By: Marc L. Greenberg
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
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Born and raised in the Jewish faith, I became a Catholic
in the year 2000. 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 Prophet Moses.
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 Holy Eucharist?
The Jewish ApostlesJesus’ 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
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 today.
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, “A shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse...”).
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
long-awaited Messiah. I grew up in the 20th century, believing that we were
still waiting for the Messiah to bring us salvation.
The Biblical Passover
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,
thepharaohs 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
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 12:34).
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
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 everyone else.
Passover in Jesus’ Day
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
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
in 1899. He conducted our family Seders with an uncompromising zeal, making
sure that nothing was changed or omitted.
If that was what the Twelve expected, they were in for a
surprise. Jesus prepared them for a unique revelation at their last Passover
The Road to Holy Thursday
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 Matthew 22:34-40).
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” (John 6:48-51,54).
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
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.
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Jesus Enters Jerusalem
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 (Matthew 24:1-2).
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).
Blood of the Lamb
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
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. 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 from sin.
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. 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 Jesus.
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” (John 6:54a).
Marc L. Greenberg, once a corporate attorney, is now
business manager at St. Vincent Ferrer parish in Cincinnati, Ohio. This article first appeared in St. Anthony Messenger, April
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