One of the things we know for sure about the earliest celebrations of the Lord’s Supper is that it was an actual supper.
Paul indicates as much in the eleventh chapter of 1 Corinthians when he scolds the church for not waiting for everyone to get there before they start eating, reminding them the whole point is that this is a meal to be eaten together.
When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in?
This seems to have been the pattern for the first 50 to 100 years of the church. Their “reenactment” of that Last Supper included a reenactment not just of his words but of the whole meal itself.
In the years to come as the church grew and grew this sort of weekly supper became harder and harder to pull off. And so sometime in the second century churches began celebrating a symbolic “supper” as part of worship on Sunday mornings, ceremonially taking bread, blessing, breaking, and sharing it, and then doing the same with the cup, all “in remembrance” of Jesus and that last, first holy meal.
But what’s interesting about that Last Supper is that while we see it as the new prototype for what would become our unique tradition, for Jesus and the disciples it was far from novel. The gospels tell us they were celebrating the Passover, and the ritual of taking bread and wine, blessing them, and sharing them in thanksgiving and remembrance of God’s goodness and deliverance was (and is) a central part of that celebration.
And even beyond that, in Judaism at that time, this ritual blessing of bread and wine was not limited to holy days, but some version of it was a customary part of any meal shared with others. All meals, it was understood, provided an opportunity to give thanks, to commune with others and with God, and to give a foretaste of how it will one day be when we all gather around God’s heavenly banquet table.
What was new and different for Jesus and the disciples that night was not the blessing or the call to remember, but precisely what they were to remember. From now on they were to do these familiar things with new meaning. They were to remember him.
Which may lead us to ask exactly what Jesus meant by “this?” It could be he was imagining a new ritual that the church would take on after his resurrection. But we could also understand him to mean “as often as you share a meal of any kind,” remember me.
After all, isn’t this the promise of our faith? That in God’s renewal of the world, all things will be made new? Even the most basic parts of life–the food we eat and whom we eat it with; how we understand these things to nourish us? We need not wait for the communion table to “do these things in remembrance” of Christ. Any table shared with others will do.