The Passover meal was celebrated by Israel at twilight, in haste, on the fourteenth day of their first month each year, by command of God. The commandments and specifications regarding it were numerous, and always tied to the story of God saving Israel with a mighty hand from captivity in Egypt. The penalty for disobedience was strict: to be cut off – excommunicated – from the people of Israel.
The only exception that God made was a time when the nation re-instituted the practice on the fourteenth day of the second month after many years of not observing it at all (2 Chronicles 30).
No stranger to the commanded custom of Passover, Jesus told his closest followers that He had looked forward to celebrating it with them in Jerusalem that final time.
When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. And he said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.” After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, “Take this and divide it among you. For I tell you I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” 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. ~ Luke 22:14-20
No one in Israel’s history before was ever recorded as identifying the matzoh with a body, let alone his own. No one was quoted as identifying the blood of the grape as human blood, certainly not his own. The hint of cannibalism would have taken the Israelite of century one back to days when Samaria and later, Jerusalem, had been under siege and about which a song of lament asked, “Look, O LORD, and consider: Whom have you ever treated like this? Should women eat their offspring, the children they have cared for?” That abomination had been prophesied early on by God Himself (Leviticus 26:29).
Jesus was also no stranger to their disgust at the notion; He had encountered it while teaching in Capernaum (John 6:43-66).
Nothing in the law permitted anyone to speak in such a way about the Passover as He did at the table, nor to turn it in any direction away from that moment of God’s salvation from slavery in Egypt.
But Jesus had a greater salvation to achieve for all people and all time – not just Israel of 2,500 years before – and He had in mind this meal as the way His followers would remember it.*
So He innovated.
I don’t know what else you can really call it, but “innovation.” We can look back on it and say that Passover and the Lord’s Supper were type and fulfillment; but that is the advantage that hundreds of years of history gives us. For the people around the table in the upper room, it was innovation: taking something familiar and putting it to a use it had never had before; it was the act of starting something for the first time; it was a change in customs and contrary to established customs, manners, or rites.
And those who followed Jesus adopted it as a new part of their culture. They recognized His authority as the Son of God to institute it.
But how often did they observe it?
If they followed the 2,500-year-old pattern of Israel, they would have celebrated it one time a year, on the fourteenth day of the first month.
Do we have a record of how often Jesus instructed them to observe it?
The closest we can come is Paul’s recollection of the event – which was related to him either by man or God’s Spirit, since he was not present at it – and that is the phrase ” ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:25-26). The first “whenever” seems to be quoting Jesus. The second seems to be Paul’s reminder.
How often is “whenever”?
Obviously, the when of it is not nearly so important as the how of the Supper: in remembrance.
So, it would seem, at the table Jesus left to His followers the privilege of innovation as well – regarding the when of it. And perhaps sometimes it was daily, and sometimes it was weekly. (One can only assume weekly from Acts 20:7 from the fact that no mention was made of breaking bread at the Feast of Unleavened Bread – the Passover – twelve days before when the mission team was at Philippi.)
Most church fellowships would argue convictedly that Sunday – the first day of the week – is the only day authorized by scripture to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Some hold for weekly observance; others for annually or even semi-annually.
But I have to wonder, in view of two things:
- the early followers’ enthusiasm and the possibility that they may have celebrated it daily
- the implication even from the Old Testament (2 Chronicles 30) that the penitence of heart was more crucial than the date of the Passover
… I have to wonder if the how has always been more important than the when with regard to feasting in honor of God’s salvation among us.
And I have to wonder if we aren’t, in fact, expected to innovate in some matters of when we celebrate that communicate the grateful, penitent, anticipatory how of our hearts.
*Someday I hope to blog about why I believe the Bible is one testament, though two covenants.