The Supper of the Lamb

Today, I boarded a train from Leuven (where Societas Liturgica is meeting) for Ghent. After years of teaching the Mass to undergraduates, of inviting them to gaze with wonder upon the supper of the Lamb of Van Eyck, I couldn't leave Belgium without seeing it.

I arrived at St. Bavo's Cathedral after a thirty minute walk from the train station. Escaping the rain, I walked into the cathedral and began to wander around with the rest of the tourists. We passed through the nave of the Church, the high altar, various side chapels, until we arrived at the chapel in the back of the church that housed the Ghent altarpiece. I paid my 4€ and joined the dozens of tourists to see the altarpiece.

Each day from 12:00 PM until 1:00 PM, the altar piece is closed, showing the image of the Annunciation. I arrived in the chapel at 12:47 PM and began to pray the Angelus, joining myself with the Marian prayer of the Church.

The prayer was uncomfortable. The tourists continued bumping into me. We had less and less space to breath (something that as an American, which makes me especially uncomfortable).

During my thirteen minutes of contemplating the image of the Annunciation, I awaited the opening of the triptych with anxious expectation along with my fellow pilgrim tourists. Partially, because I wanted my fellow tourists to leave, to leave me alone in peace.
The chapel where we were waiting grew hotter by the minute. The silence of the chapel was difficult to maintain as tourists shuffled around, trying to stay close to their group. Many seemed to be only vaguely aware that we were in a chapel. Most were holding phones, trying to take pictures of an image surreptitiously (the guards noticed but didn't seem to care despite the explicit signs that cautioned against such picture taking).

At 1:00 PM, two docents entered into the glass encasement where the panel was held. They bowed before the altarpiece, transforming the space from an altar gallery into a Eucharistic chapel.

As I contemplated their profound bow, I realized that we tourists had also been transformed by this liturgical gesture (whether we were aware of it or not). We were no longer mere tourists but those taken up into the Eucharistic worship of the Lord.

Suddenly, the room became silent as we gazed upon the Eucharistic banquet.

As the triptych was opened, as we gazed upon the Supper of the Lamb, I realized that we too were the ones called to dine at this Eucharistic banquet. The worshippers of apostles, virgins, ascetics, and various layfolks were joined by this motley, increasingly hot, crew of tourists.

To look upon this altarpiece was not simply a moment of aesthetic appreciation. Gazing upon this altarpiece became a sacramental act, an image of the Church gathered together in worship. A Church that is still coming into existence as every aspect of humanity is offered to the Father through the Son in the unity of the Holy Ghost.

A very hot, very impatient, and in the end, a very loud humanity.

Looking upon this altarpiece was particularly salvific for me. My grandmother, who is entered the final stage of her life, is soon destined to join this mystical Supper of the Lamb. I will soon see her no more face-to-face.

Our embodied relationship, one that I remember each day of my life, will soon come to its definitive end. The Friday nights that I once spent at her home, the evening dinners at Italian restaurants in Florida, they shall be no more.

As Alzheimer's ravaged her, as she could no longer remember where I worked, where I lived, who I was,  she was slowly disappearing. But in her soon-to-be death, she will leave behind the motley group of tourists and become herself (God-willing) a participation in the Lamb's Supper.

But she will join me, at least I hope with all of my being, around the Supper of the Lamb at each and every Eucharist for the rest of my existence.

For that's what is so stunning about Van Eyck's altarpiece. It's not just the painting of the Lamb's Supper that woos us. It's not just the baptismal font, which attracts our desire.

It is the image of all humanity coming to adore the Lamb once slain, a humanity whose final destiny will be the renewal of creation itself.

Where death shall be no more. Where every tear shall be wiped away.

Where love will conquer death itself.

It may have been odd but as we tourists processed out of the chapel, I couldn't help but genuflect before this altar.

I couldn't help but genuflect, recognizing that the divine love at the heart of our Christ life, will one day gather all humanity into the Eucharistic banquet of the Lord.

I pray that I will see my grandmother before she becomes a member of this choir. But if not, I'll see her in the chorus of sinners now saints gathered in worship.

Actually, I'll see her sooner than that: Happy are those called to the Supper of the Lamb. Happy are the living and the dead, who gather together to adore the living God in the Eucharist.

Happy are all of us, who are called to this Supper.


Timothy O'Malley

Timothy P. O’Malley is the Director of Education at the McGrath Institute for Church Life, where he also serves as Academic Director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy. He teaches and researches at Notre Dame in the areas of liturgical-sacrmental theology, catechesis, and aesthetics. He is the author of numerous articles and books, most recently, the forthcoming Divine Blessing: Liturgical Formation in the RCIA.

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