I have two different short stories for you. They differ only by the length of a single sentence. Don’t blink, or you’ll miss them. Ready? Here’s the first one:
Last night I went to my friend’s house. They served cake.
Easy enough? Here’s the second:
Last night I went to my friend’s house. They served cake. There were candles in the cake.
Chances are, you read the first story without your mind supplying a tremendous amount of detail. You might have imagined a dinner party or something as simple as coffee and dessert (or tea, for those of us sophisticated enough to avoid coffee).
But the second story was probably quite different. The inclusion of “candles in the cake” changed the whole story. Now you’re picturing balloons, streamers, colorfully-wrapped presents. If you’re a parent, you might also be picturing pointy hats, noisemakers, and a stream of bratty kids that you’re thankful aren’t yours.
The stories above illustrate the simple yet fundamental relationships between symbols and rituals. The “candles in the cake” are a symbol that instantly connects us to a larger cultural narrative: a birthday party. And so our minds instantly fill in the gaps. We can even visualize the types of rituals that accompany the symbols: singing to the guest of honor, watching him or her blow out the candles, and so on.
We’re talking now about communion. It’s something of a “dinner party,” I guess—or at least Jesus began it as one. But what kind of dinner party? When Jesus inaugurated the ritual of the Lord’s Table, it was at one of the most famous of Jewish celebrations known as Passover:
7 Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. 8 So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and prepare the Passover for us, that we may eat it.” (Luke 22:7-8)
Here’s what we need to understand: “unleavened bread” meant as much to them as “candles in the cake mean to us.” By that I mean that those words evoke the images of a whole series of symbols and rituals deeply embedded in Jewish culture. It’s likely that even Luke’s non-Jewish readers would have understood at least the basics of Passover.
So when we talk about Communion, we need to make sure we recognize this ritual as embedded in a much larger story.
THE FIRST EXODUS
Even if you’ve never been to church, you might know the story of the exodus from the old Charlton Heston film. On the night that Israel would be released from captivity, each family was to mark their doorways with the blood of a goat or lamb. The idea, of course, was that God would “pass over” that house in his plague against Egypt’s firstborn. The meal the family shared that evening would be repeated in the years after as a reminder of what the Lord had done for his people. Passover therefore became “a memorial day,” and the nation of Israel was commanded to “keep it as a feast to the Lord…as a statute forever” (Exodus 12:14).
The point, of course, was that every element of the Passover meal was meant to testify to what they had endured and the price paid for their freedom. We can name a few:
- Lamb: to represent the blood shed at their release
- Unleavened bread: containing no yeast, because their deliverance would happen so quickly they had no time to wait for the bread to rise.
- Bitter herbs: the flavor meant to remind them of the bitterness of their former slavery.
- Eating while reclining: because in that time, this was the posture of freed peoples.
So while this is certainly removed from the traditions of our modern birthday parties, we can see how Jesus’ last meal with his disciples was saturated in symbolic meaning and historic tradition.
THE NEW EXODUS
But Communion, as we said, is part of our act of “playing make-believe.” New Testament scholar Scot McKnight suggests that Jesus’ last meal was “a Passover-like meal the night before the Passover meal.”
14 And when the hour came, he reclined at table, and the apostles with him. 15 And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. 16 For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” 17 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves.18 For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” 19 And he took bread, and when he had 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.” 20 And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. (Luke 22:14-20)
McKnight writes that Jesus is indeed re-telling the story of the exodus here with his disciples:
“During the meal, Jesus interprets the bread…and wine as his body and his blood….Jesus is asking his followers to participate in his death. But rather than dying with them on the cross, he asks that they merely ingest bread and wine to identify themselves in the story of Jesus and so learn to participate in his death by faith.”
Jesus is therefore announcing a new exodus, a new release not from the captivity of a tyrannical power, but from the enslaving powers of sin, Satan, and death.
We are commanded, quite plainly, to celebrate this meal together, as a sort of re-telling of this great story. Communion is therefore analogous to Passover, only this time we are heading steadily for the time when all of human history is consummated at Christ’s return, and Christ’s followers celebrate the “wedding supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:6).
This ritual therefore tells us something about who we are and where we’ve been as well as where we’re going:
|Who we are||God’s chosen nation||God’s adopted sons|
|Where we’ve been||Egyptian slavery||In the bondage of sin|
|Where we’re going||God’s promised land||Resurrected into God’s restored creation|
So we gather as a church to remember what’s behind us, as well as to celebrate the glorious future ahead of us.
The bread reminds us that Jesus was broken that we might be made whole. The cup (grape juice, in our case, just to avoid issues with alcohol) reminds us that when God’s holiness rightly demanded our blood, God offers his own.
The Communion meal is therefore not something we take casually, but something we take joyously as we recognize our own place in God’s story.
 Scot McKnight, A Community Called Atonement, p. 84.