The Last Supper and the Eucharist

Of this icon, Fr Badwi writes: “The icon of the Last Supper unites Our Lord and His apostles around a semi-circular table. There are vases for the washing of the feet in front of the table and above it hangs a lamp. The Lord presides at the table without being in the centre. Peter, head of the apostles, is sitting in front of him. Judas Iscariot holds a bag of silver. The Beloved Disciple lays his head on Our Lord’s chest. This composition is totally different from the ones we are accustomed to seeing in the depictions of the Last Supper of the Renaissance and Post-Renaissance periods, whereas it is common in oriental iconography.”

All the major events of the Last Supper are represented in this icon, except for the central mystery: the breaking of bread and the distribution of the Holy Body and Blood to the Apostles. We see the first scene of the great mystery, not what follows. But creative imagination can take us further.

One of the most important of all St Jacob of Sarug’s writings, known to me, is his Homily on (the) Partaking of the Mysteries (trans. Amir Harrak, Gorgias Press, 2013). The homily is not very long, but it has some complexities. True to his typological way of thinking, St Jacob relates the Last Supper to every meal we eat, and every hunger we feel to the spiritual hunger which is satisfied at the Table of the Lord. Hence he asks: “Why is not the liturgical (food) considered a meal?” (line 118)

The answer is that it is a meal: it is the meal above all others. St Jacob connects that Supper to the wedding banquet which is mentioned in the Gospels, and the parables of the Bridegroom – who, of course, is Christ. The Church is even related to St Thomas, for as he placed his hand in the side of the Risen Lord, the Church touches and finds in His side the stream of water which is Baptism (19-20). This also links us to the Temple imagery of Ezekiel, and the passage “vidi aquam” which in the EFM is sung at the asperges ceremony each Sunday of the Easter Season.

This same section relates the imagery of the Apocalypse (Revelation) to the Sacraments, so that the heavenly watercourse also flows on earth through Baptism and the Eucharist, and it flows from the sacrifice of Calvary as did the Sacred Blood (39-44). This principle, that all life on earth comes from the divine life of God, is one of the foundations of typology:

The source of life came from the top of the height above,

and the deep of depths filled itself with a new life from it.

The source of the crowned one is mingled with blood and water:

A new drink that suffocates death in its own place. (41-44)

I can understand someone feeling that they are overwhelmed by the great flood of images and symbols. But I think this is just the point of a typological way of thinking, as opposed to a purely poetical. Because the life on earth shares in the being of the life of God, and god is a unity, then our life must share in that unity. The proliferation of related images shows that this uniting in God is endless, and embraces all which will be saved. One asks, almost in perplexity, where does this inclusion of more and more factors end? The answer is: only in the mystery of God. All ideas, images, and symbols of the redeemed world are ultimately one; and the dazzling of the human eye ends only when the luminous eye within raises its sight through the earthly to the heavenly, and sees the One behind the Many. The homily reaches its climax, I suggest in lines 89 following. Jacob writes:

Come to prayer and bring along your whole self,

do not let your mind stay in the market with the business.

If you are here, let your inner person,

also be here inside the gate of the crowned one.

Why is your mind out roaming after affairs,

So that when you are here you are not here but there?

Outside in the market, in calculations and profits,

your mind errs! Bring it and let it go in to beg for its life.

Stand not with one half inside and one half outside,

for if you are divided, your prayer will be lost between the halves.

Stand to pray a collected, unified and true man,

and all that you ask for you can obtain from God. (89-100)

One theme which emerges from this is that, while we receive from the Eucharist, we must also prepare for it. At the Divine Liturgy, the doors of heaven are open, and our petitions can be heard:

This is the time when the Son of God

is immolated and set upon the table for sinners to forgive them.

This is the time when the gates and curtains permit

the sacrifice to come in and the mercy to go out for sinners. (289-292)

Many other themes could be picked up and related to the Last Supper, and to St Jacob’s homily on it. One factor which strikes me more and more is that, while the Syriac tradition has much to say about the temptations of the devil (and Jacob touches on these in a lengthy passage here), the idea of diabolic possession which is becoming rife in some Catholic circles (taking the cue from Pentecostalists), is missing in the Syriac tradition. Yes, we know about temptation, but I have not yet seen anything in the Syriac tradition about demonic possession except when commenting on the exorcisms and banishments of the New Testament.

One last word for this commentary on the Last Supper. We can approach the Mystery of God through the Creation, because the All is contained in the One. But the reverse path is different: the Many represent the One only in an imperfect way. The sovereign path to God is through the holy and divine, not through the earthly. Therefore the heavenly banquet of the Eucharist is the perfect portal.


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