Friday, June 17, 2011

A Bit About Communion

Biblical Development
From Jesus' institution of the memorial until Paul's exposition of it as the Lord's Supper, the ritual known as Communion seems to have developed significant qualities. For Jesus the rite was associated with the tradition of Passover in what appears to be a type/antitype relationship. The OT solemn ritual prefigured the sacrifice of Christ within its symbolic rehearsal of the Passover miracle. Though the entire ritual can be shown to point to Christ, Jesus recast those elements within the meal (bread and wine) which in particular served to reference his sacrifice over and above the Exodus miracle.

Only the elements Christ recast were mandated as the Christian memorial. The rest of Passover's symbology was jettisoned, the Jewish feast not carried over into NT practice. Some twenty years later, Paul seemingly strengthened the spiritual nature of the meal, invoking a mysterious (rather than merely sacred quality), by claiming that unfortunate consequences result when one mishandles it. The offense involved is against the body and blood of Christ, not against mere decorum, and could result in death.

Symbol, Metaphor and Memorial
It is obvious that the feast from which the Lord's Supper derived was a symbolic ritual. Only in the actual occurrence of the Passover on the last night in Egypt was efficacious blood painted on the lintels and doorposts, only then was death to the firstborn actually avoided and freedom secured. All the celebrations of Passover since that singular event were symbolic retellings, including that which Jesus gave new meaning to. What was eaten, in the way it was eaten, pointed back to an actuality that had happened long before without any hint that the retelling secured freedom or redemption or in any way mysteriously connected to it after the fact. It was memorial.

Though Christ was giving new meanings to elements, and pointing the retelling to a different redemptive act (his own death and resurrection), there is nothing that can change the fact that it was symbolic. When first initiated, the act referenced had not even occurred! Were the Disciples and Apostles in that upper room mysteriously in the presence of Christ through partaking those elements? Were they made part of the one body through it? Were they spiritually connected to the benefits of the cross thereby? It would be anachronistic at least and ridiculous at worst to envision any of those kinds of things as occurring in that first, really last, Supper. And if not in the first, with Christ, then why in any of those afterward remembering him?

Though I believe literal interpretation is the way to handle the scriptures, taking figures of speech literally means apprehending the referent of the figure. The Bible identifying Jesus as the Lamb of God doesn't mean that Christ is specially present in ovines (even sacrificial ones) any more than identifying us as sheep means that we are. Christ is not made of wood and hinges though he is called a gate, nor is Christ in any way present in or with bread and wine though the scriptures say that they are the body and blood of Christ. The spilling of Christ's blood and the breaking of his body was a singular historic occurrence: the feast is a symbolic way of retelling, remembering, and celebrating that occurrence. As it was in Passover, so it is in the Lord's Supper.

A bit more to follow...

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