the Last Supper, when our Lord instituted the Eucharist, the sacrament of his Body and Blood. Jesus’ gift of himself anticipates his sacrifice on the Cross and his glorious Resurrection. The Eucharist is the supreme prayer of Jesus and of his Church. At the Last Supper, with its overtones of the Passover and the commemoration of Israel’s liberation, Jesus’ prayer echoes the Hebrew berakah, which includes both thanksgiving and the gift of a blessing. His act of breaking the bread and offering the cup on the night before he died becomes the sign of his redemptive self-oblation in obedience to the Father’s will: he thus appears as the true paschal lamb who brings the ancient worship to fulfilment. Jesus’ prayer also invokes strength for his disciples, especially Peter (cf. Lk 22:31-32). May our celebration of the Eucharist, in obedience to Christ’s command, unite us more deeply to his prayer at the Last Supper and enable us, in union with him, to offer our lives ever more fully in sacrifice to the Father.

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I greet the many school groups from the United States present at today’s Audience, including the deacons from Saint Paul’s Seminary in Minnesota. My greeting also goes to the students of Carmel College in New Zealand. I welcome the participants in the Interfaith Journey from Canada. Upon all the English-speaking visitors and their families I cordially invoke God’s abundant blessings!

© Copyright 2012 - Libreria Editrice Vaticana

[In Italian, he said]:

Lastly, an affectionate thought goes to young people, to the sick and to newlyweds. The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which we celebrated last Sunday, offers us the opportunity to recall our own baptism. Dear young people, may you joyfully live out your belonging to the Church, which is the family of Jesus. Dear sick, may the grace of baptism alleviate your sufferings and move you to offer them to Christ for the salvation of mankind. And may you, dear newlyweds, who have now begun your married life together, establish your marriage upon faith, received as a gift on the day of your baptism.

[Translation by Diane Montagna]