The ‘Living Last Supper’

last supper again

I’m not exactly sure anymore whose idea it was or where the idea came from. I doubt that my church was the first to do it, but my church would have been among the first to try it. This was in the early 1990s.

And that’s astonishing when you think about it, since mainline churches in the U.S. aren’t known for bold liturgical moves – or bold moves of any kind.

The idea I’m referring to is the chancel drama widely known as the “Living Last Supper.”  While the script for the drama seems to vary a great deal from church to church, the visual part is fairly consistent. And that’s because the whole point of the thing is to end up with a visual tableau that closely resembles the Leonardo da Vinci painting which survives today (barely) in Milan, Italy.

I did a quick Google search just now and discovered not only that the “Living Last Supper” is widely performed in churches throughout the U.S., but that production values – lighting, costumes, set design, etc. – have dramatically increased.

Looking back, my church’s first attempt was amateurish in many ways and succeeded mostly because of its sincerity.

About six weeks or so before Maundy Thursday, I remember finding 12 men (13 if you count Jesus, though his was mostly a non-speaking role) who would play Jesus’ disciples.  I don’t recall that anyone turned me down.

We had no script, as I recall – only a sense of where the drama needed to end. So, each man essentially wrote his own part. Little is known for sure about the disciples, but legends abound. And with a little creative license, a script of sorts soon came together.

On Maundy Thursday evening each disciple appeared, stood alone in the spotlight, spoke movingly about who he was and why he followed Jesus, and then took his place behind the table. After the 12 had taken their place, the lights went out for a few seconds, and when they came up, voila! A near-perfect match for the painting.

That first night I distinctly remember a gasp from the congregation, an audible in-take of breath, as the image registered.

Since that first attempt, one other church I have served has presented the drama, but the result is always the same – yes, the audiences love it, but the actors themselves have a transforming experience. It’s one thing of course to commit a few lines to memory and, with no community theater experience, stand in front of a few hundred spectators and recite those lines.

But even more astonishing is to enter into the experience – to be Peter, or John, or Judas, to embody those roles so completely that they can imagine themselves being there, sharing the meal, and – this is the thing – betraying their teacher and friend.

After that first performance I went back to the “make-up room” and sat with the men for nearly an hour. No one wanted to move. I think they were in awe of what they had done.

And so was I.

(Photo: According to Wikipedia, da Vinci’s Last Supper “is a late 15th-century mural painting by Leonardo da Vinci in the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan. It is one of the world’s most famous paintings, and one of the most studied, scrutinized, and satirized.” It’s also in better condition today than the photo suggests. The latest restoration was an extensive one.)

About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.

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7 Responses to The ‘Living Last Supper’

  1. Matt Friedman April 17, 2014 at 11:37 am #

    I recall taking part in the Maundy Thursday Service, two years ago at First Pres. It was definitely a life altering experience. It is one thing to view DaVinci’s art, but it is another to enact the Last Supper. Practices leading up to that Thursday were fun, and full of laughter. But when the night came, everyone changed (literally, as well) into their character. Taking on the role of a disciple required great concentration and focus. More importantly, each one of us, BECAME the person. It was one of the greatest experiences I have ever had, in my walk with Christ. Just so REAL.

    • Doug April 17, 2014 at 4:13 pm #

      Matt, this response is about the best I could have hoped for. I can see when men are having their eyes opened, but your response confirms what I witnessed…year after year. I’m glad I know you, Matt. In fact, I’m glad I know your whole family!

      • Matt Friedman April 25, 2014 at 10:27 am #

        Thank you Dr. B! I am happy to be able to catch up with your life on here with great weekly reads! 🙂

  2. Barbara April 17, 2014 at 1:38 pm #

    We always enjoy the re-enactment of the Last Super!

    Miss you,

    Barb & Tom Keith

    • Doug April 17, 2014 at 4:10 pm #

      I hope you have a wonderful Easter in Cape Cod!

  3. Georgia Hamilton April 18, 2014 at 12:42 pm #

    Doug, I can’t remember if we started doing The Last supper while you were still here? At any rate we did it every other year untl 2 years ago. Frankly, I was tired and the thespian part of me thought we needed to give it a rest. Your comments about the impact on the participants is so true—the experience does transform them and no matter how many times we did it, the congregation received it with loving support. I’m thinking seriously about going back to it next year . Thanks for the nudge.


  4. Charles Scouten April 18, 2014 at 8:43 pm #

    Doug, for Karen and me the Living Last Supper was always a highlight of the church year. Did miss it the last couple of years. Thank you very much for introducing First Pres to this – among many other things that made church both more meaningful and more pleasurable.