Women were there at the Last Supper, they where therefore at the first altar.


Many were astonished at the reported remarks of Portuguese Cardinal Jose da Cruz Policarpo this week that there is no "fundamental obstacle" from "a theological perspective" for women to say the Mass from the altar.

One thing that is of great value in the discussion is the opportunity it gives to re-examine our understanding of Eucharist and to look again at the Gospel traditions on which our Eucharistic theology is based.  

In the New Testament writings there is no indication of who led or presided when communities gathered for the “Lord’s Supper”.  Was it one of Jesus’ disciples, one of ‘the Twelve’, would Paul have led the communities he founded, would it have been the person who was head of the household where they gathered? 

We don’t have clear evidence to answer these questions.  The first time we hear who led the Eucharist is in the writing called “the Didache” (the Teaching) dated about the year 100 C.E. In this document people called ‘the prophets’ are named as the leaders at Eucharist.  “But permit the prophets to offer thanksgiving as much as they desire (Did. 10:7; also 13:3).

It is also important to return to the Gospels and to our knowledge of the Jewish Passover meal to consider questions about who would have been present with Jesus at this meal.  The earliest Gospel, Mark, situates the meal as a Passover. Mark has Jesus send disciples into Jerusalem to make the arrangements and Mark writes, “The Teacher asks, where is my guest room, where I am to eat the Passover with my disciples” (Mark 14:14). 

Following the meal, Jesus goes to Mount Olives and Mark records, “They went to a place called Gethsemane and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray” (Mark 14:32)  

Note that the focus is on Jesus’ disciples. The meal is for his disciples and these disciples then go with Jesus from the meal to Mt Olives.  The group of disciples is broader than the smaller group called ‘The Twelve”.  These twelve are singled out primarily for their symbolic value representing a unified or re-constituted Israel based again on the twelve tribes.  

When Moses seals the covenant at Mt Sinai we read, “Moses rose early in the morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel” (Exodus 24:4).  There was an animal sacrifice and Moses collected the blood.  Half of this blood was sprinkled on the altar, then the rest was sprinkled on the people as he said, “This is the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you” (Exodus 24:8)

In the context of a Jewish Passover meal, where the whole household gathers to celebrate the covenant and Israel’s relationship with God, Jesus ritualises the new covenant. 

It is unthinkable that a Jewish Passover would involve only men.  Women and children as part of the household all have a role to play.  The women prepare the food and are entrusted to do this according to strict kosher rules, the head of the household goes to the Temple to sacrifice the lamb, the woman begins the meal with the lighting of the candles, the children ask questions about what is happening and so provide a way of telling the great story of the first Passover.  It is a joyous, noisy, family celebration.  

When Mark’s Gospel highlights the Twelve, within the context of this household meal, it is to recall the original Sinai covenant.  It is to make the connection between what Jesus is doing now and what Moses did. Mark even records that Jesus uses the same words spoken by Moses, “This is my blood of the covenant” (Exodus 24:8; Mark 14:24). 

The passage called the ‘institution narrative’ resonates with the symbolism of Sinai.  But to read into this passage a literal exclusive gathering of only twelve men is to misread the entire Markan passage which as noted above is set within discipleship language.  Schematically it looks like this:

Where am I to eat the Passover with my disciples?
                      The covenant ritual: The twelve, the blood of the covenant. 
Jesus said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.”

Taking seriously what Mark writes and his rich covenantal theology that goes back to Israel’s experience of Passover and the Sinai ritualising of this experience by Moses, means it is not accurate to imagine that Jesus was seated at table only with 12 men, excluding all the other disciples. 

Unfortunately, most of us have been so influenced by the Da Vinci painting of the “Last Supper” that we take this painting as a historically reliable portrait of a first century Jewish Passover meal. For all its beauty and artistry, Leonardo cannot be the basis for our Eucharistic theology, particularly if it leads to imagining that Jesus’ sharing of this meal was exclusive of most of his followers.

And, among some of these followers Mark notes, “There were also women looking on from afar, among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome, who when he was in Galilee followed him and ministered to him; and also many other women who came up with him to Jerusalem” (Mark 15:40-41).

I welcome the Cardinal’s comments and the discussion that has followed, particularly if it provokes what Vatican II called a “return to the sources” of our theological thinking and practice. These sources need to move beyond Da Vinci, and return to the New Testament and the early traditions using the best critical and historical methods we now have, that previous generations did not have access to.

Dr Mary Coloe is a Presentation Sister lecturing in Scripture at Australian Catholic University, Melbourne.

Article published on 29th June 2011 http://www.cathnews.com/article.aspx?aeid=26999