PHOTO COMPOSITE BY JEANNE KORTEKAMP; LEFT PHOTO BY JOE KEMPER, RIGHT PHOTO BY DESIGN PICS/COLETTE SCHARF
ACCORDING TO the accounts
in Matthew, Mark and Luke,
on the night before he died
on the cross, Jesus celebrated
a Seder, a Jewish
Passover supper. Although Catholics
know this Holy Thursday evening meal
as the Lord's Supper, Jesus and the
Twelve were also celebrating the first
night of Passover.
Born and raised in the Jewish faith,
I became a Catholic 10 years ago. Growing
up, I celebrated many Passover
Seders with my family. It came as no
surprise to me that the Twelve expected
Jesus to attend a Seder that evening. As
Jews, they would be surprised if he did
not. What they did not expect at this
"last supper" was to hear him announce
the eucharistic sacrifice of his body and
blood. The apostles, called by Jesus,
brought to this night of nights their
Jewish traditions received from the
As a Catholic convert from Judaism,
I carried these same traditions into my
conversion and I felt the same call. As
I prepared for my First Communion,
this Passover Seder supper with Jesus
and his 12 apostles took on a profoundly
new meaning for me. Why did
Jesus choose this ancient Jewish celebration
to institute the Sacrament of the
To answer this question, I revisited
my heritage to appreciate what experiences
the Twelve brought to that Seder
and what they heard there.
Jesus' apostles viewed the world
through their Jewish traditions, especially the great covenant that God gave
to Moses and the Hebrews at Mt. Sinai.
The heart of this covenant is: Keep my
commandments and I will be your God.
You shall be my special people if you
obey my laws (see Exodus 19:5).
The Torah, the first five books of the
Bible, contains the fundamental elements
of Jewish law. In the centuries
between the covenant at Mt. Sinai and
Jesus' birth, Jewish scholars expanded
the Torah into a complex set of rules
that governed nearly every aspect of
daily life. The Twelve measured holiness
mostly by how well someone understood
and followed God's law. As a
child, I studied the Torah and was
taught this same concept of holiness,
and this remains true for many Jews
According to another Jewish tradition,
the apostles were waiting for the
coming of the Messiah (the "anointed
one"). Directly descended from King
David, the Messiah would conquer
injustice and unite all people in peace
(see Isaiah 11:1-9).
Palestine, home to the Jewish people,
had come under the oppressive rule of
the Roman Empire almost 100 years
before Jesus began his ministry. Many
Jews were praying for a Messiah who
would lead the people in ending the
Roman occupation of their land. For
these first-century Jews, salvation was
connected to the coming of the Messiah.
I grew up in the 20th century,
believing that we were still waiting for
the Messiah to bring us salvation.
The Torah explains why the Passover
Seder meant so much to the 12 apostles.
As the Book of Exodus opens, the
Israelites who were once welcomed into
Egypt had become slaves. Fearing that the Hebrews, descended from Abraham
and Sarah, had grown too strong, the
pharaohs enslaved them with harsh
labor for about 400 years.
Then God sent Moses to lead the
people out of slavery, telling pharaoh
that he spoke for the one, true, invisible
God. Pharaoh, who worshiped idols
and was used to being treated as a god
himself, was not about to listen to
Moses or any god he could not see.
Even after God brought down nine
plagues upon the Egyptians, pharaoh
refused to let the Hebrews go. The
10th plague, however, brought
death to every firstborn Egyptian.
To spare the Israelites and to
prepare them for departure from
Egypt, God instructed each family
to obtain an unblemished
lamb without any broken bones.
After the lamb was slaughtered
before the assembled people and its
blood was applied to the doorways of
their homes, the people were to be
dressed and ready for travel, and to eat
the lamb that night.
God carried out the 10th plague, but
"passed over" the homes of the Israelite
slaves, marked with the lamb's blood
(Exodus 12:1-13,46). Hearing great wailing
over the dead in his city, pharaoh
summoned Moses and told him to leave
immediately with his people. The
Hebrews left without waiting for their
dough to rise for their daily bread (Exodus
God commanded them to remember
their freedom from slavery with a
memorial feast observed annually by
each generation, with pilgrimage to
the Lord and a sacred assembly. During
Passover's seven days, nobody may eat
leavened bread, as a reminder of the
haste with which their ancestors had to
leave Egypt. Eating bitter herbs recalls
their harsh life as slaves, and roasted
lamb links them to the animal that
was sacrificed to save them.
Failing to observe this Passover feast
meant a person would be "cut off from
the community of Israel" (Exodus
12:14-20). Such sinners could not be
allowed to remain in the community
because their sin would contaminate
At the time of Jesus' birth, about 12
centuries after Moses led the children
of Israel out of Egypt, the Jewish people
were settled throughout Palestine
(today Israel). As Passover drew near,
those who were able made a pilgrimage
to Jerusalem and celebrated a Seder
meal. The Hebrew word Seder means
"order," a reference to the meal's prescribed
order of special foods, symbolic
liturgy and prayers. The Seder gathering
fulfills God's call for a sacred assembly,
and those present bless and
consume unleavened bread and wine.
At every Seder, a child asks: "Why is
this night different from all other
nights?" Then the elders recite the story
of the Israelites' enslavement, the coming
of Moses, the night that God passed
over their homes to strike down the
Egyptians and their flight into the
desert. This scripted tradition fulfills
God's command to tell the Exodus story
to each generation (Exodus 12:26-27).
I still remember my childhood
Seders. My grandmother cooked all
week and served the meal with dishes
and tableware used only at Passover.
My great-grandfather, a deeply religious
Russian Jew, had emigrated to America
in 1899. He conducted our family
Seders with an uncompromising zeal,
making sure that nothing was changed
If that was what the Twelve expected,
they were in for a surprise. Jesus
prepared them for a unique revelation
at their last Passover supper together.
Jesus coaxed the apostles along a three-year
journey of transformation and
faith. They would carry on after him—minus one betrayer—and build his
Church. Although Jesus tested their
understanding of both the law and the
Messiah, he did not reject their shared
Jewish traditions. Instead, he fulfilled
them, affirming what was of God while
rejecting whatever was of man.
The apostles heard Jesus' preaching,
his parables and his challenge to Jewish
religious leaders to examine whether
their laws were centered on God. Jesus
collapsed centuries of Jewish law into
two simple principles: Love God and
love your neighbor as yourself (see
Jesus taught me that lawbreakers are
no longer banished. They are shown
mercy, invited to repent and welcomed
back. Holiness is to be found not in
mere obedience to the law, but also in
how well one loves.
Many disciples followed Jesus, listening
to his preaching and witnessing
his miracles. Many called him Rabbi, "Teacher." Some wondered aloud if he
was the long-awaited Messiah, while
others questioned how anyone who
taught "Blessed are the meek" could
lead them in battle against the Romans.
When a large crowd in Capernaum
asked Jesus for a sign that he was the
one sent from God, they reminded him
of the bread or "manna" that their
ancestors had received as a sign during
the Exodus. After Jesus replied that true
bread comes from his Father in heaven, the people asked for that bread.
Jesus, however, replied: "I am the
bread of life. Your ancestors ate the
manna in the desert, but they died....I
am the living bread that came down
from heaven....Whoever eats my flesh
and drinks my blood has eternal life,
and I will raise him on the last day"
Finding the command to "eat my
flesh and drink my blood" too difficult
to accept, many disciples left Jesus.
When he asked the Twelve if they also
wanted to leave, Simon Peter answered
for all of them: "Master, to whom shall
we go? You have the words of eternal
life. We have come to believe and are
convinced that you are the Holy One of
God"—that is, the Christ, the anointed
one, the Messiah (John 6:67-69).
By recognizing Jesus as the Messiah,
Peter made a fundamental leap of faith.
The Jewish people had been waiting a
long time for the Messiah, who they
believed would usher in a new order.
Even though Jesus was here, nothing
had changed. The Romans still governed
Palestine and people still died
in Roman jails.
Jesus' disciples changed when they
began to understand that, in fact, he
had come to establish a new order,
where the merciful will receive mercy
and the peacemakers will be called
"children of God." They did not arrive
at this truth by logic or reasoning. It
came from God because they were now
ready to believe (Matthew 16:16-17).
Once I came to believe that Jesus
was the Messiah awaited by my forefathers,
this formed a powerful foundation
for my decision to become a
Catholic. Like Peter, I had to surrender
my expectations about what it meant
for me, a Jewish man, to encounter
Jesus Christ and the mystery of faith. To
my surprise, I found that Jesus was
always there with me, waiting patiently
for me to find him.
Once I believed in Jesus as Savior
and Son of God, there was no turning
back. When I read the New Testament
for the first time as a Catholic, I felt as
though I was walking with the Twelve
each step of the way toward Easter Sunday.
I was especially impressed by the
events of Holy Week.
A week before the start of Passover,
Jesus entered Jerusalem and soon went
to the Temple to drive out the money
changers, tipping over their tables and
scattering their coins (Matthew 21:12-13). Jews from different regions needed
to exchange their money into local
currency to buy a lamb or other animal
to offer as a Passover sacrifice.
The blood from these animals was
collected in cups by the priests and
poured onto the Temple altar. Based on
Leviticus 17:11, the Jews believed that
blood held special meaning because it
was offered in atonement for their sins.
By driving out the money changers,
Jesus overturned the age-old custom of
slaughtering animals for a sin offering.
Within the Temple area, Jesus repeatedly
condemned those Jewish scholars
and religious leaders who were
hypocrites and blind guides (Matthew
23:13-36). He also predicted that the
great Temple, where the Holy Ark of the
Covenant once resided, would be
destroyed, with no stone left standing
Finally, Jesus told his followers that
he would be crucified in two days, at
the start of Passover. In fact, some members
of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish high
court, were already plotting against
Jesus. Unable to deal with Jesus and
his radical teaching, which they viewed
as blasphemy against God, the Sanhedrin
concluded that Jesus must be
executed (Matthew 26:1-5).
Now came the Lord's Supper. Because
the authorities were looking for Jesus,
the air was charged with alarm. The
apostles wondered: What will happen
to Jesus, to the Messiah? And yet on
the first night of Passover, everything
stopped for the Seder. How would they
observe it? Where would they observe
it? Jesus knew their concerns and
instructed the apostles how to find the
place where they would celebrate the
Passover (Matthew 26:17-19).
The Twelve believed that they were
simply gathering for a Seder, to commemorate
the journey from slavery in
Egypt and the great covenant with God
at Mt. Sinai. They would bless, break
and eat unleavened bread. They would
bless and drink wine, remembering the
blood of the unblemished lamb that
saved their ancestors from the plague of
death. The youngest in their group
(probably St. John) would ask: "Why is
this night different from all other
nights?" Then they would tell the Exodus
story, the ancient story of salvation
for the Jewish nation.
This night, indeed, became very different
from all other nights. Jesus told
the apostles that the blessed and broken
bread was his body, and they were to eat
it. He then told them that the wine he
blessed was his blood, and they were to
drink it. Like the blood of the lamb
poured out by the priests on the altar,
his blood would be shed for many for
the forgiveness of sins.
I can imagine the silence in that
room. Like me, these Jewish apostles
had to absorb some startling new ideas.
God had led the Jewish nation out of
Egypt centuries ago, saved by the blood
of sacrificial lambs, to free their ancestors
from physical slavery. Jesus, the
Son of God, had just announced that he
would shed his blood to save all people
from a greater slavery, a slavery to sin.
Jesus had also proclaimed a new
covenant: Eat my body and drink my
blood, and I will free you from the
finality of death.
I now saw the Passover celebration
with new eyes. Jesus is the Messiah,
the incarnate law, the living Word of
God. On this night he did not offer a
parable. He spoke directly: Do this and
you will have communion with me
and life everlasting in the Kingdom of
God. Jesus was instituting the Sacrament
of the Holy Eucharist.
Within 24 hours, the apostles would
see in Jesus the living transformation of
their sacred Passover traditions. Like
the lamb in Egypt, Jesus was sacrificed
before the assembled people, and his
bones were not broken (John 19:32-36). Although Jesus was beaten and
scorned, he was unblemished by sin.
In the centuries following the Exodus
from Egypt, Jews had sacrificed an
untold number of lambs to atone to
God for their sins. Now Jesus, the Lamb
of God, became the ultimate sacrifice.
Salvation is at hand. Christians no
longer need to commemorate the journey
out of Egypt, which remains important
as a foreshadowing of our rescue
I realized my journey as a Jewish
man was completed. It was the end
of my Exodus and the beginning of
my new life in Christ. My ancestral
identity was merged into my new self-awareness
as a Christian. I have received
the Good News, and the Kingdom of
God is truly at hand. In Jesus, there is
a new beginning from an ancient story.
The final conversion of the Twelve
from their Jewish roots to their new
identity as Jesus' followers began during
that Holy Thursday Seder supper.
Drawing on their bedrock Passover
beliefs, Jesus initiated them into a sacramental
life and a new relationship with
God. In the days that followed, the
apostles would unpack the parables
and lessons they had learned from
In my RCIA sessions, preparing to
become Catholic, I would do the same.
I rejoiced as I approached my Baptism
and my First Communion. Through
Jesus, I have a new covenant relationship
with our Father in heaven. My
ancestors ate manna in the desert, but
they died. Through Jesus we triumph
over death, for "whoever eats my flesh
and drinks my blood has eternal life"
Marc L. Greenberg worked as a corporate attorney
for 25 years and is now business manager at St.
Vincent Ferrer Parish in Cincinnati, Ohio. A musician,
he is active in catechetical and liturgical ministries
while also serving as a spiritual director and conducting
parish Seders during Lent. He and his wife,
Sharon, have a blended family of six children.