In the photo above we see people reclining and one standing. Those who are reclining are having dinner on a three-sided “couch” which is called a triclinium. The man standing off to the right is a servant, also called a slave.
When the Jews recited the Exodus story of their ancestors they reclined. They were free people, made free by the LORD. Pesach is what the Jews were celebrating. Pesach is Passover, which celebrates Israel’s deliverance from oppressive Egypt. Pesach is what Jesus and His disciples celebrated on the night when Jesus instituted the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper. Eucharist derives its name from the Greek word Ευχαριστώ (pronounced ‘eff-kahri-stow’), which means “Thank you.” Pesach is a time when Israel celebrated the Exodus story and in doing so, lifted their hearts unto God with great thanks. Israelite families gathered round upon a triclinium in reverence and gratefulness. The fathers would recite the Exodus story at the head of these couches and everyone would join in the spirit of the day. It was an exciting time. And, they didn’t stand as slaves would. The reclined, as free people.
Before Jesus set up Pesach with His disciples He’d gone into the Temple and made a historic scene. Turning over the tables of moneychangers and preventing the selling of animals for sacrifices, Jesus made statements that were remarkable. It wasn’t long before Pesach and several expected another historical deliverance for the Israelite nation, which was now under the foot of the Romans. Jesus was vehemently opposed to the corruption that now epitomized the Temple and the Jews. What was Jesus proposing God was going to do about this? The Temple was being rebuilt by Herod and was two-thirds finished. Why in the world would Jesus think God wanted to do away with the Temple?
The disciples were told they’d meet in a secret room for Pesach with Jesus. Two of the disciples were sent ahead to find a man carrying a jar of water on his head. That was a signal to them. Men didn’t carry jars of water on their head (Myers). When they found him they were to follow him into wherever he entered and they were to ask the master of the house where the Teacher’s guest room was, so that He could eat the Passover with His disciples. There was a complex tension in Jerusalem. This was Passover when all would be preparing to celebrate Israel’s political liberation from Egypt once again with great excitement. Yet, Jesus, having deeply offended the Temple cult fanned a distinctly bittersweet odor into Jerusalem’s air. Was Jesus now going to reveal His militant intentions in private? Was this the moment when Jerusalem would finally revolt against her brutal oppressor in Rome and end Daniel’s prophetic exile? Would the disciples be able to genuinely feel like they were reclining as free people instead of feeling like they were still standing as slaves?
The secret room was now ready. Preparations were finished. Jesus and the disciples gathered round the tables. This was a different kind of family gathering for sure. Jesus was going to act as the father and recite the story once again….”This is the bread our ancestors ate when they came up out of the land of Egypt. This is the cup they drank, the cup of….” Then the most unusual thing happened… Jesus begins changing the words of Pesach! He goes so far as to even describe the nation’s ancient Thanksgiving meal in regard to His own body and….blood!? What’s He doing!? Why’s He changing it!!!?
What was Jesus doing when He changed Pesach (Passover)? Let’s try to answer it this way. In many ways parents attempt to make their children’s birthdays very special. Yet, it all depends on who is present that really makes it special. I recall my 16th birthday being spent in Evansville, Indiana, at a restaurant called Mattingly’s. Back then that’s when Don Mattingly a Major League Baseball player for the New York Yankees, was frequently seen at his restaurant in the off-season. Fortunately, my birthday was just prior to Spring Training and I was able to meet Don up close. He even took a picture with my eight-year-old little brother. I recall the details of the restaurant to some degree but what made the occasion special for me was meeting someone I held in high reverence. Don was what I had hoped to be in the future.
In my case, Don is similar to Jesus. But how? Jesus is our host and honored guest. However, Jesus cannot be known apart from Israel and her storied relationship with God. When Israel was delivered from Pharoah they went through a birthing process. God formed them as His child in Egypt’s womb. After being led into the wilderness they would continue to celebrate their deliverance annually by observing Passover. They had new life as a nation and someone special was always in attendance at their birthday parties. Jesus seems to be doing something upside down when He eats with His disciples that bittersweet evening. This birthday party suddenly turned into a nightmare. Jesus was arrested and we know the rest of the story. Before His arrest, He strangely changes the meaning of Passover. He speaks of a new covenant and eating this meal He institutes, anew in His Father’s kingdom. For the disciples, this was strange indeed. This was never expected. The complex tension gripping Jerusalem seemed to forecast a convulsing revolt but never a convulsing mother about to give birth to something very new. Jesus was forming a new nation and like the Exodus, He was making Himself known to this child that was formed, not in Egypt’s womb, but in Israel’s. Jesus was definitely the special One at this birthday party but what made this birthday party extremely unique was the fact that the meal and the host and honored Guest came from the future.
The new nation hadn’t really been born yet and Jesus was celebrating its birth. The Last Supper was also the First Supper. Jesus changed a national holiday that commemorated ancient memories into a new holiday that celebrated a new birth and a new future. Jesus even promises to be there each time we celebrate this new birth of ours. What we observe in the Lord’s Supper (Communion, the Eucharist) is something layered with meaning. This meaning cannot be digested without knowing where it began, where it was changed, and where it’s going. What is the meaning and significance of this meal, new birth, and new future?
Jesus certainly instituted something He intended to become a habit when He changed the Pesach into the Lord’s Supper. He didn’t intend the habit to recognized merely as a habit, though. Jesus wanted us to begin anew as a community of His followers, just like Israel was to become a new nation formed by its redeeming and loving Creator. This new community would recognize its role in the present so that a new future could be created. Imagine for a minute something similar to Superman. If Superman’s father knew he was sending his son to earth, then the planet would never be the same. Superman’s destiny was to ensure humanity of a better world. People could see that evil had met its conqueror. They’d be free to live as they should. With Superman around people could look forward to a more secure future. When we partake of the Lord’s Supper this is what we do. We remember the world before Superman, and how chaotic it was. We celebrate the fact that Superman was born and is now in our world. We look forward to a secure future. Don’t misunderstand, Jesus isn’t the only Superman in this analogy. Those who’ve put their faith in Jesus and have been born again have become a community of real hope for the world. They are Superman, too. Jesus instituted the Lord’s supper in order that we might habitually see Jesus and ourselves as people with a chaotic history who’ve come together as a community of real hope because we’ve been sent from the Lord’s future.
Is this why Jesus changed Passover??