A Grim New Meaning to ‘Last Supper’

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The Last Supper, for Christians, is deeply significant. It is the moment when Christ instituted the Eucharist. “And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it; and he gave to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body’ ” (Matthew 26:26-28). According to St. Thomas Aquinas, it was during the Last Supper that Christ made the promise that He would be present in the Sacrament of the Eucharist to all who partake of it. It was also the moment when Christ bade farewell to His disciples, anticipating His crucifixion on the following day. Although the Last Supper is proximate to Christ’s physical death, it has a deathless connotation in that it offers life to all those throughout the ages who receive the Eucharist. “I am the bread of life,” we read in John 6:35. “He who believes in me shall never thirst.”

In a worldly context, prisoners are offered a “last supper” consisting of anything they desire on the night before their execution. It has been observed that these prisoners typically do not enjoy their final repast and set much of it aside. Given the specter of death, this is understandable. In many countries, capital punishment has fallen into disfavor, being regarded as severe and inhumane. The last federal execution in the United States took place in 2003.

Euthanasia has given the “last supper” a new meaning in the contemporary world. Unlike capital punishment, euthanasia is death that is chosen. The March 7 issue of the Toronto Star—ironically, in its lifestyle section—features the account of a 95-year-old mother who was euthanized with the approval of her children. The night before her demise, a party was given in her honor attended by her four children and their spouses, as well as four of her six grandchildren. The “last supper,” as her daughter called it, was interrupted by the arrival of a public health nurse whose duty was to insert shunts in the woman’s arms. It would be through these shunts that lethal injections would be administered.

“Mum” was diagnosed as having leukemia and was confined to a wheelchair. She did have her lucid moments and, we’re told, remained a “crackerjack” with a crossword puzzle. Nonetheless, she wanted to die. But she needed an accomplice. She asked the doctor who had cared for her for more than 10 years to assist in her passing. His eyes filled with tears when he said, “Pat, I can’t do that.” Nor could her caregiver oblige. “Don’t do this,” she protested to the daughter. “This isn’t what she wants. She is too sick to know.” This reluctant caregiver was said to be “highly religious.” That may be the case. But her unwillingness to be an accomplice in killing also suggests that she was a good humanitarian. Religion should not be tainted as an obstacle to progress.

 

The daughter, however, had her own misgivings: “Am I hastening my own mother to her death? Am I a horrible person? What will people think? Surely, I’ll feel guilty afterwards.” Two commandments were blocking the path to euthanizing her own mother: “Honor thy father and mother” and “Thou shall not kill.” These are formidable commandments and not easily swept aside. But the “sweeping” is gaining momentum.

The procedure was carried out the next day on schedule. A doctor administered three injections: a sedative, something to slow down the brain activity, and something to stop the heart. The euphemism for this act is MAID (Medical Assistance in Dying). The word “killing” is much too harsh. Euphemisms do not alter reality, but they can help to assuage consciences.

These three notions of a last supper have something in common. The represent a final repast that is as ceremonial as it can be under extraordinary circumstances and the imminence of death. Their differences, however, are far more significant. Christ used the occasion of the Last Supper to offer His life in the form of a sacrament for all people and for all time. His imminent crucifixion is followed by His Resurrection on Easter Sunday. The Last Supper in this theological context has eternal significance and is an affirmation of life. The prisoner who faces execution is being punished for a crime, whether or not this form of punishment is justified. His situation is both personal and political. The “last supper” before a person is euthanized is personal and medical.

It has been estimated that 4,235 people availed themselves of MAID in Canada in 2018, up from 2,704 in 2017, and 1,010 in 2016 and December of 2015. A total of 7,949 Canadians have been euthanized since its adoption on December 10, 2015. The fact that the number is skyrocketing is surely cause for concern. What will the numbers be in the coming years?

Also a matter of concern is the increasing number of people who are brought into the euthanasia circle. These include family members, medical professionals, lawyers, academics, and media personnel. We may even add Hollywood celebrities. An even graver concern is the fact that regulations allowing euthanasia are becoming more relaxed. We return to the Last Supper at which Christ and His twelve apostles were assembled. Here, what is “last” is last only in a temporal sense. The meal, Christ’s consecrated body and blood, will continue to be consumed, especially during Mass. It therefore prefigures everlasting life. The prisoner is terrified of death while the person who choses MAID welcomes it. The Eucharist takes on added significance in today’s world for it represents a triumph over death and everlasting life. It serves as an antidote and a remedy against the Culture of Death.

Donald DeMarco

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Donald DeMarco is professor emeritus of Saint Jerome’s University and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary. He is a regular columnist for the Saint Austin Review and the author, most recently, of Reflections on the Covid-19 Pandemic: A Search for Understanding.

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