We have to understand the Last Supper of Jesus in the background of the Jewish Passover because it, along with the institution of the Holy Eucharist (Qurbana), took place while Jesus was celebrating the Passover with his disciples in an upper room in Jerusalem.
The Jews celebrated the Passover, one of the three pilgrim feasts, in Jerusalem (Lev 23: 4-14, Deut 16:1-8). They sacrificed a lamb in the Temple, and they took its meat home and ate with the Passover meal. The procedure for the Paschal feast has been known as the Seder, which means “order.” It comprised fifteen steps of procedure and prayers documented in a book known as Haggadah. The fifteen corresponds to the 15th day of Nissan when Passover starts or the fifteen semi-circular steps from the Court of Women to the Court of Israel in the Temple. Levites sang the fifteen “Psalms of the Steps” (Ps 120-134 of Degrees or Ascents) with musical instruments there.
The procedure for Passover meal, along with how Jesus observed it, is given below:
Preparations for Passover
1. Selection of the lamb on the 10th of Nisan: Family would select a one-year-old unblemished male lamb for sacrifice. In Jesus’ case, he was the unblemished and male lamb, selected and brought to the Temple by the family of Israel and approved by the priests for slaughter. This had happened on the Palm Sunday that was the 10th of Nisan. The slaughter of the lambs would take place between the evenings of 14th and 15th of Nisan. Jesus instituted the Holy Eucharist on 14th evening and the soldiers crucified him on Friday the 15th.
2. Searching Leaven on 13th of Nisan: The Jews had to check and remove any leaven in the house based on God’s commandment: “No leaven is to be found with you in all your territory for seven days” (Deut 16:4). Jesus did this on the Palm Sunday by cleaning the Temple and removing all the merchants who were making the Temple defiled.
3. Foot washing on 14th of Nisan: When the guests and family members arrived at the house for the Passover meal, a slave or servant would wash their feet. Since his disciples did not perform this, Jesus did this for them during the meal, which was unusual. It was to teach them how they should follow his servant leadership in their ministry.
4. Table setting: Charoseth (a sweet dark-colored paste made of fruits and nuts), unleavened bread, vegetables, vinegar (karpas), four wine glasses, red and warm wine bottles, and candles were set on the table. The people would sit in a reclined position with support of pillows around a low table about eighteen inches high. They arranged the seats according to the age or social position of the participants.
The 15 Steps of Passover Meal
Step 1. Kadeish (Sanctification): The head of the family who sat at the place of honor would take the first out of the four wine cups and fill it with wine mixed with water (grape juice for children) and pronounced a thanksgiving over it. He would taste it first and then pass it to all present. The four cups of wine stood for the four “I wills” in Exodus 6:6-7. “I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians (The Cup of Sanctification) and will deliver you from their slavery (The Cup of Deliverance). I will redeem you by my outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment (The Cup of Redemption). I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God (The Cup of Restoration) and you will know that I, the LORD, am your God who has freed you from the burdens of the Egyptians” (Ex 6:6-7).
Step 2. Urchatz (Washing of Hands): Participants washed their hands by pouring water on the right hand three times, and then left had three times to prepare for eating the herbs dipped in saltwater.
Step 3. Karpas or Bitter Herbs (usually parsley): The Passover participants ate it after dipping it in the saltwater. The vegetable was symbolic of the poor background of the Jewish people and the saltwater symbolized the tears Israelites shed in Egypt during slavery and throughout their history. The saltwater also reminded them of the Red Sea they had crossed with God’s providence while leaving Egypt. Then they poured wine in the second cup.
Step 4. Yachatz (Breaking of middle matzo bread): The head of the family placed three matzo breads in three pockets of matzo cover. Matzo bread was unleavened flat bread with stripes and piercings on it symbolic of the scourging and nailing of the Messiah, according to Christian interpretation. These three breads, according to Christian interpretation, represented the Most Holy Trinity. The head of the family broke the middle bread representing the Messiah into two pieces, reminding of the broken body of Christ for our sins. He returned the smaller piece representing the “bread of affliction” to the pocket and the larger one representing Pesach Sacrifice in a hidden place in another cover. For Christians, this represented the burial of Jesus.
Step 5. Magid (Story telling) of Exodus from Egypt as a question-answer session: The youngest son or the least significant person would ask four questions about the difference of that night from the banquet of other nights. The head of the family would give the answers and clarify the significance of the special food items. Participants then drank the second cup of wine. The participants then recited the first half of the Hallel Psalms 113-114.
Step 6. Rachtzah (Second handwashing) by the participants with a blessing to prepare for eating the matzah, the unleavened bread: They served Paschal Lamb, charoseth (paste of nuts and fruits) with vegetables, and two of the unleavened bread wafers.
Step 7. Motzi (The blessing for bread) holding the remaining matzah bread.
Step 8. Matzah (Unleavened Bread): Everyone ate a part of the top and the middle matzah. They lean to the left when they eat.
Step 9. Maror (Bitter Herbs): The participants ate bitter vegetable like raw horseradish or romaine lettuce after reciting a blessing over it. Bitter Herbs reminded the bitterness of slavery. They dipped the bitter herb in charoset, a sweet dark-colored paste made by mixing apples, nuts, cinnamon, and wine, which signified the mortar used by the Israelites for construction work in Egypt during their slavery.
Step 10. Koresh (Matzah Sandwich): They filled two pieces of Matzah with Maror and Romaine lettuce, made a special prayer and ate it while leaning to the left.
Step 11. Shulchan Orech (Dinner): The head of the family cut the Pascal lamb into pieces and gave a portion to each participant. They are it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs dipped in sauce.
Step 12. Tzafun / Afikoman (Half-piece Matzo bread): The head of the family would ask children to find the piece of matzah bread that he had hidden earlier. The finding of it represented the resurrection of Jesus according to the Christian view. He broke that into pieces and shared with all, saying, “This is the bread of affliction that our fathers ate in Egypt.” Jesus established the Holy Eucharist using the Afikoman bread. “Jesus took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and giving it to his disciples said, ‘Take and eat; this is my body’” (Mt 26:26).
Step 13. Barech (The Cup of Redemption): The head of the family poured the third cup of wine, said a blessing over the cup, and he shared it with all the participants. Jesus instituted the second part of the Holy Eucharist. “Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins’” (Mt 26:27-28). Jesus and his apostles left the room to the Garden of Gethsemane at this point and the rest of the Passover continued through his sacrifice as the Lamb of God on the Cross.
The head of the family poured wine into the fourth cup. He set an additional cup for prophet Elijah, who would come as the forerunner of the Messiah, to announce his arrival on a Pesach day. He then opened a door to invite Elijah into the house.
Step 14. Hallel (Praises): The participants recited the rest of the psalms (Hallel Psalms 115-118). Then they consumed the fourth cup of wine after saying a blessing over it. Jesus considered the fourth cup as his suffering when he prayed at the Garden of Gethsemane. “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done” (Lk 22:42).
Step 15. Nirtzah (Closing): The Passover concluded saying “It is finished” and with the prayer, “Next Year in Jerusalem,” hoping they might celebrate Pesach the following year in Jerusalem with the Messiah. Jesus also said, “It is finished” after tasting the fourth cup on the cross just before his death.
RECLINING AT PASSOVER
During the Biblical times, people were not sitting around the table as we do now. According to the Jewish and Roman custom, the dining table was a low slab with couches around its three sides. This was how Jesus used to eat at houses and at the last supper. The original Passover in Egypt was in a standing position. Later, it changed t reclining position to show their relaxation and freedom because of their redemption from slavery.
Though we have an annual celebration of Passover remembering that of the Old and New Testament, every Holy Mass (Qurbana) is a Passover celebration with Jesus. Like the two sections in the Passover of Jesus, first around the table and then on the cross, let us also reflect our sacrifice at the church and in our day-to-day sacrificial living.