I hold the plate delicately. It feels light in my hands, and yet bears an unspoken weight. I turn it carefully in my hand, intentional to make it accessible to all who approach. “This is body of Christ,” I say with familiarity and resonance. “It is broken for you.”
The words fall familiar on our ears, don’t they? The Lord’s Supper is not only our tradition as Christians, but it is our privilege and joy. This Easter, each of us will join with our church families across the globe and celebrate Communion together.
But even as I rotate the plate, as I say these ten little words with liturgical repetition, I worry that our tradition has grown stale. Sometimes, the words fall from my lips with more mindless habit that I would like. Sometimes I wonder, have we forgotten what the Supper is all about?
To remember, we have to go back. Back past the Reformation, back past the days of the early church. Back past even the pages of the New Testament. We have to go back to Egypt.
“Tell the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each man is to take a lamb for his family, one for each household … Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the doorframes of the houses where they eat the lambs. That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast … This is how you are to eat it: with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste; it is the LORD’s Passover. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast … And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 12:1-13)
And it happened just that way. Those who obeyed, who slaughtered a flawless lamb, who marked their homes with his blood and ate his flesh, were passed over in the hour of death when the Lord judged the land. In their obedience, the Israelites literally ate their deliverance, their freedom, their salvation. Death passed over those who bore the signs of obedience and faith: the blood and body of the lamb. And death found those who did not:
“At midnight the Lord struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of the livestock. And Pharaoh rose up in the night, he and all his servants and all the Egyptians. And there was a great cry in Egypt, for there was not a house where someone was not dead. Then he summoned Moses and Aaron by night and said, “Up, go out from among my people, both you and the people of Israel; and go, serve the Lord, as you have said. Take your flocks and your herds, as you have said, and be gone, and bless me also!”(Exodus 12:29-32)
Liberation was theirs. With their cloaks already tucked in and shoes already on their feet, they fled the land of their bondage. Salvation was theirs.
The new land was still far away, and it would be decades before they would build permanent buildings, towns, and community. But even in the midst of their migration, every year they would commemorate the Passover, the day of their salvation. Setting the table with the elements of remembrance, they would, in obedience and faith, mark their lives with the blood and body of a lamb.
One year, a group of devout Jewish men and their rabbi celebrated this very meal. They came to the table, prepared with all the signs and symbols of their ancestors’ liberation. Their rabbi took the traditional unleavened bread and snapped it in two, saying:
‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.’” (Matthew 26-28).
The rabbi, Jesus, passes the bread to His disciples and tells them it is His body, which will be broken for their forgiveness. He repeats this intriguing command as He passes them a cup of wine, explaining it is His blood of the covenant, “which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28). Jesus rearranges the celebration of the Passover, ushering in a new meaning and a new covenant. With wine on their lips and bread between their fingers, they realized: He is the final Lamb to be sacrificed.
Jesus offers to them the elements of their salvation – the body and blood of a flawless sacrificial Lamb. As they took the cup, they demarked their lives with the blood of Christ; as they took the bread, they received the gracious passing over that God offered them in Christ. This was the first Communion, and the offer at our Suppers, in our local churches, is no different.
As is often the case, Calvin says it best:
“In calling us take, he infers that it is ours: in bidding us eat, he intimates that it becomes one substance with us: in affirming of his body that it was broken, and of his blood that it was shed for us, he shows that both were not so much his own as ours, because he took and laid down both, not for his own advantage, but for our salvation.” (The Institutes, IV; 3)
Just like the Passover celebration, the Lord’s Supper is a physical reminder that the story is all true! That freedom has really been won, that the Promised Land is our certain future. The sacrifice of Christ is there before us – in torn pieces of bread, in wine that touches our lips with bitterness – and reminds us that we no longer live in bondage. In Communion, we are reminded that the Lord has seen the death of the sacrificial lamb, and has let His judgment pass us over.
This Easter, as you come to the table set with the bread and wine, remember Egypt. Remember that you were destined for judgment, but that God made a way for you to be passed over through the death of His Son. Eat the bread, drink the wine, and receive the grace of God that set you free from bondage, the grace the led you out of the kingdom of bondage, and into His Kingdom (Colossians 1:13).
“But you, the chiefest of sinners, wearied with the burden of your sins, and seeking rest – you who know what it is to have tears, and anxieties, and perplexities, and suspicions of self – you who are anxious to be rid of all this, and to have perfect peace and perfect joy, you are invited to come. That table is spread, not for those who bring their virtues to glory in them, nor for those who bring their sins to get sanction for them, but for those who bring their goodness and cast it at the Saviour’s feet, as his creation; and for those who bring their sins, hating them, and to wash them away in the Saviour’s blood. It is spread for imperfect sinners seeking to be perfect, for weak faith seeking to be strong; for cold love seeking to be warmed; for humble hearts that can say, ‘Lord, we perish, do thou save us.’” (John Comming: The Communion Table, 63)