Members and friends of Union Avenue Christian Church have worshiped facing The Last Supper for the past 75 years. Even before there was a center aisle, theater-style seating, or a massive stained glass window depicting Christ as "the Good Shepherd," there was the magnificent depiction of Christ gathered at the table with his 12 apostles, sharing their last meal together.
As Disciples of Christ, celebrating communion at the table is the central element of our gathering to worship God. We recognize that the Lord's Supper is the means by which we are nourished by the love of God in Jesus Christ, and through that love we are made one with one another and with the greater Church. That this is the significance of the Lord's Supper is a truth that Disciples are made aware of perhaps more surely by our partaking of communion at the table than by any statements we make about it.
The Last Supper in the Union Avenue Christian Church chancel was carved from a single block of wood by Alois Lang. Lang (1872 – 1954) was a Master Woodcarver at the American Seating Company, and one of the artists responsible for bringing the medieval art of ecclesiastical carving to life in the United States. He was born in Oberammergau in Bavaria, a town long known for its excellence in wood carving. He was apprenticed to his cousin Andreas Lang around the age of 14, spent one year's study with the great wood sculptor Fortunato Galli in Florence, Italy, and moved to the United States in 1890 at the age of 19. Lang first found work in Boston carving elaborate mantelpieces for Back Bay families. In 1903, he moved westward and joined the American Seating Company of Manitowoc, Wisconsin, moving with the firm to Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1927. During his tenure with the American Seating Company Lang became well known as the preeminent ecclesiastical wood-carver of his generation. Lang preferred to work in chestnut, which is difficult to find, and oak, including white Appalachian oak.
The Last Supper was a gift to the congregation from Oreon E. Scott in memory of his wife, Mrs. Mabel Crabbe Scott, who had died in December 1928. The carving was dedicated Sunday, April 11, 1943, during morning worship service. Dr. Hampton Adams, Union Avenue's pastor, preached a sermon interpreting the work of art. Following is a portion of that meditation, describing each of the 12 apostles and Jesus himself.
"In this interpretation of the Lord's Supper the artist has chosen one moment in that evening that Jesus and the apostles spent in the Upper Room together. It is the moment when Jesus spoke quietly those explosive words, 'Verily I say unto you that one of you shall betray me.' These volcanic words shook the apostles apart, dividing them into four groups, each distinguished by its own temperament and reaction.
"At the left are Bartholomew, James the Less, and Andrew. Bartholomew cannot believe it and stares incredulously. Andrew holds up both hands in an involuntary gesture of protest to what he has heard from the lips of the Master. James, likewise, cannot believe his ears and reaches over and touches Peter to verify the words.
"Note that each of the four groups of apostles is linked with the group next to it by some natural connecting action. James' reaching over to Peter connects the first and second groups.
"Judas in the middle of the second group, smitten by his guilty conscience clutches the money bag and turns over the salt cellar. Peter leans forward and with sharp anxiety asks, 'Tell us who it is of whom you speaketh.' John in utter distress sinks back toward Peter.
"This action of John is used as a device by the artist [Da Vinci] to make the figure of Jesus stand alone. In the picture by DaVinci the painting of a window on the refectory wall just back of Jesus makes a natural frame for the head of the Master.
"Look now to the group at the extreme right. Simon, the last figure on the right, holds out both hands as a gesture of his innocence of this betrayal. Thaddeus is the center figure in the extreme right group. He looks into the face of Simon as though to say, 'This simply cannot be so.' Matthew, looking at Thaddeus but pointing with both hands toward Jesus says, agitatedly, 'But He says it is one of us.'
"Note that the gesture of Matthew joins in action the group on the extreme right with the group next to it. That group just to the right of Jesus is the most interesting group in the picture. Each one of the three is contending for the attention of Jesus and registering his protest.
"Closest to Jesus is self-distrusting and doubtful Thomas. With a finger raised almost in the face of Jesus he exclaims, as though he were about to hear the indictment of Jesus against him, 'Lord, is it I?" James, "Son of Thunder" — and acting the part — makes a double gesture expressing his horror. Philip, making a gesture as though with both hands he would lay bare his heart to the Master, states quietly and with obvious sincerity that he believes himself to be innocent of this of which some one of them is accused.
"With consummate art the painter centers the attention on Jesus, the central figure. The group to the left draw back so that the figure of Jesus will stand out. The group to the right of Jesus look to Him and point to Him so that we naturally look at Him to see what they see.
"Jesus is relaxed and passive, indicating that He is reconciled to His fate. However, before the evening is passed He will go to Gethsemane and pray, 'Father, if it by they will allow this cup to pass from me.' The hands of Jesus are spread open in innocency.
"The face is the face of a young man well under the prime of life, a face whose contours reveal every subtlest movement of the thought within. A Hebrew face, sensitive as the young Isaiah's to the whisperings of God. An intellectual face, keenly alive to the meaning of the issues that focus in this moment though they stream hither from the boundaries of space. A discipled face, one that has subordinated to the higher will the imperious forces of body and soul, and that can look tragedy in the eye calmly when it comes. An emotional face — the saddest face in history in art — yielding itself for a moment only to the tortures of betrayed friendship, of spiritual teachings misunderstood or perverted, of work unaccomplished and purposes unfulfilled, of love poured out in vain.
"This last mood, expressed by His countenance will pass, and He will know that it was not in vain."
“In the house of God there is always the table of the Lord,” Disciples founder Alexander Campbell wrote in describing the essence of Stone-Campbell Eucharistic theology and practice. This simple sentence describes the weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper in the presence of God as a joyous feast. A joyous feast, indeed!