THE FOURTH CUP
Unveiling the Mystery of the Last Supper and the Cross
By Scott Hahn
192 pages, $23 (hardcover)
To order: amazon.com
Hahn has once again written another well-paced, right-sized and eminently digestible work focused on the linkages between the Passover feast and the Last Supper. In The Fourth Cup, Scott Hahn intertwines a study of the Last Supper and its connection to the Passover feast with his own decades-long faith journey that led him from being a self-described anti-Catholic Presbyterian minister to a member of the Catholic Church.
While the topic is complex, Hahn uses typology to connect dots between the Old and New Testaments to answer a question first posed to him by a pastor when he was still in seminary.
That question, coming in the midst of a Palm Sunday sermon, was what Jesus meant in uttering, “It is finished” during his passion. Instead of providing an answer to his congregants, the pastor said he did not have one and challenged Hahn to research that very question. That question would set Hahn on a decadeslong research project that culminates in The Fourth Cup.
A core question of his inquiry is whether or not the Last Supper was in fact a Passover meal.
For Hahn, who at this time in the book was a recently minted Presbyterian minister in northern Virginia, his study and desire to more closely replicate the Passover meal in his church, by instituting more frequent communion, would lead some members of his flock to call him out for his “Romish tendencies.”
“It did not occur to me at the time that I was, day by day, approximating the practice of the Catholic Church. If you had suggested that, I would have been appalled. I was still firmly anti-Catholic in my theology — and passionately so in my prejudice. In any event, I had never attended a Mass, so I wasn’t getting my ideas from Rome. I was getting them from the Bible. If the Catholics were right about this, then it was not so much to their credit as to our shame,” he writes.
I found Hahn’s investigation of the timing of the Last Supper and whether it was a Passover meal to be particularly interesting. Having read Pope Benedict XVI’s own study of this question in the second of his three-volume work on the life of Jesus, I had a limited and dated knowledge of this topic and was eager to see where Hahn would go.
For his part, Hahn notes the discrepancy on the timing of the Last Supper between the accounts of the three synoptic Gospels and the Gospel according to John. While Matthew, Mark and Luke present the Last Supper as a Passover meal, John’s account has the meal occurring on the eve of Passover.
To reconcile this question, Hahn cites scholarship that notes the use of different calendars by various sects of Judaism, a data point that would place the Passover in the year of Jesus’ death on a Tuesday for one group and a Friday for another. This point, along with history indicating that the early Church celebrated the Last Supper on Tuesday rather than Thursday, is seen by Hahn explaining how so many events — such as Jesus’ arrest in the garden, trials by multiple authorities and multiple punishments before the Crucifixion — could occur in one single evening and early morning.
In addition to demonstrating that the Last Supper was indeed a Passover meal, an event where Jesus himself was the sacrificial lamb, Hahn focuses on the implement included in the book’s title: the cup.
The author explains that the four courses of the traditional Passover meal included the drinking of four cups of wine. Cups have a long history and multi-dimensional symbolism in the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments, including Jesus’ anguished prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane to “let this cup pass from me.”
Jesus did not drink the fourth and final cup at the Last Supper. Rather, as the title suggests, the fourth cup was Jesus’ own outpouring on the cross:
“The cup was martyrdom, for Jesus as for Cyprian — and many thousands of other Christians in the Roman Empire. Yet they willingly took it up. Saint Augustine made the connection clear: ‘But what is to receive the cup of salvation, but to imitate the passion of Our Lord? ... I will receive the cup of Christ; I will drink of the Lord’s Passion.’”
As he grew in knowledge, Hahn would be navigating his own faith struggle that, for a point in time, would divide him from his friends, family and his own wife. He recounts how this journey rocked his own life and would leave him hungering for the Eucharist. He adeptly intertwines deeply personal stories from his own life into the book, making The Fourth Cup both a solid work of scholarship and an interesting personal testimony.
Whether you are a Scott Hahn aficionado or a newbie to his works, The Fourth Cup would be a most worthwhile read this Holy Week and Easter season.
Nick Manetto writes from