Thursday, April 2, 2015

Was the Last Supper Celebrated Versus Populum?

Q. Today is Holy Thursday, the day we celebrate the Last Supper. This got me thinking. If the Mass is, ultimately, an extension of the Last Supper, why would the priest have ever faced away from the people? A meal is always shared by people gathering together around a table. Isn't this a great reason to keep the priest facing the people?

A. First, let me point you to a post I wrote giving a variety of reasons why Mass ought to be celebrated with father and the people facing together towards the Lord that might address some of your concerns. But, to speak directly to the Last Supper issue, I think I'll let Pope Benedict answer this directly:
The idea that a celebration facing the people must have been a primitive one, and that especially of the last supper, has no other foundation than a mistaken view of what a meal could be in antiquity, Christian or not. In no meal of the early Christian era, did the president of the banqueting assembly ever face the other participants. They were all sitting, or reclining, on the convex side of a C-shaped table, or of a table having approximately the shape of a horse shoe. The other side was always left empty for the service. Nowhere in Christian antiquity, could have arisen the idea of having to 'face the people' to preside at a meal. The communal character of a meal was emphasized just by the opposite direction: the fact that all participants were on the same side of the table. (Louis Bouyer as quoted in The Spirit of the Liturgy by Pope Benedict XVI)
Tintoretto, Last Supper
The Last Supper by Tintoretto (Titian)

Indeed, Pope Benedict goes on to remind us that a meal isn't the essence of the Mass.
In any case, there is a further point that we must add to this discussion of the '"shape" of meals: the Eucharist that Christians celebrate really cannot adequately be described by the term "meal". True, the Lord established the new reality of Christian worship within the framework of a Jewish (Passover) meal, but it was precisely this new reality, not the meal as such, that he commanded us to repeat. Very soon the new reality was separated from its ancient context and found its proper and suitable form, a form already predetermined by the fact that the Eucharist refers back to the Cross and thus to the transformation of the Temple sacrifice into worship of God that is in harmony with logos.... This new and all-encompassing form of worship could not be derived simply from the meal but had to be defined through the interconnection of Temple and synagogue, Word and sacrament, cosmos and history. (The Spirit of the Liturgy)
Thus we see that, for Catholics, worship (i.e. the Mass) is much more than "table fellowship." It is the offering of the once for all sacrifice to the Father in the Spirit (the fulfillment of the Temple) of the Word made flesh (the fulfillment of the synagogue).

Last Supper Titian (detail)


  1. Since Passover already happened on Tuesday it makes much more sense that the last supper happen then. Why the move? Just so the whole weekend is a nice package?

    1. Great question. Christ rose on a Sunday, the first Sunday after the Paschal full moon (the first full moon after the spring equinox). Easter, you'll note is also, the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. The date is calculated to land on the same Sunday every year, the first one after the Paschal Moon.

      You'll note, the concept of the "weekend" is only a century or two old and grew out of devotion to Sunday as a day of rest. Easter dating predates the "weekend" by millennia.

  2. I've tried sitting on the concave side of a U-shaped table, not comfortable at all.

    But the Church's "table" is an altar, nothing curved about it. The Mass is not adequately described by the term "meal" in an exhaustive sense but "meal" is not thereby excluded. And meals are heavily conditioned by culture.

  3. So then early Christians took a pagan holiday and got it to fit, with a hammer I assume, with their dogma. Also shouldn't the last supper best be on Passover? Jesus was a Jew first and foremost. So then he would have celebrated it then, not on Thorsday...I mean Thursday,

    1. 1) No. The Passover was not a "pagan holiday". It was (is) a Jewish holiday.

      2) The last supper was on Passover. So yes, it was best on Passover.

      3) Yes, the fifth day of the week (in English) originally was named for the pagan god Thor. What that has to do with anything, I can't say.

    2. I was not talking about Passover. I was talking about Easter. Easter is based on pagan traditions.

    3. No, Easter isn't either. Easter is the celebration of the Resurrection of Christ. The name "Easter" has references to a British pagan goddess, but

      1) The Church doesn't call the holiday "Easter" she calls it "Pascha" (Passover). Non-Germanic languages follow suit (e.g. Pasqua in Italian). English speakers use the name "Easter" in much the same way we use "Thursday / Thorsday". It was the name of that time of year (the spring equinox) and the name remained even as the goddess (much like Thor) was completely forgotten. Your confusing the origin of a name with the origin of a holiday.

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