Over the course of my Christian life I’ve taken part in countless communion services with people from many denominations all around the world, and I have never heard what I am about to tell you regarding Jesus’ words, “Do this in remembrance of me.”
It was during the Passover feast that Jesus shared his final meal with his disciples, the Last Supper. And it’s when he said his famous words now read aloud regularly in churches throughout the world, “This is my body broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me,” and “This is my blood shed for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
One morning I was practicing Ignatian prayer with this passage, closing my eyes and imagining I was there in the room with Jesus, reclining at the table with his disciples. I began to imagine what I might have thought as a Jew during the Passover feast, breaking bread and sharing wine, as Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me.”
Photo credit to Epicurious
The Passover feast was a unique and sacred time set aside each year for the Jewish people. It was a time to remember God’s divine protection over them as slaves in Egypt, waiting for Yahweh to deliver them. In that time their ancestors killed a lamb without any deformities, a perfect lamb, and spread its blood over the top and sides of their doors as instructed by Yahweh. The blood of the lamb protected them from the angel of death who “passed over” each home that had carried out these instructions. And in remembrance of these events Israel was to eat a Passover meal each year which included bread without yeast and wine (among other foods and rituals practiced). In summary, it was a time to remember how the blood of an unblemished lamb saved them from the angel of death and ultimately how Yahweh brought them out of slavery in Egypt.
There’s a reason Jesus is saying “Do this in remembrance of me” during the Passover feast and not just at a normal meal.
Imagining myself within the context of the Last Supper I realized that Jesus was not instigating a communion service. He was teaching his Jewish disciples to celebrate the Passover feast with a new remembrance. He was intending that the Passover would continue with the disciples, but in a new way under a New Covenant (a New Testament). Rather than remember the passover lamb saving Israel from the angel of death in Egypt, they were to remember Jesus as the Sacrificial Lamb saving the world from sin and death. “Do this in remembrance of me,” that is, “Celebrate Passover in remembrance of me.”
This moment would have been revolutionary – a radical shift for Jewish people in the 1st century context. It would be sort of like a pastor standing up and saying “Celebrate Christmas from now on in remembrance of me” at a Christmas Eve service.
Today, in the 21st century, I have yet to meet a Christian who celebrates the Passover in remembrance of Jesus, particularly in response to these instructions (though I know they exist). Rather, most Christians take holy communion (a wafer and sip of juice or wine – or Coca Cola, as they do in some parts of Colombia) on a weekly, monthly, or yearly-ish basis.
Photo Credit to Frontline Study
A few thoughts…
First, I think we miss out on the depth of Jesus’ statement when we read it without recognizing the context of the Passover meal and the significance of it to the Jewish audience of that time. We miss out on the incredible meaning of Jesus’ words when he says, “Do this in remembrance of me”, connecting it with Israel’s history of the Passover in Egypt.
Second, I believe Jesus clearly expresses the importance of remembering what he’s done. While it seems the common interpretation is “incorrect” (communion as we know it today is not necessarily what he’s teaching), I’m not sure Jesus would want us to make a rule out of these instructions to his disciples. I believe any sincere remembrance of Jesus’ sacrifice for our redemption from sin and death is a beautiful and sacred thing. And probably the more we practice remembrance, the better.
So how do you practice remembering Jesus’ sacrifice?
Personally, this new understanding motivates me to be more intentional in remembering Jesus’ sacrifice on Maundy Thursday. It encourages me to create a special tradition with my family (maybe Passover-like, maybe not), where we remember his body that was broken and his blood that was poured out for us. It also adds more layers of meaning and significance to taking communion, a tradition that is already meaningful to me. Even today I cried as I took the wafer and the cup.
April 17th – An Amendment: More Perspective of the Passage
Today I spoke to a Bible scholar named Daniel Lewis, a very humble, kind, and well-studied man. I asked him about the Passover meal and Jesus’ words “Do this in remembrance of me” and was enlightened enough to feel I should add some understanding to my last post.
When I asked Dan about the feast and Jesus’ words he pointed out to me that during the Seder meal there are four cups of wine. Based on the language used in the scriptures we can resolve that Jesus is speaking these words during the third cup. He explained that if Jesus meant to refer to the Passover in its entirety he would have said these words at the closing of the meal. In light of this, Dan pointed out that to interpret Jesus’ words as saying “Celebrate the Passover meal in remembrance of me” is an incorrect interpretation. This means that the disciples would not necessarily have taken Jesus’ words as a declaration over the whole Passover meal.
It is likely that the disciples and Jewish Christians continued to celebrate the Passover (as was Jewish custom), but there is no evidence or record that the practice moved on into the Gentile Christian world. Rather, as Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians, a different meal is mentioned as a practice related to what Jesus said in the Last Supper (1 Corinthians 10:16, 11:25-28). The book of Acts also refers to a ceremonial “breaking of bread” practiced by the early church, though we’re unsure of its connection to Jesus’ words during the Last Supper (Acts 2:42-44, 20:7). Today Christians celebrate what we call communion in remembrance of Jesus’ instructions.
If you’re interested in more specifics regarding common practices of the early church Dan mentioned an ancient document called the Didache. It was put together in 110AD (only ten or so years after the last of Jesus’ disciples had died) explaining how the church was to practice communion as well as other things such as baptism. Some other documents I found was 1 Clement and letters from Ignatius of Antioch, an early Christian writer and bishop of Antioch born in 35AD, just as Christianity was being spread by the disciples. Also, an early Christian apologist and saint from the 2nd century named Justin Martyr in his First Apology wrote one of the oldest description of an early church Eucharist. You can check any of these things out if you’re interested in more info.
The conclusion is the same. Any sincere remembrance of Jesus’ sacrifice is noteworthy. I believe the truth we must understand from Jesus’ words is the importance of remembering his body broken and his blood spilled for us. A meal is a good way to do this together — as long as it is practiced in light of Christ (unlike the Corinthians) — but it is not the only way. We must remember Jesus’ sacrifice in a sincere and considerate way, however we do it.