Holy Thursday: The Last Supper as Archetype

We have been meditating on Passover and Holy Week as archetypes for recalling the liberation events of our ancestors in light of our current coronavirus pandemic. 

Today, Holy Thursday, marks another archetype–one from our Christian ancestors that commemorates what many consider a Passover meal with Jesus just before his death.  A Last Supper, speaks to anxiety and fear, grief and deep loss, that is common to all in a time of pandemic.

“The Living Bread” Sculpture by Paola Pisani. Referenced in The Stations of the Cosmic Christ

This is how Luke’s gospel tells the story: “Then he took some bread, and when he had given thanks, broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body which will be given for you; do this as a memorial of me.’  He did the same with the cup after supper, and said, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood which will be poured out for you.’”  (Lk. 22:19)

Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh observes that “Not many people want to become priests in our day, but everyone is hungry.  So many people are hungry for spiritual food; there are so many hungry souls.”  He underscores the archetypal nature of this event which he recognizes as cosmic food sacred for all peoples.

“I Am the Bread” Sculpture by M.C.Richards. Station Five in The Stations of the Cosmic Christ.

He addresses the Last Supper that is reenacted in Christian worship this way: ‘Take, my friends, this is my flesh, this is my blood’—Can there be any more drastic language in order to wake you up?  What could Jesus have said that is better than that?…This piece of bread is the body of the whole cosmos.  If Christ is the body of God, which he is, then the bread he offers is also the body of the cosmos. 

Look deeply and you notice the sunshine in the bread, the blue sky in the bread, and the clouds and the great earth in the bread.  Can you tell me what is not in a piece of bread?  The whole cosmos has come together in order to bring to you this piece of bread.  You eat it in such a way that you come alive, truly alive.

“The Last Supper” by Jacopo Tintoretto. From the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice. In Wikimedia Commons

“Drastic language” indeed! A wake up call.  A deep re-membering such as biologist Rupert Sheldrake talks about when he speaks of “morphic resonance” common to all ritual and ceremony–an arousing of group memory, a bringing in of the ancestors, a calling in of the communion of saints.

Rabbi Heschel has written that memory is at the heart of Jewish liturgy (as it is in Sufi communities where zikr means to remember).  It was certainly in Jesus’s mind in these recountings of his final meal with his disciples.

Remembering is also at the heart of our healing and our invoking of memory when we gather to nurture ourselves for the work and struggles, interior and exterior, that await us all both during and after the visit from coronavirus.

Adapted from Matthew Fox and Bishop Marc Andrus, Stations of the Cosmic Christ, pp. 173f.

Banner Image: “The Last Supper” by Peter Paul Rubens. From the collection of Pinacoteca di Brera. On Wikimedia Commons.

Queries for Contemplation

Do you agree with Thich Naht Hanh that many are hungry for spiritual food today?

Do you recognize the cosmic food and Cosmic Christ (or Image of God; or Buddha Nature) archetype in the Last Supper story as he tells it?  What follows from such a story, from partaking of such food?

Recommended Reading

Resurrection Logic: How Jesus’ First Followers Believed God Raised Him from the Dead

Bruce Chilton investigates the Easter event of Jesus in Resurrection Logic. He undertakes his close reading of the New Testament texts without privileging the exact nature of the resurrection, but rather begins by situating his study of the resurrection in the context of Sumerian, Egyptian, Greek, and Syrian conceptions of the afterlife. He then identifies Jewish monotheistic affirmations of bodily resurrection in the Second Temple period as the most immediate context for early Christian claims. Chilton surveys first-generation accounts of Jesus’ resurrection and finds a pluriform–and even at times seemingly contradictory–range of testimony from Jesus’ first followers. This diversity, as Chilton demonstrates, prompted early Christianity to interpret the resurrection traditions by means of prophecy and coordinated narrative.

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6 thoughts on “Holy Thursday: The Last Supper as Archetype”

  1. Avatar

    This was a wonderful explanation of the Holy Eucharist, or Communion, for those who have trouble understanding exactly “what it means.” I am so glad to have it to refer to in attempting to explain it to others during discussions. Thanks a lot! Peace and Blessings during this Holy Week.
    Barbara M.

    1. Gail Sofia Ransom

      Dear Barbara,
      thank you for writing in response to Matt’s meditation on The Last Supper. I think the simplicity of the ritual meal is so powerful because the common stuff of everyday life is in it: food, betrayal,intrigue, wine, and song.
      Gail Ransom
      For the Daily Meditation Team

  2. Avatar

    Matthew, as I was reading your essay this morning, a new thought and a question arose—something that never occurred to me before. I understand what you mean about the archetype of the bread and the wine. In fact, every morning, I celebrate the Eucharist with my coffee and my small piece of dark chocolate as elements reminding me of the blood and body of the Cosmic Christ, the Earth, and all that’s in it. I remember the indigenous people who provide these elements for me and pray that they, their children, and the land on which the elements grow have justice and joy. Nonetheless, my question remains.

    I have understood that the feast of Passover was meant to remember the sparing of the firstborn of the Israelites when they were enslaved in Egypt. Now here’s Jesus taking the cup and bread and instead of retelling that story to remind his Jewish friends of the Jewish people’s liberation, he introduces a new story for them to remember. He switches the focus of Passover from one memorial to another.

    It has been said that Jesus was not trying to introduce a new religion, but introducing a metanoia, maybe asking for a refinement of the Jewish faith to its essence, its “greatest commandment,” maybe hoping to liberate his people from a “religion” altogether and show the point of all religions—compassion and freedom from oppression. However, the obvious (wasn’t obvious to me until this moment) switch from making the meal about one remembrance instead of another sure seems like the introduction of a new religion. Could you address this?

  3. Avatar
    Margaret Rose Hess

    I definitely agree with Thich Naht Hanh that the world is hungry for spiritual food. Forces of destruction and selfish greed are trying to starve out alternative ways of being, including both spiritual appreciation and scientific insight about how the web of life needs to be understood and valued. And I am very deeply moved by the idea of cosmic food. We, as all creatures, are molded from sparks of light and diminished dust. Everything on earth is living or once was living or will become living (including stones and dust): the miracle of life is that stones do become bread, as they break down and create the dust out of which microbes feed plants, which then harvest sunlight to feed us. This way of thinking becomes a food for the soul. Thank you so much. I feel nourished this morning.

  4. Avatar

    Good morning and Thank you, dear Matthew, for this spiritual nourishment and breaking bread with us every day, it is much appreciated, and will be remembered as our own special ritual. May these April showers bring May flowers full of Cosmic love and light.

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