The Memory of Bread and Wine

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“And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you. But the hand of him who is going to betray me is with mine on the table. The Son of Man will go as it has been decreed. But woe to that man who betrays him!’ They began to question among themselves which of them it might be who would do this.” (Luke 22: 17-23)

In John Green’s (frankly, brilliant) novel The Fault in Our Stars comes this memorable passage: “The pleasure of remembering had been taken from me, because there was no longer anyone to remember with. It felt like losing your co-rememberer meant losing the memory itself, as if the things we’d done were less real and important than they had been hours before.”

These words are etched in the sadness that forms the context of the story’s plotline of love and loss. But it seems to me that something similar -though opposite- is happening in Luke’s account of the Last Supper, as if Jesus was ensuring that the disciples have something to hold on to, once their Master is gone.

The key sentence in this passage is: “Do this in remembrance of me.” It has two components. First, the You -the plural subject of the verb who “do this” together- and second the “remembrance of me.” You are invited to actively participate in something important that happened long ago – to that night (as we remember together) how Jesus took bread, wine… and as he blessed, broke and poured it out… Do you remember?

It’s a shared memory, forged in the simplest of ways, by sharing the bread and wine that would have accompanied every Sabbath and Passover meal. The bread would have been broken with the prayer “Our praise to You, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the universe, Who brings forth bread from the earth.” And the wine too had its own Sabbath prayers in the Kiddush.

And the point of those prayers was to “recall” creation, and the creative lordship of a sovereign God, and to remember together the Genesis account, that the Lord had everything in hand. Similarly, at Passover, the company was enriched by the shared “memory” of Exodus and its story of redemption and deliverance through the shed blood of an innocent lamb.

And this is the business of covenant, looking to the past in a faith-filled shared memory in order to live in an unknown future. It was renegotiating a contract by investigating its original terms. But here, Jesus declares a “new covenant” enriching the terms of the old with something startlingly new. For since every covenant requires a sacrifice, this was written “in my blood.” And Hebrews 10:5 makes it explicit: “When Christ came into the world, he said to God, “You did not want animal sacrifices or sin offerings. But you have given me a body to offer.””

 

There was something else too, from our side of the deal: Covenant meant mutual agreement. In Exodus 35:5 we read that note of agreed cooperation: “From what you have, take an offering for the LORD. Everyone who is willing is to bring to the LORD an offering of gold, silver and bronze…” Did you see it? Only the “willing” need apply. You have to choose to be part of this.

 

And this introduces the two terribly sad notes that are struck in this scene. First, Jesus acknowledges the lack of agreement in the circle of friends: “The hand of him who is going to betray me is with mine on the table.”

Such a powerful moment! Did Judas flinch? Was there an involuntary pulling away of the hands from the table?

Second, Jesus reveals the fragility of all the participants: “They began to question among themselves which of them it might be who would do this.”

They questioned because they didn’t know. They didn’t know what was in the hearts of their friends but neither did they know what was in their own hearts. Peter was positive that though everyone else might fail Jesus, he never would. And he was wrong.

And all this has to be part of the shared memory too, made concrete in bread and wine. We ponder the covenant. We remember Jesus doing just this. But we also think of those who exclude themselves from covenant. And we think of ourselves, who really have no business to be here, except for the grace of God. And my place at this table only comes via Psalm 51:17: “My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.”

But repentance is always received. Always. So I need fear no rejection from Him who breaks bread and pours out wine as symbols of his own body, broken and poured out.

He has been this way ahead of me.

 

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