The Cenacle

17 Now on the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, "Where will you have us prepare for you to eat the passover?" 18 He said, "Go into the city to a certain one, and say to him, 'The Teacher says, My time is at hand; I will keep the passover at your house with my disciples.'" 19 And the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the passover. (Mt 26:17-19)

12 And on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrificed the passover lamb, his disciples said to him, "Where will you have us go and prepare for you to eat the passover?" 13 And he sent two of his disciples, and said to them, "Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him, 14 and wherever he enters, say to the householder, 'The Teacher says, Where is my guest room, where I am to eat the passover with my disciples?' 15 And he will show you a large upper room furnished and ready; there prepare for us." 16 And the disciples set out and went to the city, and found it as he had told them; and they prepared the passover. (Mk 14:12-16)

7 Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the passover lamb had to be sacrificed. 8 So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, "Go and prepare the passover for us, that we may eat it." 9 They said to him, "Where will you have us prepare it?" 10 He said to them, "Behold, when you have entered the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him into the house which he enters, 11 and tell the householder, 'The Teacher says to you, Where is the guest room, where I am to eat the passover with my disciples?' 12 And he will show you a large upper room furnished; there make ready." 13 And they went, and found it as he had told them; and they prepared the passover. (Lk 22:7-13)

As I’ve said perhaps too many times: This essay will be a bit different. It will focus on an historical tradition outside of the bible, rather than the bible texts themselves. I want to focus on the location of the Last Supper, that upper room somewhere in Jerusalem that Catholic tradition has always called The Cenacle.

The above texts do not, in any way, describe the location of the Cenacle. The only thing unusual about the above narratives is the description of a man carrying a jug of water – in that time and place, women carried water, not men. What is the meaning here? There is one other story in Scripture where men carry water: read Joshua chapter 9. When the Israelites entered the Promised Land, they proceeded to exterminate the inhabitants. Among those inhabitants were the Gibeonites, who foresaw their fate and tricked Joshua and the Israelites into swearing a covenant with them. Joshua, later realizing the deceit yet not daring to break the covenant he had sworn before God, enslaved the Gibeonites. He made them, “hewers of wood and drawers of water for the congregation and for the altar of the LORD” (Jos 9:27). That is, the Gibeonite men carried water for liturgical purposes. Here, we see this same liturgical image in preparation for the Last Supper, which was the first Mass, the first Eucharistic liturgy.

Now on to the historical traditions: If you went to Jerusalem today, you can visit this same upper room and the Cenacle building. Somehow, it has withstood many wars over two millenia, including the several ‘razings’ of Jerusalem by the Romans. Today, this building is under Muslim authority, however Christians are allowed to visit. Its history is ancient. Let’s start at the beginning, with King David and his ancestor Melchizedek.

Gen 14 tells how Abraham was victorious in his battle with five kings and, according to the custom of his day, gave a tithe of the spoils as a thanksgiving offering to his high priest, Melchizedek, whom we saw elsewhere is believed to have been Noah’s son Shem. That location was Mt. Moriah in Jerusalem, and Melchizedek lived in his city on the nearby hill, Mt. Zion. These two adjacent mounts are among the seven hills of Jerusalem. Melchizedek/Shem was buried under his citadel on Mt. Zion. Rememeber that Melchizedek/Shem offered bread and wine on Abraham's behalf, and so was a meaningful type of Jesus, our Eucharistic high priest.

This city ultimately fell under the control of the Canaanites, who occupied it until the region was given to the Israelites by God as the Promised Land. It was Moses’ commander, Joshua, who led the Israelites into Canaan and conquered the land, city by city. We saw above how the Gibeonites saved themselves by deceiving Joshua, accepting slavery as preferable to death. Joshua conquered the king of Jerusalem and his army (Jos 10:1-26), however the Israelites were not able to conquer the city of Jerusalem itself (Jos 15:63). The people of Jerusalem – the Jebusites – continued to live there until King David’s day. According to legend, the city citadel was an unassailable fortress high on an acropolis with great walls. It was King David who conquered Jerusalem, sieging the citadel on Mt. Zion and making it his own palace and capital city. The name Zion became synonymous with the city of David (2 Sam 5:6-9). David built a new palace for himself and brought the ark of the Covenant into Zion to be guarded within his citadel (2 Sam 6), until his son Solomon completed the Temple on neighboring Mt. Moriah, where the ark resided for hundreds of years. David and his dynastic successors all ruled from the citadel at Zion. They were all buried under it, with their ancestor Melchizedek. Rememeber that the 'priestly' king, David, was a type of our priest-king, Jesus. Likewise his son, Solomon, as 'son of David,' was another type of the ultimate son of David, Jesus.

Now we turn to Jesus’ day and King Herod, that is, the first Herod who was king at the time of Jesus’ birth. Herod was aware that under the great palace of Zion lie the ancient kings of Judah, as well as a rather extraordinary amount of gold. One of the previous Judean kings, John Hyrcanus (son of Simon Maccabees), had previosly taken 3,000 talents of gold out of the tombs to pay off the Seleucid warlord king, Antiochus VII Sidetes, to leave Jerusalem in peace (c. 134 BC). Herod thought he might also take some of that gold, though for purely selfish reasons, and searched around in the tombs below Zion. Not finding anything he could use, he sent two of his soldiers to search deeper, even to find the lost tombs of David and Solomon themselves. The two soldiers were killed when great flames shot out of the caves and consumed them. Herod, afraid and contrite, attempted to appease the Lord by building a monument of white buildings at the mouth of the tombs and on top of them, adding on to the Zion palace. Such buildings were used by locals for banquet halls, plus a synagogue. This new structure was known as the Cenacle.

Now we come to the Last Supper. According to historical tradition, an upper room in this Cenacle is where Jesus instituted the Eucharistic sacrifice. He offered His sacrifice, quite literally, over the tombs of His OT types: Melchizedek, David, Solomon. This solemn location was chosen by ‘a man carrying a jug of water,’ of whom the liturgical Gibeonites were an OT type. Our custom of celebrating Mass over the relics of the martyrs derives from the Cenacle; many say it derives from the Roman catacombs, but this custom goes beyond the Roman Rite and so must have a more ancient source. It derives from Christ offering His sacrifice over the tombs of His own archetypical ancestors.

We can also recall that the Apostles retained the use of that upper room for some time. It was there that Jesus came to them on the evening of the Resurrection, instituting the sacrament of Reconciliation. It was also there that the Apostles remained in prayer for nine days following Jesus’ ascension, and on the tenth day received the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. The Eucharist, Holy Orders, Reconciliation, Confirmation – all instituted on that legendary spot above Melchizedek and the kings of Judah, in the citadel of Zion. It is believed that the Apostle James, bishop of Jerusalem, said the first Mass after Jesus in that room and it became the cathedral church of Jerusalem. When Omar, the Muslim general and cousin of Mohammed, conquered Jerusalem in 636 AD, he treated the Christians with kindness and allowed them to continue offering the liturgy in the Cenacle Church and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. So it remained for several hundred years until a new Muslim army took back the city after the first crusade; the Cenacle was renamed The House of the Prophet David, and so it has remained ever since. We might feel sad over this loss, but this building was only where the liturgy began; the liturgy is now offered everywhere on the earth – as the Covenant was extended to all peoples, so has liturgical Zion spread beyond Jerusalem to fill the heavens and the earth .

1 Then I looked, and lo, on Mount Zion stood the Lamb, and with him a hundred and forty-four thousand who had his name and his Father's name written on their foreheads. 2 And I heard a voice from heaven like the sound of many waters and like the sound of loud thunder; the voice I heard was like the sound of harpers playing on their harps, 3 and they sing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders. (Rev 14:1-3)



FOOTNOTE: I promise I don’t make this stuff up. This is a bible blog, not an academic journal, so I don’t quote my sources. But I always use sources. Today’s essay used a variety of materials: “Antiquities of the Jews, “by Josephus; “How Christ Said the First Mass,” by Rev. James Meagher (Christian Press Association Pub Co., NY, 1906); "History of the Church,” by Eusebius; "The Ignatius Study Bible;" etc.