Jesus told his disciples, “do this in remembrance of me.” What was the “this” of which Jesus spoke? Was it simply eating together or something more?
The disciples may or may not have been having a Passover meal in the upper room on the eve of Jesus’ crucifixion. If the meal was connected to the Passover, then it surely was connected to the story of the plague of the death of the firstborn and the deliverance from Egypt. In any case, what Jesus had done immediately before he commanded his disciples to “do this” was to offer them bread and wine proclaiming that it was his body and blood. What he did shortly after the meal was to go willingly into the hands of his torturers. While Jesus’ command to break bread (his body) and drink wine (his blood) was in the context of a meal, Communion is a meal that is more than a meal because of the context in which it was given to the followers of Jesus Christ.
Jewish culture was one in which animal sacrifices were offered to God as acts of purification and atonement. The early followers of Jesus were familiar with the pouring out of the blood of animals for both their regular sustenance and for acts of restoring their relationship with God. If the disciples did not understand that the meaning of Jesus’ action in that moment, certainly they later looked back and counted it a matter of ultimate importance that was in some way connected with the tradition of ritual sacrifice. Blood offerings in the Hebrew tradition were about healing relationships with God and each other. These sacrifices, like the relationships they addressed, were matters of survival, both physical and spiritual.
For people living in industrialized societies, even the most basic human interactions with flesh and blood are minimized. Our meat is neatly wrapped and placed on an absorbent pad – if we eat meat at all. The connection between blood and physical sustenance may be as lost on most people in contemporary society as the concept of blood sacrifice and spiritual wholeness. Yet the reality of flesh and blood underlies the power of the symbol in Jesus’ command to “do this.” Having rejected animal sacrifice, Christians proclaim that the death of Jesus has, once and for all, united us with God. Whether one understands this in transactional, “payment for sin,” terms or in a more mystical way, the historic Jewish practices of blood offerings are the proper context for understanding the rite.
Flesh and blood, bread and drink, these simple elements, so essential in their own right, speak of fundamental acts related to survival and joy, companionship and peace – peace with God, and peace with one’s neighbor. The rite of Communion holds all of these things and more at once. When the act of remembering Christ through eating bread and drinking wine (or juice) is reduced to personal, private piety about whether God will punish us for sin or how we feel about God, it will fail to move the Christian toward the radical acts that characterized the early Church. When Communion is reduced to a meal that merely symbolizes eating with the “other” it may lose its profound relationship with the Creator of the universe and the destiny of our souls.
Communion is about matters of life and death both in terms of God and in terms of neighbor because Jesus, a man, who was Christ, divine, commanded us to eat his broken body, and drink his blood, poured out for us. This act, which Jesus commanded his disciples to do, was first done on the eve of Jesus’ death and echoed stories and experiences of death for Jesus’ Jewish followers. Its meaning can not be disconnected from death. Communion with Christ’s body comes only by way of death.
More on the connection between broken bodies and Communion in the next post…