Elizabeth Shively on How Jesus’ Last Passover Was Our First Communion

A priest holds up the Eucharist. Photo by Robert Cheaib/Creative Commons

Dr. Elizabeth Shively is Senior Lecturer in New Testament and Director of Teaching, University of St. Andrews, Scotland. She serves as a theology advisor for Christianity Today.

I’ve come to depend on the University of St Andrews’s time-honored graduation ritual to give sense and order to my academic year. The wearing of gowns, recitation of Latin, and tapping of heads with an ancient cap, these have no intrinsic value. But each year, the principal of the university begins by explaining their meaning, and, infused with renewed significance, the ceremony transforms graduands into graduates.

Graduation is canceled this year due to the pandemic, so alternative means must mark the occasion. Physical presence is important but has never been required—plenty graduate in absentia and receive their diplomas on the authority of the principal’s words.

What happens, though, when ritual requires physical presence?

Christians are poignantly confronting this question during Holy Week. On Maundy Thursday, we traditionally gather to recount the Last Supper and re-enact it by sharing Communion. But during a pandemic, absence alters the ritual.

The Passover

Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples was a Jewish Passover—a meal always commemorated in person. Passover was a pilgrimage festival, meaning that Jews traveled from all over to Jerusalem to celebrate.

The original Passover was God’s opening act of redemption (Ex. 12). Israelites smeared sacrificial lambs’ blood on their doorposts to be spared from judgment and ate hurried meals from the roasted meat with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Then God led his liberated people out of Egypt through the wilderness to worship at Mount Sinai. At first, they worshipped remotely. God descended onto the mountain in a terrible thundercloud, and Moses constructed a crowd-control barrier to keep people from deadly judgment (Ex. 19:10-15). But God lifted the barrier with a covenant: Moses read out God’s commands and dashed sacrificial blood on the altar and on the people, saying, “This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you” (Ex. 24:8).

The sacrifice worked because God infused the ritual with meaning and power. According to Leviticus, blood symbolizes the force of life (Lev. 17:11). Thus, blood and the fatty portions of sacrificial animals ritually applied to the altar as God prescribed achieved atonement (see Leviticus 4). At Sinai, blood applied to the people bound them to God in covenant relationship. Through this ritual, blood was like a powerful detergent to remove the stain of impurity and sin, and God transformed unclean people into his holy own. Consequently, the dark thundercloud gave way to a clear blue sky: Israel’s leaders saw God and worshiped with a shared meal of sacrificial food at the foot of the divine throne (Ex. 24:10-11).

The food and drink flanking Israel’s founding moment marked God’s mercy and presence among his people. They were to keep the Passover perpetually as an embodied and communal ritual because the meal recalled the sacrifice that secured their life and liberation. Children asked its meaning, and parents retold the old, old story of God’s redemption (Ex. 12:25–28).

Israel was required to celebrate the Passover at the temple on the 14th day of the first month (Deut. 16:1–7). But God graciously allowed a makeup day in the second month to include those left out due to geographical distance, ritual impurity, or poor planning (Num. 9:9–13; 2 Chron. 30:1–3, 15–20). Keeping the Passover was crucial, so unnatural circumstances inspired new ways for people to be physically present.

Nevertheless, Israel’s Passover celebrations were patchy at best. The people forgot God’s redemption; sought emancipation; and ultimately, irrevocably, broke the Sinai covenant. God abandoned the temple and exiled Israel from the land. By the time of Jesus, the people had returned, but God had not. So, John the Baptist called Israel back to the wilderness, to reenact their founding Red Sea moment in preparation for a new covenant.

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Source: Christianity Today