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.


Sister Mary Agnes said...

Dear Dr. Pitre,

Thank you for this beautiful post. When our sisters had our own chaplain and celebrated the Triduum in our own chapel, we used to sing Psalm 116 to a beautiful melody. It has so much more meaning to me now that I know Jesus sang the same Psalm and another of my favorites, Psalm 118.

Wishing you and your family many graces this Triduum and Easter,

Sister Mary Agnes

tim mccarthy said...

Not to spoil your article, but Zola Levit used to say they sang a jewish folk song as the left. It is a very ancient one which is still popular among Jews, and it is dai-dai-yehnoo
(phonetically). He said it meant that was enough.

Meg said...

My experience at Jewish Seders is that the Hallel are not sung until the very end. During the meal we sing Dayenu, and the 4 Questions are sung by the youngest child (who asked the questions at Jesus' seder?)

Eliahu Hanavi is sung too.

But most of the evening is spoken as the Exodus story and the meaning of all the items on the table are read from the Haggadah. The prayers and blessings were sung by the presider, but that was a very small portion of the evening.

I don't know how typical this is - I am always with the same family (conservative egalitarian).

But I hope Jesus had some sense of the laughter, wine, good food and family love that goes on at a typical modern Seder. It was a real eye opener for me. Leaning back at the table with people you love and glass of wine in your hand, singing praise to God is not at all comparable to sitting in a pew with your stomach rumbling from your fast, facing the backs of your fellow worshippers and a choir or a priest or a cantor chanting a psalm. It was a huge disconnect for me.

There is not much at a Catholic Mass in Church that resonates with a Passover Seder around the family table.

Not that that is a bad thing -- just that it's pretty hard to recognize the source of one in the other by anything other than the text.

Shalom, and happy Easter.

Brant Pitre said...

Dear Meg,

Thanks for sharing your experience, but I would like to point out that there is a fundamental difference between a modern Passover seder and the Mass that you may be overlooking: the Mass is not just a joyful meal, it is also a sacrifice. There's blood being "poured out" on the altar, the blood of the one who "loved me and gave himself for me" (Gal 2:19). This lends it an indispensable aura of solemnity.

This sacrificial element has been absent from the Seder ever since the Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D. After that, there were no functioning priests, no Temple, and hence, no sacrifice. Yet the Bible explicitly describes the Passover as a "sacrifice" (Deut 16:5). And this sacrifice was supposed to continue "forever" (Exod 12:14). But since the Temple's destruction the Passover could only ever be a sacred meal.

The reason this is important is that Passover at the time of Jesus, when the Temple still stood, would not just have consisted of the joyful Seder banquet. It would also have consisted of a solemn, high sacrificial liturgy in the Temple. After a prolonged fast, you would bring your lamb to the Temple in order to slit its throat, and give it to the priest, for him to pour out its blood on the high altar. All the while this was happening, the Levites would be solemnly chanting the Hallel psalms (Psalm 113-118), while you faced the backs of the people in front of you, waiting in line to offer your lamb at the low altar rail. (All this is described by the Jewish Mishnah (Pesahim 5, 10). It doesn't get much more solemn than this.

In short, the "disconnect" you felt between the modern Passover Seder and the Catholic Mass is not because the Mass is not the fulfillment of the Passover, but precisely because the Passover sacrifice has been fulfilled in the death of Jesus and the institution of the Last Supper.

I hope, however, that at this Easter vigil, you will also experience the joyful family banquet of the Resurrection of the Messiah! For the Mass is both a sacrifice and a feast.

Christos anesthi!

Dino said...

Thank you for raising this question. Although I have been a guest at Jewish Seders, and attended "Christian Seders" in my parish, singing did not seem to be a part.
As the Seder marks a happy event, I would be on pretty safe ground to say Jesús did not intone De Profundis or the Kol Nidre. But it is a safer bet that drums, electric pianos and rap were not a part of the celebration.

Meg said...

Dear Brent,

Thank you very much for that explanation. I`ve always wondered why the Gospels do not tell us about Jesus sacrificing his Passover lamb.

And I had not thought about the fact that the Seder must have lost a major element since the absence of the Temple. You`ve given me a lot to think about.

Best wishes for a joy-filled Easter.

Anonymous said...

Dear Dr. Pietre;

You forgot to mention, that Jesus said the BARUCH ADONI prayer, which says Blessed are You Lord God, while they were at Supper, and added the word of the Concecration to that prayer.

Simon Smelt said...

Pesach (Passover) both looks back to the Exodus from Egypt with thanskgiving, and forward to the coming of Elijah - for whom an empty seat is set at the table. A Messianic Seder (order of service) identifies the many points at which Yeshua Ha Messiach (Jesus Christ) fulfills Pesach, most notably as the lamb of God.

Psalm 118, which would also have been recited or sung on that evening, contains a number of lines familiar from the Gospel record of Holy week:
v22: "the stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone"
v26: "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord".

Unknown said...

Wonderful exposition of Ps 116 as the Hallel likely to have been sung by Jesus and his disciples after he instituted the Lord's Supper.

Beautifully connected to Exodus 24:6-8 and Jeremiah 31-34.

Re Ps 116:16, my bible contains an alternative reading to "I am your servant, the son of your handmaid" - which is "I am your servant - your faithful son".