By John Sanidopoulos
The most reproduced religious painting and the most famous fresco in history is Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper". It depicts that moment the night before the crucifixion when Jesus reveals in the Upper Room that one of His disciples was about to betray Him, and the disciples are questioning themselves whether or not the Lord is speaking of them. This dramatic moment of the revelation of the betrayal of Judas marks the beginning of the Passion of the Lord, and this supper He is eating with His disciples would supposedly be His last.
But is it proper to call this supper the Last Supper? Growing up, Da Vinci's "The Last Supper" hung over my families' kitchen table, as with many Christian homes, and the name of it always struck me as something very tragic. Up until the time I was ten years old, the Last Supper indicated to me that this was Jesus' final meal before He was to die by crucifixion the next day. For me, that was the end of the story of Jesus, until I learned at that time that it wasn't the end of the story, for I came to learn that three days after His crucifixion He rose from the dead. When I first learned this, Christianity finally made sense to me, and this realization not only changed my life, but it also made me question why we attach such a dreary title to an event that indicates tragedy and despair, when in fact it doesn't. A "last supper" is what a prisoner has when they are about to be executed the next day. But Jesus was voluntarily giving Himself over to death, and out of His love for humanity offers Himself as a sacrifice, that ultimately ends with His triumph over death. Even certain Protestant reformers realized the impropriety of calling this event the Last Supper, which is why they changed it to the Lord's Supper, yet they refused to call the communion offered by Christ "holy".
What is popularly known as the Last Supper, was not a last supper. First, if we call it the Last Supper, we can also just as much call it the First Supper. This passover meal that Jesus had with His disciples marks the beginning of the New Covenant between God and the followers of Christ, both Jews and Gentiles, and the Holy Communion He institutes is a sign of this New Covenant, initiating all those who believe in Christ into the Body of Christ, the Church, by forgiving their sins. And Jesus tells His disciples to continue to offer this sacrifice of bread and wine, which is the real Body and Blood of Christ, in remembrance of Him and His sacrifice. Second, this supper has eschatological dimensions, because Christ tells His disciples that they are to partake of His Body and Blood as He taught them until they feast together once again in His Kingdom. And third, we know very well that after Jesus rose from the dead, He proved that He physically rose from the dead to His disciples by eating and drinking with them until He ascended into Heaven forty days after His resurrection. Therefore, the only way it can be justified to refer to this supper as the Last Supper, is if it is specifically qualified as Jesus' last supper before His crucifixion, but it certainly is not His last supper with His disciples.
In the Orthodox Church, this event was never called a Last Supper, but the iconography of this event calls it the Mystikos Deipnos. This is the Greek title of what is often translated as "Mystical Supper". Orthodox Christians tend to feel much more comfortable by calling this event the "Mystical Supper", because it is not simply associated with the tragedy of the crucifixion, as the title "Last Supper" does, but it focuses on the mystical transformation of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. Yet is this really what the title Mystikos Deipnos is indicating? Is it proper to translate Mystikos as "Mystical"?
In the Orthodox Church, there is no mysticism, no mystic and nothing mystical. In the West, the mystical mysticism of mystics is usually associated with Platonic contemplations and Neoplatonic visions. Such ideas entered and filtered into Christianity by way of Augustine of Hippo, first indicated in Book 7 of his Confessions, and this influence entered into Catholic mystical theology via the so-called Catholic Mystics. But such Platonic and Neoplatonic mysticism was condemned by the Greek Fathers and in the Synodikon of Orthodoxy, and is best summarized by Gregory Palamas when he writes: "The practice of making the nous abandon, not the physical thoughts, but the body itself in order to come upon rational spectacles, is the strongest of the Greek delusions and the root and source of every erroneous opinion, the invention of demons and the punishment which gives birth to despair and is the offspring of madness" ("On Behalf of the Hesychasts," I.B.11).
With this in mind, we should not translate Mystikos as "Mystical", but rather with its true meaning, which is "Secret". So when we paint icons of or write about the Mystikos Deipnos, the proper translation would be "Secret Supper". The same holds true when translating the Mystike Theologia of St. Dionysius the Areopagite. St. Dionysius did not write a "Mystical Theology", but a "Secret Theology". As Fr. John Romanides points out, it is perhaps due to Vladimir Lossky's Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church that this term became popular among Orthodox theologians. But when speaking of Orthodox theology as mystike or mystiko, it always indicates that it is secret, and a mystis is not a mystic but rather one who initiates in secret things.
One example of this is with the word "secretary". The word "secretary" derives from the Greek term for mystikos, which is the same word often mistranslated as "mystical". In the 9th century Emperor Basil I the Macedonian instituted the Byzantine imperial office of mystikos, who it appears was the emperor's private secretary. He was called a "secretary" because he held imperial secrets. This is why Ecumenical Patriarch Nicholas I Mystikos, who is a saint in the Orthodox Church and commemorated on May 16th, should not be known as a mystic, but as a secretary, because he received this title when Emperor Leo VI the Wise made him his imperial secretary prior to being made Patriarch.
Another example can be found in the liturgical practice of the cleric reading the so-called "silent prayers" during the Divine Liturgy and other services. These prayers are called mystikes because they are to be read secretly, and thus in a low voice. This is done so that the secrets of the mystery would be preserved from heretics and the uninitiated (catechumens).
So why does Orthodox tradition call it a "Secret Supper"? Because what is taking place in the Upper Room is a liturgical event, and the mystery of the Divine Eucharist is to be kept secret from both heretics and the uninitiated. Furthermore, John 14-17 records the Upper Room Discourse of Jesus that was only meant for His disciples. It is only recorded in the Gospel of John because this particular book is meant to be read only by the baptized members of the Church, while the Synoptic Gospels could be studied by the Catechumens. This is why the Gospel of John is read publicly in the Church beginning on Easter Sunday, which traditionally was right after the catechumens were baptized. The secrecy of this liturgical event and the initiation of the catechumens is further indicated in the well-known Communion Hymn chanted in churches:
Receive me today, Son of God, as a partaker of Your secret Supper. I will not reveal Your mystery to Your adversaries. Nor will I give You a kiss as did Judas. But as the thief I confess to You: Lord, remember me in Your Kingdom.
Most translations of this hymn insert "mystical" instead of "secret". The context of this hymn, however, indicates the secrecy of the liturgical event, not its supposed "mystical" nature.
Though it may be unlikely that such an error will be corrected any time soon, my goal is to at least make people aware of how these words should properly be translated and understood to indicate their spiritual and theological depth, and not confuse them with heretical concepts.
I will end with a brief passage from the Hexaemeron on St. Anastasios of Sinai:
There are those who perform sacred and secret rituals that cleanse blemishes from the soul. When these celebrants have all joined together in full assembly and are about to bring forth into open view, as from the silent innermost shrines, the objects of the divine and most sanctifying rites — secret, belonging to the Godhead — they would never perform such a revelation in front of the general crowd, where the uninitiated are mingling about. There would be the chosen one of the ministry — who is just beneath God’s higher and intimate choir — standing like an incense-bearer outside the sacred gates of the most sacrosanct. And with a great command he separates from the chaste objects those for whom it is the custom to mock such things. He himself is in fear of him by whom the dirty attendant was cast away as far as possible from the joy of the wedding reception, because he had not put on clothes appropriate for the divine banquet.
Read also: "Mystical" Theology or "Secret" Theology