Probing a Mystery of the Fourth Gospel

Saturday Book Pick: 'Eucharist and Covenant in John’s Last Supper Account'

In the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke specifically treat the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. Of their combined 46 verses on the Last Supper, 10 are specifically about the institution of the Eucharist.

Scholars over the centuries have wondered why John the Evangelist never mentions the institution of the Eucharist, even though his Last Supper account totals five chapters and seven verses. He spends much of Chapter 6 previewing the Eucharist.

But John does treat it, explains Msgr. Anthony La Femina in his book Eucharist and Covenant in John’s Last Supper Account. The book is the culmination of Msgr. La Femina’s 35 years of research and prayer to unravel what has left people puzzled for so long.

Considering that John makes Christ’s washing the feet of the Apostles the central action, something the Synoptics don’t even mention, and remembering John is also known as “the Theologian,” Msgr. La Femina succinctly states that the footwashing is an analogical presentation of the Eucharist.

Since John “often teaches points of revelation in his Gospel through analogy,” Msgr. La Femina reasons that John “uses the tool of analogy to convey truths about the Eucharist that are not evident in the other Last Supper accounts.” So if the footwashing is “truly an analogical figure of the Eucharist, then John is referring expressly but implicitly to the Eucharist when speaking of the foot washing.”

For proof, the author, a canonist and theologian who for decades served on the staff of the Pontifical Council for the Family, examines the footwashing in every aspect, from its literal understanding to what he shows as a mysterious action. Msgr. La Femina goes through Biblical accounts, meanings and implications of Hebrew and Greek words and brings in scholarly works that attempt to solve the dilemma but are incomplete.

But Msgr. La Femina charts and details the analogy, showing that the footwashing episode in John includes identical circumstances, attributes and effects that the Eucharist possesses in the Synoptic and Pauline accounts, including the command to repeat the action, a sign of the death of Jesus and covenantal action.

Leaving nothing unexamined, the author deals with the physical and theological settings, the extremely consequential position of events and the sequence of wording.

Msgr. La Femina also elucidates how John’s Last Supper account “reports on the nature of the Eucharistic Covenant established at the Last Supper.” He details the makeup and terms of a covenant within a defined format and shows the ancient covenant traditions all being used and fulfilled in the Last Supper account, from the Mosaic Covenant to both the Near Eastern Royal Investiture covenant and traditions and the Vassal treaty.

These most important covenant forms, found in the Old Testament and recognizable to people of Jesus’ time, play a major role in John’s Last Supper account. The author spends several chapters to explain the covenants and all their specific and obligatory clauses in minute detail, and shows how each of the many sections relates to, finds the ultimate fulfillment in and reveals Jesus the Messiah throughout the Last Supper account.

For instance, one of the obligatory clauses the Ancient Near East tradition used to make the distinction between covenant and contract was the “Divine Witness Clause.” The binding force of the covenant involved the deity as witness who was then the covenant’s guarantor and avenger.

In the Last Supper account, the author finds this clause in not only the way it named the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, as the covenant witness (in such verses as John 14:16, 15:20, and 16:8), but how the disciples are also named as witnesses (John 15:27). “The Paraclete is called to witness to the Royal Investiture Covenant by which God establishes the Son of man as Messiah of the New Israel,” writes the author.

It’s very deep going — we become familiar with obscure yet indispensible words like “suzerain” — yet a “must” in order to see what John is telling us. Even some of the words Jesus uses, the author informs us, are typical “treaty” vocabulary.

Msgr. La Femina makes the connections with copious references to the actions and words of the several chapters of John’s Last Supper Account. 

A short review can’t do justice to the meticulous details or the connections made among them. Nor can a single reading. One can’t breeze through this book. The depth of thought means it will take more than one reading to grasp the insights. In several places the reader has to stop to think about and absorb a sentence or paragraph at a time.

Some sections, like a long one explaining the analogy of the vine and branches, with Jesus as the true vine, are in themselves priceless:  They give new insights into the continuity between th­­e Old Testament covenant with ancient Israel and the New Testament’s Christian covenant.

In his exceptional findings, Msgr. La Femina turns a spotlight on how the position of the introduction to the Commandment of Love specifies its special relationship to the Eucharist.

“Besides being apostolic, the New Commandment is also essentially Eucharistic,” he clarifies. “While this commandment supposes the Christian covenant relationship with the Father in the life and activity of his Son, it also supposes that union with Jesus’ life and activity be specifically within the Eucharistic sacrifice.”

The book has a long foreword by Cardinal Raymond Burke, prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, and two icons of the Last Supper account, plus a pictorial summary of two bonus icons, all by Msgr. La Femina — another of his many talents.

Overall, this is a groundbreaking work.

Joseph Pronechen is the Register’s staff writer.





By Msgr. Anthony La Femina

New Hope Publications, 2011

171 pages, $19.95

To order:

(270) 325-3061