- Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10)
The story of God’s providing an escape from slavery in Egypt recapitulates the original call [of Abraham and Sarah] to leave home and all that is familiar and ‘safe’ and to begin a journey purely on trust to a new, unknown place.
- Psalm 116: 1,10-17
The psalmist alludes to the “cup of rescue,” a sacrificial libation poured on the altar in the Temple as a thanksgiving sacrifice.
- I Corinthians 11: 23-26
Paul testifies to the tradition which had been passed to him of a shared meal with new words and gestures inaugurated by the Lord Jesus to remember his death until he comes again.
- John 13: 23-26, 31b-35
Unlike the synoptic gospels, John places this supper with his disciples “before the Festival of Passover.” He reshapes associations for a shared meal that would routinely include bread and wine and imbues these elements with new meaning– the broken bread/body and the poured wine/blood.
When the early church took up familiar traditions and symbols and gave them meanings related directly to the death of Jesus, they were continuing an ancient tradition. While it is fascinating to trace the iterations of meanings, what must not be lost is the fact that what is going on is taking common, everyday necessities (food and drink at meals) or routines (washing feet before a meal in the ancient world or venerable traditions of animal sacrifice) and re-making them through a new narrative convey profound, new meanings. Although they were daily routines, by placing them in the last meal Jesus was to share with his followers immediately before his arrest and execution and with new words and gestures by Jesus, they now allude to life’s most perplexing conundrums: the meaning of sacrifice, death, and the power of forgiveness and a promise of new life. As always, the Bible insists that these questions would be overwhelmingly nihilistic were it not for God’s initiative, first through God’s relationship with Israel and then in the life, death and resurrection of the Christ.
“The fact is, that all language about everything is analogical; we think in a series of metaphors,” so concludes Dorothy Sayers in The Mind of the Maker, (San Francisco: Harper, 1941). Which means, she continues, “We can explain nothing in terms of itself, but only in terms of other things.” Finally, “It may be perilous, as it must be inadequate, but we are compelled to do so; we have no other means of interpreting anything.” So, beginning with the scriptures themselves, the church uses the analogies she inherited from the First Testament and created new metaphors in the Second Testament to interpret that which, ultimately, escapes human definition– God’s ceaseless love.
When Jesus points to “this” bread and “this” cup, he is drawing attention to quite ordinary items with everyday familiarity. But it is the context which changes these gestures and augments their impact with his words. He is speaking just before the Passover meal (in the synoptics; as preparation before the Passover meal in John), when God’s people recall the horror and the wonder of that night when death passed over those who had been warned to smear the blood of a sacrificial lamb over their doorways while others, who had not, perished. And because we are dealing with a text we have already read/heard, we anticipate the fore-meaning of the sacrifice of Jesus’ blood by noon the next day.
Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote that the meaning of gestures that point at things depends on the context– who is pointing, why, what has occurred before this moment and what is about to happen. In his study, Wittgenstein and Derrida, Henry States discusses Wittgenstein’s insight with a direct quote from Philosophical Investigations: “It [meaning] would still depend on the circumstance– that is what happened before and after the pointing.” (p.72)
When Jesus silently kneels down to perform the menial task of washing the feet of his followers, (including the one Jesus knows will betray him), it is within the context of all that occurred before and after this incident in John’s narrative that imbues this otherwise trivial act and Jesus’ ensuing commandment to love one another with such power– “that you should do as I have done.”
When Jesus takes bread and wine, basic items in a daily meal of the day, and tells his followers that when they tare apart a piece of bread and pour out a serving of wine they can use these gestures to remind themselves of that Friday when his flesh was torn apart and his blood poured from his side. When the gospel writers place this last meal Jesus shared with his followers on or just before Passover, their minds naturally understand his gesture in the light of that ancient memorial of a previous time when God acted to save the people.
It is what happened before this meal and immediately after that reveals the enduring meaning.
This bread I break was once the oat,
This wine upon a foreign tree
Plunged its fruit;
Man in the day or wind at night
Laid the crops low, broke the grape’s joy.
Once in this wise the summer look
Knocked in the flesh that decked this vine,
Once in this bread
The oat was merry in the wind;
Man broke the sun, pulled the wind down.
This flesh you break, this blood you let
Make desolation in the vein,
Were oat and grape
Born of the sensual root and sap;
My wine you drink, my bread you snap.
Dylan Thomas 1914-1935
The menial becomes reinterpreted into the fullest meaning; the routine becomes transformed into a sign of the greatest love; a daily meal becomes an event loaded with unexpected meanings.