What Did Jesus Sing at the Last Supper?
Well, Holy Thursday is upon us and the Paschal Mystery right around
In honor of the feast, I thought I''d post a little something on Jesus
and the Last Supper.
It is widely recognized that the Last Supper was a Passover meal and
that the Jewish Passover liturgy included special hymns drawn from the
book of Psalms. These hymns were known as the Hallel Psalms (meaning
"Praise" psalms), and consisted of Psalms 113-118. We find a fleeting
reference to them in Gospel accounts of the Last Supper. After
identifying the bread as his "body" and the wine as his "blood," the
"And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives."
(Matthew 26:30; Mark 14:26).
Now, this is interesting to highlight, for at least three reasons.
First, on a totally subjective level, it is just cool to think about
Jesus singing at the Last Supper. Like any other Jew in the first
century, he would have known how to chant the Psalms in Hebrew,
especially the famous Hallel psalms. This is an aspect of the Last
Supper which is often overlooked.
Second, on the level of Jesus'' self-understanding, the fact that he
sang the Hallel psalms at the Last Supper is potentially very
revealing. As is clear from the accounts of the Last Supper, at this
final meal Jesus reconfigured the traditional Jewish Passover around
his own passion and death. He shifted the focus of this Passover away
from the "body" of the Passover lamb, which was offered in the Temple,
and the "blood" of the lamb, which was poured out by the priests on
the Temple altar (see Mishnah, Pesahim 5). In its place, he put his
own body and blood, which he commanded the disciples to eat and drink
(Matt 26; Mark 14; Luke 22; 1 Cor 11).
As the great Lutheran scholar Joachim Jeremias pointed out long ago,
by means of this final "parable," Jesus identified himself as the new
Passover lamb. And, as every first century Jew would have known, the
Passover sacrifice was not completed by the death of the lamb. After
the lamb had been sacrificed in the Temple, you had to eat the Lamb.
As with the old Passover, so with the new: You had to eat the flesh of
the Lamb. Not just a symbol of the flesh, but the flesh itself.
But I digress. (We''ll deal with all that in my book on the Jewish
roots of the Last Supper.) Back to the psalms that were sung by Jesus.
When we actually look at the Hallel Psalms themselves, we find
something very striking. We find a window into words which were not
said at the Last Supper, but sung. Since we don''t have the space to
quote them all, I will give you just one. As a good Jew, at the Last
Supper, Jesus would have sung the following words:
The snares of death encompassed me, the pangs of Sheol laid hold on
me; I suffered distress and anguish. Then I called on the name of the
LORD; "O LORD, I beg you, save my life!"... For you have delivered my
soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling; I walk
before the LORD in the land of the living...
What shall I render to the LORD for all his bounty to me? I will lift
up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the LORD... O LORD, I
am your servant; I am your servant, the son of your handmaid. You have
loosed my bonds. I will offer you the sacrifice of thanksgiving...
(Psalm 116:3-4, 8-9, 12-13, 16-17)
This is remarkable. Not only does it reveal the script of Jesus'' own
anguish and passion, it also links salvation not just to his death but
to "the cup of salvation." Moreover, he refers to the sacrifice
offered as a "sacrifice of thanksgiving." In Hebrew, this word is
todah. The common Greek translation of todah is, of course
eucharistia. It is a thank-offering for deliverance from death.
Third and finally, on a more personal level, as a Catholic I find this
image of Jesus singing the Last Supper to be very powerful. The
reason: even today the Mass itself is sung. (We''ll see this in a big
way Saturday night at Easter vigil.) In fact, although most of us are
used to hearing the Mass "said," this is really its ''low'' form. In
actuality, the Mass, like the Last Supper which it makes present is a
song, the "new song" of the Lord (cf. Rev 14:1-4). The whole thing can
be sung, because the whole thing is in fact a song. In fact, at the
Last Supper, Jesus even sang about his mother: "I am your servant, the
son of your handmaid" (Ps 116:16). And so do we Catholics, down to
this very day. Mary, "the handmaid of the Lord," is mentioned at every
Mass, just as she was at the first.
So, when your remembering the Last Supper this evening, remember that
it was sung. And while you''re at it, you might also note which
Responsorial Psalm will be sung tonight in every Catholic Church
throughout the world: that''s right, Psalm 116! The very Hallel Psalm
Jesus himself sang at the Last Supper! (Just a coincidence, I''m sure.)
Wishing you all a Sacred Triduum.