Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 11:23-26

The New Covenant

Popular Translation

23 Now, what I received from the Lord, I give to you. On the night Jesus was arrested, he took a loaf of bread, 24 said the blessing, broke it into pieces, and said, "Take and eat this. This is my body which is for you. Share this in my memory." 25 In the same way, Jesus took the cup of wine after dinner, and said, "This is the cup of God's new agreement with us. As often as you share this cup, do it in my memory." 26 Whenever you eat this bread and drink from this cup together, you tell everyone about the death of the Lord, until he returns from heaven.

Literal Translation

23 For I received from the Lord what I pass along to you, that on the night on which the Lord Jesus Christ was handed over (to the leaders), (he) took bread 24 and having given thanks broke (it) and said, "This is my body, the (one) on your behalf. Do this in my memory." 25 In the same way, the cup after the dining, saying, "This is the cup of the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink (it) in my memory." 26 For as often as you might eat this bread and you might drink (from) this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he should return.

This was the earliest known narrative on the Last Supper. Paul recounted the tradition of the Lord's Supper that was celebrated in the Christian communities before Corinthians began to believe. Whether or not the Christian communities of the late 30's actually used the Words of Institution (in this form or another) is open to speculation. By the early to mid-50's, however, the Institution narrative was commonplace. And, in this letter, Paul believed this narrative came from the Last Supper (hence, "what (he) received from the Lord").

Many biblical scholars posit two traditions for the Words of Institution: Paul-Luke and Mark-Matthew. First, let us compare all four (highlighted in bold). Then, we will compare Paul and Luke, Mark and Matthew (highlighted in italic) separately.

Paul-Luke

(he) took bread and, having given thanks, broke (it)

and said,

"This is my body,

the (one) on your behalf. Do this in my memory."

In the same way, the cup after the dining, saying,

"This is the cup of the new covenant in my blood.

Do this, as often as you drink (it) in my memory."

1 Corinthians 11:23c-25
(mid-50's AD)


Having taken bread, having given thanks, he broke (it) and gave (it)

to them, saying,

"This is my body

being given on behalf of you. Do this in my memory."

And the cup likewise after the dining, saying,

"This (is) the cup, the new covenant in my blood,

being poured out on behalf of you."

Luke 22:19-20
(mid to late 80's AD)

Mark-Matthew

During eating with them,

having taken bread, having given thanks, he broke (it) gave (it)

to them, and said,

"Take (it),

this is my body."

Having taken the cup, having given thanks, he gave it to them

and all drank out of it.

He said to them,

"This is my blood of the covenant

being poured out for many."

Mark 14:22-25
(mid to late 60's AD)


During eating, Jesus,

having taken bread, having given thanks, broke (it), and, having given (it)

to his disciples, said,

"Take (and) eat (this),

this is my body."

Having taken the cup, having given thanks, he gave it to them, saying,

"Drink out of it, everyone. For,

this is my blood of the covenant,

the (one) being poured out for many

unto the dismissal of sins."

Matthew 26:26-28
(mid to late 80's AD)

What do they all share in common? Five items: 1) the bread ritual of taking, blessing, breaking and distributing, 2) the words "This is my body," 3) the mention of Jesus speaking before the words over the cup, 4) the words "This is..." from the cup, and 5) the reference of the cup as blood in relationship with a covenant (i.e., God's agreement with his people).

What do Paul and Luke have in common? In the Words of Institution for the Body, there are two items: the representative nature of the body (my body...for you) and the remembrance clause. Note that the gift of the body in this tradition was for the believer (i.e., "you"). With the cup, there are two items: the abbreviated introduction ("and likewise the cup, saying") and the focus on the cup in the Words of Institution.

What do Mark and Matthew have in common? There are four items: 1) the time frame for the breaking of the bread (during the meal), 2) the command for the disciples to "take" the bread, 3) the cup ritual of taking, blessing, and giving to all to drink, 4) the pouring out of the cup (which was a clear reference to his death). Notice mark has Jesus speaking the words after all have taken the cup, while Matthew has Jesus speaking before or during the cup's passing. Also notice the representative nature of the blood was universal (for "many").

Another item needs mention. Luke shared the idea of the cup being poured out with Mark and Matthew. This item is striking compared to Paul. The idea of the cup as a remembrance of Christ's blood pouring (his death) was implied in 1 Corinthians 11:26. For Paul, the Lord's Supper was a proclamation of his death. Indeed, the idea of outpouring was present. Was the phrase added later to make the idea within the tradition explicit?

In the end, reconstructing the single source of the two traditions might be impossible. But their common elements make for an interesting point of focus:

(Jesus) having taken bread, having given thanks, broke (it) and gave (it) to (his disciples) saying, "This is my body."

(Jesus, doing the same,) said, "This is...the covenant of (or in) my blood." (The pouring of the blood implied was clearly a reference to the death of the Lord.)

I leave the meaning of "body" and "blood" to you, the reader. (As a Catholic and a believing Christian, I hold both refer to the real presence of the risen Lord, "his body, blood, soul, and divinity" as the Council of Trent stated.) But the meaning of the cup does need a final mention. The "blood" which foreshadowed the death of Christ on the cross was a covenant sign. The sign could refer to a fulfillment of the Mosaic covenant on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 24:4-8) or to the "new covenant" of intimacy promised in Jeremiah 31:27-31 (an echo of Hosea 2). Or both! Nonetheless, whether you believe (as I do) in the real presence of the risen Lord in Communion, or in a symbolic re-enactment of the Last Supper to express Christian fellowship, the covenant aspect of the cup sharing must be taken seriously! When we drink from the cup, we affirm our faith in the death of Christ and in the covenant God made with us in Christ.

How do you take the idea of God's covenant seriously? How do you prepare to take Communion seriously?