How does the Last Supper relate to Passover?

Q: During Holy Week, I read the Passion stories of Jesus’ Last Supper, Crucifixion and Resurrection. It seems confusing: The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke have Jesus and the apostles eating a Passover meal, but the Gospel of St. John has Jesus dying before Passover began. Is there a reason for this? — A reader in Sterling

A: In addressing this question, let’s begin with a simple overview of the chronology of events presented in the Synoptic Gospels, i.e. Matthew, Mark and Luke. First, Jesus spoke of celebrating the Passover feast with His apostles: “On the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the disciples came up to Jesus and said, ‘Where do you wish us to prepare the Passover supper for you?’ He said, ‘Go to this man in the city and tell him, ‘The Teacher says: My appointed time draws near. I am to celebrate the Passover with My disciples in your house’” (Mt 26:17-19). A similar record is found in Mark and Luke. Keep in mind that on the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the lambs would have been slaughtered in the temple and readied for the Passover meal after sunset (about 6 p.m.).

Second, that night, after supper, Jesus would have prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane and then been arrested. On Friday morning, “at daybreak” (Mk 15:1), the chief priests, elders, and scribes took Jesus to Pilate (about 6 a.m.). Arriving at Calvary, the soldiers crucified Jesus at 9 a.m. (“around the third hour” — Mk 15:25). About midday (12 noon), darkness covered the whole land until midafternoon (3 p.m.), at which time, Jesus died.

Third, after Jesus’ death, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for His body for burial. The body had to be buried before sunset, “as it was Preparation Day, that is, the eve of the Sabbath” (Mk 15:42-43). Following the Synoptics, it appears that the Jews as well as Jesus and the apostles celebrated the Passover meal on Thursday, and then Jesus was crucified on Friday.

However, the Gospel of St. John highlighted that the Jews would be celebrating the Passover meal the night of Good Friday: When the chief priest, elders, and scribes brought Jesus to Pilate on Friday morning, “They did not enter the praetorium themselves, for they had to avoid ritual impurity if they were to eat the Passover supper” (Jn 18:28) that Friday evening. So, how do we reconcile the Gospel accounts? Are there some overlooked details that help clarify the matter?

First, Passover was celebrated on the 15th day of the month of Nisan. Remember for the Jews, the new day begins at sunset, so the lambs would have been slaughtered on the afternoon of Nisan 14, and then after sunset (Nisan 15) the Passover meal would have been shared. Presuming Jesus died in the year A.D. 33, the Passover meal would have been a Friday evening celebration (which would also coincide with the beginning of the Sabbath). Because of changes in how the Jews calculated their dates, scholars posit that whether the actual date was A.D. 33 or three years earlier would not matter.

Second, Pope Benedict XVI, in Jesus of Nazareth, No. III, noted that having a trial and crucifixion take place on the day of Passover (Friday) is problematic (with the Passover meal eaten the preceding Thursday evening). He highlighted, as recorded in Mark, that while the chief priests, elders and scribes looked for the opportunity to arrest and kill Jesus, they decided, “Not during the festival (Passover), or the people may riot” (Mk 14:2), meaning that they would have wanted to avoid any turmoil after Thursday’s sunset. Therefore, it makes more sense that Friday evening would have marked the beginning of Passover, i.e. after the Crucifixion.

Third, in the Gospel of St. Mark, when Jesus instructed His apostles about preparing for the Passover, He said, “Go into the city and you will come upon a man carrying a water jar. Follow him” (Mk 14:13). Some Scripture scholars note that only women carried water jars. However, among the Essenes, a conservative and separatist group from the Pharisee-Sadducee establishment, men did carry large water jars for their ritual ablutions with water. The Essenes also followed a different calendar, again posing the possibility of an earlier Passover celebration.

So now we can draw a quick summary: Jesus had the Last Supper on Holy Thursday, a Passover meal. On Good Friday, he was condemned by Pilate and crucified. At 3 p.m., Jesus died. During this time, the lambs were being slaughtered in the temple, preparing for the official Passover meal that took place that evening after sunset. Jesus is buried before sunset.

Therefore, Jesus celebrated a Passover, but His own, new Passover, on Holy Thursday evening, not the Passover of the old covenant celebrated on Friday evening. In the Passover of the old covenant, a one-year-old, unblemished, male lamb was sacrificed, roasted and eaten with unleavened bread. Note the Gospels made no mention of procuring or sharing a Passover lamb (which would not have been available until Friday afternoon when He is crucified). However, Jesus, sinless, is the new Passover Lamb. Even His bones were not broken on the cross (Jn 19:32ff). By His blood the new and everlasting covenant is made. By His sacrifice, a new Exodus takes place — freedom from the slavery of sin and the hope of entry into the promised land of heaven. Unlike the Passover lamb that was sacrificed and eaten, Jesus rose from the dead. While the Passover of the old covenant was eaten among family members with the father presiding, the new Passover is eaten among the members of the church with the Lord presiding. And, while the Passover of the old covenant focused on flesh and blood of the lamb and the Exodus event, the new Passover is a sharing the Body and Blood of the Lord Jesus Himself, and He commanded us, “Do this in remembrance of me.”

Another interesting point: The Passover of the old covenant involved the sharing of four cups of wine —first, the kiddush cup, or the cup of sanctification; second, the haggadah cup, or the cup of proclamation at which time the father recounts the Exodus event; third, the berakah cup, or blessing cup, drunk after the meal was finished; and fourth, the zebah todah cup, or the cup of thanksgiving at which time the Hallel (Psalms 113 – 118) was sung.

Consider the Last Supper: The Gospel of Luke recorded, “He did the same with the cup after eating, saying as He did so: ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which will be shed for you’” (Lk 22:20), indicating the berakah cup. And then, “when they had sung a hymn,” referring to the Hallel Psalms, Jesus and the apostles went out to the Garden of Gethsemane, where Our Lord prayed, “Father, if it is your will, let this cup pass from me; but not my will, but yours be done.” The fourth and final cup of Jesus’ Passover was drunk on the cross, when He died: “When Jesus had received the wine, He said, ‘It is finished’; and He bowed His head and delivered over His spirit” (Jn 19:30).

Pope Benedict wrote, “One thing emerges clearly from the entire tradition: Essentially, this farewell meal was not the old Passover, but the new one, which Jesus accomplished in this context. Even though the meal that Jesus shared with the Twelve was not a Passover meal according to the ritual prescriptions of Judaism, nevertheless, in retrospect, the inner connection of the whole event with Jesus’ death and Resurrection stood out clearly. It was Jesus’ Passover. And in this sense He both did and did not celebrate the Passover: The old rituals could not be carried out — when their time came, Jesus had already died. But He had given Himself, and thus He had truly celebrated the Passover with them. The old was not abolished; it was simply brought to its full meaning” (Jesus of Nazareth, p. 114). And how beautiful it is to know that Jesus’ Passover continues in our Holy Mass.