Contemplating Passover & the Eucharist

“Far from a commemoration of ancient events, Passover night is meant to be a profound personal experience. It invites and, indeed, requires us to become part of an event of the utmost significance for us, for our people, and for mankind as a whole, and by so doing to help shape the very destiny of the world we live in. But how is it possible for us to participate in an event that took place 3,000 years ago?”

“The Torah calls our sacred days, days of encounter with God. Each of our holy days carries a Divine message, based on its historical significance; thus Pesach conveys the message of our liberation from Egypt. But these messages do not come to us from the distant past—rather, we are brought face to face with the historic event that gave rise to the holiday.”

“This is difficult for us to understand, for we are used to considering time as stretching out in a long line from a dim past, gone forever, to an unforeseeable future that we cannot anticipate; therefore the events of the Exodus from Egypt, seem to us to lie far back in our history. In reality, however, as the days and seasons pass us by, we are not moving ahead in a straight line, leaving the past behind us. We are moving in a circle or, better, a spiral and thus, year after year, we always again pass through the same seasons, past the same historical monuments of encounter with God that our fathers experienced. So it is that when we thank God for the miracles that shaped our history, we do not speak of great events of those days, “in those days but at this time”—we are still participants today.” [1]

Thus, when we re-live the Exodus from Egypt, the Passover of the Death Angel, the giving of the Torah, Messiah’s Last Supper, we do not merely commemorate these events. In the story of the Exodus we re-live the reality that Messiah led us out of Egypt, breaking the chains under which we labored. In preparation we are to clean out our lives and banish the chametz, or sin, from the furthest, deepest corner, just as we clean out our homes. At Passover we realize that the blood of our Passover Lamb was necessary on the doorjamb of our lives again this year, and we thank God that He sees that blood in looking at us, so that the Death Angel passes over our lives for yet another day, week, month, and year. In the Feast of First Fruits we re-live Messiah’s Resurrection, and we lift up first fruits of our harvest as the symbol of what Messiah will accomplish in our lives through His life, and through the works that we will walk out by virtue of the Holy Spirit’s work and presence in our lives.

As Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto puts it,

“Any achievement that was attained, any great light that radiated at a certain time—when that time comes around again, the radiance of that light will shine again and the fruits of that achievement will be received, for whoever is there to receive them.” (Derech Hashem)

“So we are asked to see ourselves on Passover night as actually partaking in the cataclysmic event by which God took one people from amidst another, demonstrating His mastery of the world and adopting the rescued people as His own, to be the bearer of His message to mankind. By entering into this experience, and dedicating ourselves to the lessons it teaches, we help prepare the world for the coming of Mashiach, the ultimate revelation of God’s glory and His liberation of His people.”[2]

The events and circumstances of the Exodus were designed to make clear beyond possibility of a doubt, to Pharaoh, and to all mankind, that “I am the LORD in the midst of the earth. (Ex. 8:22)—not an abstract Deity in a distant heaven—and “the earth belongs to me” (Lev 25:23)

As we see in the perennial Passover story, God was intent on securing a people unto Himself, a people that would be a blessing to the nations of the world. This, God knew, would require a series of laws, teachings and instructions to properly demarcate His people from the rest of the nations. In furnishing Israel with laws that would secure their well-being God also intended that Israel would thus serve as a sign to the world of the character of their God—a Holy, yet loving and benevolent Father.

“As expressed in the covenant with Abraham (see Genesis 12:2,3), these beneficiaries of God’s covenant are to be mediators of blessing to the nations at large. Seen in this light, the Levitical laws are intended to train, teach, and prepare the people to be God’s instruments of grace to others. Consequently, one of the key purposes for the law of Leviticus is to prepare Israel for its world mission.”[3]

I’m struck by the sacramental nature of this description. Do we understand the role of God’s commandments, wherever they might appear in Scripture, as existing to train, teach, and prepare the people of God to be God’s instrument of evidencing grace to an observing world? Visible signs of an invisible grace imparted to a people by the Holy Spirit’s presence.

Very clearly in the Apostolic Scriptures, but also foreshadowed in the Hebrew Bible, we find the stunning revelation that those who once were strangers to the covenants of promise, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and without hope in the world have been brought near by the blood of Messiah, our Passover Lamb, and adopted into the people of God.

Subsequently, the mission of evidencing God’s grace to the nations becomes our task. The history of the Passover becomes our collective history, and it becomes incumbent upon us also to live out the story of Passover Redemption as the spiral of history comes around once again to that time, and indeed, to that opportunity.

But our celebration of the Passover must change for we no longer anticipate the revelation of Messiah, but we celebrate His revelation that the covenant is secured in Him.

“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 26:27-28 (ESV)

“Sharing a meal together has always been one of the main ways in which human beings have expressed friendship and mutual acceptance. Among the different forms of cultic activities in which the ancient Israelites engaged, for example, were what are called communion-sacrifices. In other forms of Israelite sacrifice the animal or grain offering was handed over completely to God, but in this case part of what was offered was returned to those who had offered it to be eaten by them. In effect, they shared a sacred meal with God as a sign of their acceptance by him through the sacrificial act.”

“The most important of these communion-sacrifices was the annual Passover celebration. Following the prescriptions in Exodus 12, on the day of the festival each family was supposed to take a lamb and offer it for sacrifice in the Temple at Jerusalem, and then consume it together in a ritual meal.”

“In later Jerusalem, however, sacred meals were not limited merely to practices connected with the Temple cult. Among the more pious, especially the Pharisees, every meal came to be thought of as a religious occasion, and included the blessing of God for the gift of the various things to be eaten or drunk.”

“Furthermore, it was a regular part of Jewish eschatological imagery to portray the kingdom of God at the end of time in terms of a great banquet, at which all those who enjoyed God’s favor would sit down together and feast in abundance. Jesus continued this tradition in his own teaching (see for example Matt. 8.11-12; Luke 13.28-9), and it forms one of the strands in the accounts of the Last Supper: the three synoptic gospels all record in one form or another a saying of Jesus to the effect that ‘I shall not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God’ (Mark 14.25; see also Matt. 26.29; Luke 22.15,18). Similarly, his feeding miracles and the other meals that he shared must also be viewed in this light, as symbolic anticipations of the future messianic banquet, so that those who eat with him now are assured that they will also feast with him in the age to come.”

“Thus, all the meals Jesus shared with his followers, and not merely the Last supper, were seen by the early Christians as expressing not only human fellowship but also the divine acceptance of the participants in the present and the promise of their ultimate place in God’s kingdom.”

The Ritual Pattern

“The accounts of the Last Supper, and also some of the references to meals elsewhere in the New Testament, reveal a pattern that adheres to the common custom followed at all Jewish formal meals. This pattern has been called by some scholars a ‘sevenfold shape’: at the beginning of the meal, the head of the household, acting on behalf of the gathering, (1) took bread into his hands, (2) said a short blessing, (3) broke the bread, and (4) shared it with all present; and at the end of the meal, he again (5) took a cup of wine into his hands, (6) said a longer form of blessing over it, and (7) shared it with all around the table.”

“This means, therefore, that the command, ‘Do this in remembrance of me’ (1 Cor. 11.24, 25), was not intended to initiate some novel ritual practice that the early Christians would not otherwise have done, but was instead a direction that when they performed the customary Jewish meal ritual, they were to do so in future with a new meaning—as a remembrance of Jesus….Our primary concern here is to note that ritual meals like this were powerful expressions of the concept of the participants’ communion with one another and with God. Their presence at this meal was a sign of their reconciliation to God and their membership among the elect who would one day feast together in God’s kingdom, and the intimate fellowship with one another that they experienced around the table was a foretaste, an anticipation, of the union that they would enjoy for ever with God. The whole meal event was thus both a prophetic symbol of the future and also a means of entering into that future in the present.”

“The vision of the eucharist as fellowship was an important one to St. Paul, and he likened the meal to a communion-sacrifice in order to explain the source of the participants’ unity with one another: ‘The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a communion in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a communion in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread’ (1 Cor. 10.16-17). This explains why he was then so angry about the behavior of the Christians at Corinth. For at their eucharistic meals, individuals were apparently failing to share the food that they had brought, so that the poor remained hungry while others over-indulged. What was happening was thus the exact opposite of the intimate unity that the meal was supposed to express, so that Paul concludes that ‘it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat’ (1 Cor. 11.20).”[4]

[1] Elias, Joseph. The Haggadah: The Silberman Edition (Brooklyn: Mesorah Publications, 2000)

[2] Ibid.

[3] Kaiser, Walter, Jr. “The Book of Leviticus: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” as found in Keck, Leander, ed. The New Interpreter’s Bible – Vol. I. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994) p 988

[4] Bradshaw, Paul. Early Christian Worship: A basic introduction to ideas and practice. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1996) pp 39-41.