Mark 14:22-26 (NIV): While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take it; this is my body.” Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, and they all drank from it. “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many,” he said to them. “I tell you the truth, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it anew in the kingdom of God.” When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.
The unleavened bread and wine were a normal part of the Passover meal. But as the meal progressed that night, Jesus began to fill these familiar symbols with new meaning.
The unleavened bread was a symbol of the deliverance of Israel from Egypt. On the night of the first Passover, the Israelites were instructed to make and eat their meal quickly, without even giving the bread time to rise (Exodus 12:11, 39). And the Jewish people ate unleavened bread for a full week starting with the Passover as a remembrance of that event.
Over time, yeast became a kind of symbol for sin, because both yeast and sin multiply quickly and affect everything nearby, spreading until it has affected the whole batch of dough. When Jesus presented the bread to His followers that night, both meanings were very pertinent. The giving of Jesus’ body in just a few hours was going to be the mechanism to provide deliverance for the people of the world from their bondage to sin and death. Also, Jesus had lived a completely sinless life, so His body, symbolically given to the disciples in the bread, was pure and holy – without sin. Thus Jesus had no sin of His own that had to be paid for by His death. So His death would be accepted as payment for the sins of all humanity.
The cup symbolized and celebrated the Old Covenant given on Mt. Sinai – a covenant sealed with the blood of bulls, and sheep, and goats. Jesus reinterpreted this to symbolize the new covenant, sealed with His own blood that He was preparing to pour out on the cross.
Jesus did not drink the wine that night (cf. Luke 22:17-18). Some have believed that it was because He didn’t want the alcohol to dull His senses. But the amount that He would have gotten from that cup that was shared all around would have been very small, and out of His system before His arrest. But right at that moment, Jesus was making the transition Himself from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant. He would drink wine again, but not until that transition had been completed.
This reinterpretation of the Passover meal was a powerful symbol that His disciples never forgot. And these elements have become a central part of Christian worship to this day, reminding all who partake of them that they are part of the holy Body of Christ, the people of the New Covenant that was made once and for all with the blood of the Lamb.
Father, it always strikes me when we take communion how rich the symbolism is. And the fact that we, as Your people, are joining others all around the world in this same ceremony of remembrance is a powerful reminder of the fact that we are all one in You. Thank you for these symbols, and thank You for the reality that lies behind them. Amen!