“The Lord’s Supper” wood sculpture at Trinity, and our time of refraining from the Lord’s Table
One of the difficult aspects of our long-term closure and refraining from “in person” worship has been the congregation’s ‘fasting’ from Holy Communion. Seeking to care well for one another by keeping separate from one another, the logistics of sharing the bread and wine of the sacrament, even when we can come back together for “in person” worship, is challenging. Masks, distancing, the preparation, handling and distribution of bread or wafers and cups; all these aspects of coming together for our shared sacrament have public health implications as we seek compliance with best practices informed by data and science. A hygienic offering of Holy Communion is one of the most troubling challenges of planning our ‘re-entry’ into day-to-day congregational life together. Still, we’re working on it . . .
During our time of refraining from the sacrament of the altar, I did a bit of research in recent weeks on several of the works of art that grace our house of worship. Among them, one of the most significant is “The Last Supper” carving by Alois Lang, master carver with the American Seating Company, in 1930. I am indebted to Trinity member Sue Perry, who recently returned to Grand Rapids and our congregation, for her historical research about this remarkable piece. Allow me to tell you a bit of its story.
In 1930, Trinity Lutheran Church, then located in downtown Grand Rapids at the corner of Crescent and Bostwick Streets, acquired the beautiful 8-foot long, three-dimensional hand carving of “The Last Supper.” Based on Leonardo DaVinci’s original 1495 masterpiece painting, this solid Michigan white oak piece was an original work by master carver Alois Lang of the American Seating Company. The carving was No. 72 in their catalog “Furniture for Your Church.”
An artistic master, Lang was born in Oberammergau, Bavaria, in 1871. He learned wood carving as a youth and was apprenticed to a master carver while growing up in Germany. He went on to Florence, Italy, to study carving and sculpting under the renowned master carver Fortunato Galli.
Returning home to Oberammergau, Lang continued his carving along with his other love, the dramatic presentation of the famed Oberammergau Passion Play. He played lesser roles in the production, sang tenor and performed with his cousin Anton Lang, who portrayed Jesus Christ. For many seasons, Alois served as the production’s manager and interpreter as the Passion Play toured the villages of Bavaria, Tyrol and Bohemia.
Alois Lang and several of his students joined American Seating Company in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, upon immigrating to the United States in 1902. The addition of Lang’s talent to their newly established Carving Studio was a great marketing success for the American Seating Company. The ability to add carvings to chancel furniture and pews provided an additional dimension to their offerings for ecclesiastical environments. The company moved their carving studios to Grand Rapids in 1926.
The 8-foot long wood carvings of The Last Supper were the most impressive of the 30 to 40 of these carvings produced by Alois Lang. The detail in the sculpture, with its realistic depiction of Jesus and his disciples in the Upper Room on the night of his arrest, is genuinely extraordinary. Alois Lang retired from American Seating Company in 1953 and died the next year at the age of 84.
“The Last Supper” was relocated from behind the altar in the old church to the narthex area in the new facility, which was dedicated on October 29, 1961. As part of our recent facilities renovation, it was relocated prominently in the new historic legacy wall just outside the narthex.
At the heart of our sharing of Holy Communion is the remembrance of Jesus gathering, on the night in which he was betrayed, to share a new way of perceiving God’s grace. The master became servant that night in the washing of his disciples’ feet, and he taught them the Great Commandment, that they should love one another as he had loved them. He taught them that by such discipleship, more people would come to know his Gospel of love, forgiveness, grace and mercy. The classic image of the Last Supper as DaVinci portrayed it reminds us of that Upper Room gathering of Jesus and his closest friends, and of the sacrifice of love commended to all who would come after them in the path of discipleship.
We are now at a time of perceiving God’s grace in a new way in our separation. In this time of our refraining from the Lord’s Supper, we are reminded that Holy Communion is a gift to strengthen faith, not a requirement for salvation. As we have gathered in worship during the season of Easter, we hunger and thirst for the Lord’s Supper, but we feast on Christ present in the Word of God, in our shared worship, and in our daily lives, until we can gather again at the Lord’s table. In solidarity with all who are not receiving the sacrament in this time of pandemic, and in anticipation of the feast to come, we dwell together on the words of Jesus, and it is enough. And we are commended to the Last Supper teaching of Jesus, a teaching on servant love for one another and the goodness of community, even in our separation.
Friends in Christ, the Word of God will sustain us. And each time we pause before a meal and pray, “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest . . .,” and break bread in Christ’s name, we feast on Christ present. Christ is given for you, Christ’s body and blood are broken and shed for you. For now, it is enough.
It remains a privilege to serve as one of your pastors. Join us in live streaming of “virtual worship” this Sunday:
- Seventh Sunday of Easter, May 24 at 9:15 a.m.
Grace and peace,
Pastor Bob Linstrom