Where did communion come from?

Posted in

Have you ever wondered where the idea of communion came from?

It’s something we can take for granted especially if we experience it as a regular part of our church life. However, the roots of communion go back thousands of years to the first Easter, the week Jesus died, the week we sometimes call Holy Week. And the events in that week, go back thousands of years before that!

Let’s take a quick look at the story.

Jesus is teaching and healing people in the villages in northern Israel, working his way towards Jerusalem. He wants to be there for the Jewish festival of Passover, the big one of the year. It’s the one where God’s people celebrate and, in some ways, re-enact the time God freed them from being slaves in Egypt.

We are told in the gospels that Jesus was keen to share the Passover meal with his disciples (most Jewish festivals have food involved!), and this was why he sent some of them ahead to prepare the ‘upper room’. The Passover meal would have been celebrated in homes across the country, but each year, many people would have travelled to Jerusalem to celebrate it, as commands in Leviticus (REF HERE). (Modern Jews celebrate it for a week, usually attending multiple meals in different homes.) This festival, back then as now, would have involved the whole community, men, women and children, young and old celebrating with a sacred meal together, with specific food and drink to remind them of some of the story of their escape from Egypt. For example, in Exodus we hear how the flat bread (matzo) is to remind the people of how God’s people left Egypt in a hurry (Pharoah ordered them to leave after the final plague – the death of the first born) and their bread did not have time to rise. In a modern Seder meal, there is a plate full of symbolic food items, each relating to a specific part of the story. Most elements are eaten, and in doing so, participants connect themselves with the story. For example, there is horse radish to dip in a sweet date-based dip, representing the bitterness of slavery and the sweetness of freedom. One reading which goes alongside these two is that the freedom of the Israelites came at a cost to the Egyptians, who were not personally responsible for Pharoah’s decisions, but suffered all the same. The reading says that we remember their suffering too, and how often bitter endings occur alongside sweet new beginnings. You can see how this makes it possible for those present to relate situations and event in their own history and personal story with these elements, making the eating of them a spiritual experience. The story is also told as if the people sitting (or leaning – see Exodus Ref) around the table were the actual participants in the Red Sea escape. This too enables them to imagine the original experience and connect to it personally.

Most people believe that it was at this deeply symbolic festival meal that Jesus added new symbolism. The bread, usually representing “the bread of affliction”, or the bread that had no time to rise, is now, for his followers, to also represent his body which is to be broken for them. I say ‘also’, because I don’t think Jesus said, Forget all the old stuff and just do this now.” By choosing a ritual they already had, he was adding a new spiritual significance to something which they already held dear. And the wine (there are four cups of wine in a modern Passover seder) is to be his blood. (The four cups represent (among other things) the four statements God made to Moses about what he would do for his people in Exodus £ (REF)).

This addition of new meaning was not unusual. When researching what the different elements of the Seder meal represent, I am always amazed at how many different ideas and variations there are. It seems that within Judaism, it is normal for addition or different meanings to be added to this sacred meal. Indeed, some scholars believe that even by the time the Exodus story was written down, there had already developed at least two quite different ways of marking the meal, which becomes apparent when you look at the book of Exodus in detail (see Exodus for Normal People by Pete Enns).

What is amazing is that followers of Jesus have a tiny piece of the ancient Passover meal which they can practice as often as they meet together, using the bread and wine to remember Jesus in the way he suggested the week before he died.