Reflections on the Last Supper
Part 2 in the Renouncing Rome Series (Part 1 is the book, Trinity: In His Own Words)
The man walked to the front, placed his notes on the podium and began by asking, “Do you know why you are circumcised?”
This was my very first men’s retreat, and I was 24 years old. I had no idea what to expect, but I certainly would never have guessed that it would start that way. Then again, since only men were present, I suppose that was a fair topic. Because I am personally circumcised, I was particularly attentive; prior to that moment, this was a topic I had truthfully never contemplated.
The man speaking was one of the pastors of a local church that I had recently joined. He qualified his question since not every man is circumcised. He then explained about the history of this practice, even quoting the relevant Bible verses. He said that while this form of skin cutting is common nowadays in many hospitals, there is a long and rich history going back thousands of years.
And then he said the part that has really stuck with me all this time. He stated that most men will go to the bathroom five or more times a day. And in so doing, it is common for a man to look at his penis. When a man is circumcised, in the bathroom he sees the results of the cut and can be reminded multiple times a day that he has been physically marked as being in covenant with God. It’s basically a form of remembering—who one is, and one’s relationship with God.
I was really surprised to hear his interpretation of this practice, since at the time it seemed quite intrusive and permanent, if only for the purpose of jogging one’s memory. Then again, I surmised, maybe the risk of forgetting is so significant, that a physical marking is necessary. What really struck me however, was the connection of this covenant to something that every man does frequently. Because if you think about it, the only things we maybe do more often than go to the bathroom, are eat, drink, talk or breathe.
From that point going forward, every so often, I found myself wondering about the value of remembering and the potential dangers of forgetting. Occasionally I have also reflected on ways we can connect our daily activities with things we want to make sure not to forget. Eventually, I decided to write my thoughts down, and this is the result.
Incidentally, the rest of this article is not about circumcision, but it is about remembering.
Many people wear rings. Since we humans have digits (fingers and toes), it makes sense that we have been wearing them for thousands of years. And in some countries, people wear wedding rings, which are at least partly for the purpose of remembering. A married person can look at their ring at any time and remember their relationship. It is a visual cue to intentionally call something to mind.
But it is not only our eyes that can do this. Frequently smells will make a person recollect a prior experience. Or being somewhere physically, like visiting one’s hometown after many years. In fact, all five senses, and even that which is beyond senses–our metasenses–can have the same effect.
All that to say, we are creatures who actively remember.
Since I was raised Roman Catholic, every Sunday I listened to the priests say that we are to take communion “in remembrance” of Jesus. Communion itself is also called the Eucharist and involves eating bread and wine (or wafers and grape juice). The actual phrase I heard so often was, “Do this in remembrance of me.” This reference is from two parts of the Bible, and I will show them both here.
Luke 22: 17-20
And when he [Jesus] had taken a cup and given thanks, he said, “Take this and share it among yourselves; for I say to you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine from now on until the kingdom of God comes.” And when he had taken some bread and given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” And in the same way he took the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”
1 Corinthians 11: 23-25
For I [Paul] received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which he was betrayed took bread; and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
In the Catholic ritual of communion, bread and wine are blessed by a priest. Then a phenomenon called transubstantiation takes place, which means that the bread turns into the body of Jesus and the wine turns into his blood. Incidentally, Protestants do not generally agree with this notion, and instead they claim that the wafer/bread and grape juice/wine remain intact.
So, when I stopped attending the Catholic Church, and switched to Protestantism, I saw communion done slightly differently. Some churches celebrate communion once a week, once a month, once a year, or even not at all. There seems to be a focus on remembering, but I have always been curious why communion is done almost exclusively with thin wafers and grape juice. From that regard, it has always felt to me just like the Catholic ritual.
About ten years ago, I spent some concerted time thinking about communion. I wondered, if Protestants reject transubstantiation (and even consubstantiation as well), then why are we still stuck using the same elements of wafers and grape juice, just as the Roman Catholics do?
When I really tried to imagine myself participating in the Last Supper, it seemed clear to me that Jesus was only eating bread and drinking wine because back then, that was the common fare at nearly every evening meal. And because of this notion, I began to try to “celebrate communion” no matter what I was eating: lasagna, a burrito, pizza, etc. And the same goes for drinking: If wine represents the blood of Jesus, then maybe so can water, juice or any other libation. This experiment was easy for me to do when I was eating alone; but I will admit, even then I frequently forgot. However, for the times when I didn’t forget, I was actively remembering, just as Jesus said to do.
Yet when I ate with others and tried this, it was usually downright awkward. I only attempted it with other Christian believers, and only then when I said grace. But I could tell that in almost every case, they were not prepared to think of their meal as a kind of mini communion service. This dynamic perplexed me. It seemed the reasons my friends could not imagine communion when we met for lunch, were possibly because they thought:
- It was the wrong fare;
- It needed to be done in church (or with a large group);
- Communion is a special ritual, and distinct from normal eating.
After a few months, honestly the subject fell to the back burner of my contemplations. And it was not until I was recently researching for my Trinity book, that I stumbled upon some deeper insights which have illuminated my understandings. I will now share what I have learned.
The first and most foundational aspect to this study is that despite what Protestants say, there is mostly still some overlap with Roman Catholic traditions. For example, here are five Protestant traditions that are Roman in origin:
- The Bible Canon (that is the contents of the Bible)
- The Trinity
- Worship/Church on Sunday
In my book, Trinity: In His Own Words, I comment about each of these five.
Similarly, the Roman Catholic Church recognizes seven sacraments:
- Extreme Unction (blessing given to those about to die)
Apparently, when the Protestants left back in the sixteenth century, they rejected five sacraments, but opted to retain the last three, with stipulations for the last two: (1) For communion, Martin Luther renounced transubstantiation, but insisted on consubstantiation (the idea that the bread and wine were co-existing with the actual body and blood of Jesus). However, for most non-Lutheran Protestants today, they would reject both, and say that the bread and wine are merely symbolic of the body and blood of Christ. (2) Regarding baptism, the Protestants largely dropped infant baptism and opted for adult baptism only.
The reason that Protestants still have a ritual for communion, is because it is inherited directly from Catholicism and confirmed by Luther. But I still wondered, why do the Catholics and Protestants almost exclusively use wafers for communion? Is it just because it’s convenient for a church service?
The Last Supper
T. Alex Tennent wrote a book in 2014 that is all about the Last Supper. It is called The Messianic Feast. His research led him to realize that the use of wafers comes from the notion of unleavened bread. And that is based on the widely-held belief that the Last Supper was actually a Passover meal (a Seder). And if a Passover, then only unleavened bread would have been allowed; and then that was what would have been used by Jesus. So apparently when the ancient Catholics deemed communion a sacrament, they felt that to be authentic, the ritual needed to use wine and unleavened bread; since that is what they concluded was eaten by Jesus. This would explain why in the Catholic world, leavened bread could not be the genuine Eucharist, as well as why no one could replace the wafers for a piece of pizza, for example.
The only problem is that all the documentation we have today says that Jesus used leavened bread and wine at the Last Supper. This creates a conflict because leavened bread was legally forbidden at all Passover meals. Meaning while Jesus was at times unconventional, it would have been almost impossible for him to have used leavened bread at a Passover.
Apparently, this conundrum started Mr. Tennent wondering. And the result is a massive, 600-page book that reads at times like an academic textbook as well as a detective novel. He concludes that due to Bible verses and modern-day accurate understanding of calendars, that it would have been impossible for the Last Supper to have taken place on Passover. Rather, Tennent postulates that the Last Supper took place on the evening before the national Passover.
The implication would be that Jesus never got to eat the Passover meal the following day, since he was executed early the next morning. Therefore, the Last Supper was simply Jesus getting together with his friends to hang out and eat. And at that time and place in history, almost all meals involved bread. And wine was safer to drink than water, so there you go.
One conclusion is that there is no lasting ritual for believers to take communion in the form of wafers and grape juice (or unleavened bread and wine). Rather, “communion” as we know it today is a Roman-added tradition that has morphed in some circles into a Protestant tradition. This idea is curious for me, since it somewhat supports my theory that it is acceptable to “celebrate communion” with other food and drink, instead of only the traditional elements.
Since Mr. Tennent argues that the Last Supper took place on a Wednesday night, this means that Jesus would actually have been killed the next day, on Passover Thursday; just as all the spotless lambs were slain. In effect, Jesus became the perfect and final Passover lamb himself. This has a beautifully symbolic meaning.
If this all be true, then there are some startling implications for me:
- Jesus was the final fulfillment of Passover and therefore believers need not celebrate this feast any longer (even Messianic believers). Although if people want to, they are free to do so, since Jesus celebrated many Passovers before he was killed. And there is still a rich symbolism that puts the sacrifice of Jesus at the center of Passover.
- The Last Supper was just Jesus getting together with his closest friends to hang out and eat. It happened on the eve of Passover, somewhat like people gathering on Christmas eve. In that culture, every meal included wine and bread. And to eat the bread, it had to be separated, which was commonly done by hand. Today we refer to that as “breaking bread”—a phrase which has come to have its own meaning: fellowship.
- The over-arching theme of the Last Supper conversation revolved around Jesus trying to tell his friends to never forget him or what he was going to do for them. In fact, Jesus used a metaphor to help them in this effort. Per the two Bible references, Jesus said that whenever we eat, we are to remember how his body was broken to pay for our sins. He also said that whenever we drink, we are to recall his blood that was shed to pay for our sins. Most people eat three times a day. That means three times a day we have the chance to remember the sacrifice that Jesus made for us.
- The bread is not the most important take-away from the Last Supper; the remembering is. And for this analogy, the remembering is tied to eating. If the Last Supper had taken place in Asia, they would have most probably eaten rice instead of bread. And in that setting, one can imagine Jesus dividing or scooping rice and saying that whenever you do this in the future, remember that his body was divided (or broken) to pay for our sins.
In Our World
The modern tradition of communion as part of a church service seems to have some drawbacks:
- It limits people remembering to just once a week, instead of three times a day.
- By using unleavened wafers, it makes communion distinctly different than any other eating people do during the rest of the week. And that disconnects the metaphor from all types of eating, and instead connects it to just church-based communion—which again may only happen once a week, once a month…or at some churches, once a year.
- It somewhat clumsily integrates nibbling into a church service that is otherwise devoid of eating. This specifically can cause discomfort for visitors who may be very unfamiliar with the communion experience.
- In some settings, it makes the wafers and juice the central focus, instead of Jesus.
- It has introduced confusing complexities like transubstantiation and consubstantiation, which are speculative at best, and oftentimes produce divisions in the Kingdom.
On the other hand, since church services mostly no longer revolve around a meal in someone’s home, there is usually no food present. And in fact, no eating takes place at all during a church service. It is mostly about listening, maybe some singing, and possibly some conversations afterwards. So the eating/drinking-as-a-form-of-remembering metaphor is at risk of being completely lost in these kinds of church settings. Therefore, to pass out wafers and juice in a service is a way to kind of integrate eating, which then gives us a chance to remember Jesus, using the Last Supper eating analogy. It is a bit circuitous, but it gets the job done…sort of. (Note: Now that companies make packaged cups that contain juice and a wafer, the process for churches is much more efficient and less obtrusive that it was before.)
Despite the eating awkwardness potential in church services, this metaphor and remembering exercise is still exceptionally relevant for all settings that do involve food. Whether people eat alone or with others, three times a day they can remember the sacrifice that Jesus made for them. We can imagine people meeting up for lunch (after church even) and someone volunteering to pray before they eat. In that prayer, the person can mention that as they eat and drink, they remember the broken body and spilled blood of Jesus, given for our sins.
Plus, when we tie the remembering to any form of eating, it allows the message to spread more quickly to non-Christians, without being as potentially clunky. Meaning, non-Christians do not even need to come to church to hear this analogy. Instead, any Christian can invite a non-believer to their home for dinner and before digging in, mention that they always take time at meals to remember the sacrifice that Jesus made for our sins.
And one side contemplation is that maybe full regular meals need to be re-integrated as the central facet of community worship services. Eating lunch or dinner together at church—as part of a service—provides ample fellowship opportunities, as well as teaching moments (before and after eating). It’s also a chance for the poor to be fed and it allows for the communal remembering experience to be a useful and usable metaphor. Similarly, it gives space to model how Christians are to eat together; and finally, it nicely facilitates the house church model of Christianity.
I suspect that in these Bible references, maybe Jesus was trying to leverage something we already do a lot (eating), and to connect that to something he considered quite important: that we would never ever forget all that he has done for us. It seems to me that after about 2,000 years, there are at least a billion people alive today who remember the sacrifice of Christ. Therefore, I would say that by and large, Jesus has succeeded in making sure his followers did not forget about him.
That said, for Protestants (at least), it might be even more effective if we further disconnect communion from the rituals of Rome, and re-connect it in a more integrated way to our normal daily routines of eating and drinking.
©2019, Alignment Life