Thursday, April 09, 2009

What Did Jesus Sing at the Last Supper?

Well, Holy Thursday is upon us and the Paschal Mystery right around the corner.
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 Gospel reads:
"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.