Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Where Did We Ever Get the Notion That the Lord's Supper is a Funeral Procession? (Part 3)

Yesterday we saw that the Lord’s Supper was viewed by the New Testament writers as a prefigure of the messianic banquet of which we will partake at the end of the age. As a result, the Lord’s Supper was an occasion for expressing second-coming expectation and jubilation—in a word, “gladness” (Acts 2:46). So just where does the emphasis on solemnity and self introspection experienced at most Lord’s Supper observances today originate?

One source of this solemn mood is found in the words of institution themselves: “do this in remembrance of me.” From that phrase (along with one other which we will address in a future installment to this series) there has developed in most evangelical churches the “funeral” atmosphere described in part one of this series. So we need to ask the question, What does Luke mean by the phrase “do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19)? As I’ve already intimated, the focus of the Supper has traditionally been derived from this phrase, which in turn has been interpreted to mean that the Supper is to be a time during which we are to focus on the death of Christ; a conscious reliving of what Christ had to suffer in order to redeem us. This suggests that the Supper, by extension, be a time of solemn reflection. The focus then is historical; a looking back, as it were, to the horrors of the cross.

The question is, Does this interpretation fit well with all that we know about the Supper? Indeed, does it fit even the context of Luke 22:14-20? If the focus of the Supper is a looking back to the death of Christ per se, then there is no question that the general mood surrounding the Supper should be one of solemn reflection. There are, however, several problems with this understanding.

First, as we’ve already noted, one such problem may be found in Acts 2:46. Here the same author (Luke) recounts the practice of the early churches; namely, that they “broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts.” It is noteworthy that Luke here describes the general mood of the early church as they partook of the Lord’s Supper, since this is the only passage in Scripture that actually describes the mood. It was not with solemn reflection, but rather with “gladness” (agalliasis) that they ate the Supper.

Second, the context of Luke 22:14-20 itself hardly favors an interpretation which views the Lord’s Supper as a naked focusing on the past. On the contrary, the tenor of this passage is eschatological. We have already noted that Luke twice records Jesus’ eschatological prospect of eating and drinking again in the kingdom (Luke 22:16, 18). In light of this, it seems odd that Jesus would then abruptly shift the focus of the Supper to a memorial of Him (i.e., a looking back) that does not also include an eschatological element.

But then what did Jesus mean by the phrase “do this in memory of me”? Jesus’ words must be viewed in their Passover setting. It was (and is) the belief of the Jews that the Passover itself was not only a looking back at what God had done for Israel, but also a looking forward to future deliverance by the Messiah. A common saying of the rabbis during the Passover was, “On this night they were saved, and on this night they will be saved” (R. Joshua Ben Hananiah, Mekhilta of R. Yishma’el on Exod 12:42). This same sentiment is echoed in the Midrash:
On that same day, too, Joseph was released from captivity; for this reason did this night become one of rejoicing for the whole of Israel, as it says, “It was a night of watching unto the Lord.” In this world the miracle was performed at night, because it was of a transitory nature, but in the Messianic Age, night will become day. . . . Why does He call it “a night of watching”? Because, on that night, He performed great things for the righteous, just as He had wrought for Israel in Egypt. On that night, He saved Hezekiah, Hananiah and his companions, . . . and on that night Messiah and Elijah will be made great. . . . So Israel has eagerly awaited salvation since the rising of Edom [i.e., Rome]. God said: “Let this sign be in your hands: on the day when I wrought salvation for you, and on that very night know that I will redeem you; but if it is not this night, then do not believe, for the time has not yet come.” (Exodus [Bo] 18:11-12, The Midrash Rabba, ed. and ETr. H. Freedman and M. Simon [New York: Soncino Press, 1977], 227-28).
Let’s return for a moment to our text in Luke 22:19: “do this in remembrance of me.” The wording in the Greek is rather vague; literally “do this into (Greek eis; for? toward? with a view to?) my remembrance.” The question becomes, Who is to remember whom? The Greek allows for at least two options: (1) our remembering Christ (the traditional view), and (2) Christ remembering us. In other words, the phrase can be translated alternatively as “do this in order to remember me,” or “do this as a reminder to me (so that I'll remember you).” Everything turns on the meaning of the word anamnesis, translated here as “remembrance.” This word occurs in the present form only four times in the NT (Luke 22:19; 1 Cor 11:24, 25; Heb 10:3), three of which are parallel sayings of Jesus at the Last Supper. The single instance where that context is not in view is Heb 10:3, which states, “But in them [the sacrifices of the Levitical priesthood] is an annual reminder of sins.” Here the meaning is clearly “reminder,” not “memorial” (see BDAG). Its usage in Heb 10:3 is sufficient to establish the meaning “reminder” as a viable option for anamnesis in the NT, including the Last Supper texts. Indeed, if the meaning “memorial” to the death of Jesus is what the Gospel writers had in mind, their purpose would have been better served by using the word mnêmeion, which means quite literally “token of remembrance,” especially for one who has died (BDAG).

Old Testament Parallels
The nominal form of anamnesis in the LXX is rare in comparison to such words as mnêmeion . Moreover, many of the instances of anamnesis are obscure as to their precise meaning. Lev 24:5-8 reads: “Along each row put some pure incense as a memorial (anamnesis) portion to represent the bread and to be an offering made to the LORD by fire.” Although on the surface anamnesis seems to be referring to the bread as a “memorial,” it need not be taken this way. Many scholars think that the “memorial offering” is the part of the offering that was burnt in order to bring the sacrifice to God’s mind. The memorial offering acts as a perpetual reminder of the covenant whereby Israel appeals to Yahweh to maintain his covenant faithfulness. In other words, these sacrifices provide God with a “reminder” of his covenant people. This same God-ward “reminder” is found in Num 10:9-10:
When you go into battle in your own land against an enemy who is oppressing you, sound a blast on the trumpets. Then you will be remembered by the LORD your God and rescued from your enemies. Also at your times of rejoicing—your appointed feasts and New Moon festivals—you are to sound the trumpets over your burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, and they will be a memorial for you before your God. I am the LORD your God.
What the NIV has translated as “remembered” (v. 9) and “memorial” (v. 10) in this passage is (respectively) the verbal and nominal forms of anamnesis. It is clear that v. 9 refers to a God-ward anamnesis (man remembered by God). The reference in v. 10 is less certain; does it refer to God remembering man or man remembering God? It can be rendered either way, and perhaps is a combination of both. Nevertheless, as Brown notes, “the expression ‘before the Lord’ coupled with the context of the previous verse suggests that the remembering here too has a God-ward reference which indeed is primary, although the man-ward reference is implicit” (“Remember,” NIDNTT, 239).

The idea of anamnesis as “reminder” is seen even more clearly in other OT passages. The LXX heading of Psalm 69 (Psalm 70 in English translations) reads literally, “For the end, by David, for a reminder (eis anamnesis), in order that the Lord might save me.” Here eis anamnesis likely means “for a reminder [to God].” In this case it is a reminder to God to save David. Other passages that carry this same idea of reminding God to act include Pss 24 (25):6-7; 73 (74):2; 118 (119):49; 131 (132):1; and Exod 32:12-14 where God is called upon to “remember” his covenant mercies (though in each case mnemoneuo is used instead of anamnesis).

Passover Parallels
The eschatological idea of the rabbis that God would send the Messiah on the Passover (as we noted earlier) probably stems from the fact that the Passover was “a feast to the Lord” (Exod 13:6), which served to put Yahweh in mind of His people. The rabbinical understanding of the Passover was a looking forward to the future deliverance of Israel as final “fulfillment” of the deliverance from Egypt. The Passover, then, served as a venue to issue an anamnesis (i.e., a reminder or petition) to God to send the Messiah.

But just what does it mean that God “remembers” to send the Messiah? This is where the Passover Haggadah is helpful for our understanding. The hallel portion of the Haggadah reads: “We beseech Thee, O lord, save now! We beseech Thee, O lord, save now! We beseech Thee, O lord, make us now to prosper. We beseech Thee, O lord, make us now to prosper.” The hallel is based on Pss 113—118, and esp. 118:25-26: “O LORD, save us; O LORD, grant us success. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD. From the house of the LORD we bless you.”

Now, since the Last Supper was likely a Passover meal, it seems certain that Jesus’ words were meant as a play on this customary petition to God. All their lives the disciples had learned that the Passover was an opportunity to petition God to send the Messiah—now here he was, eating the Passover with them! Jesus is in effect saying, “You have been petitioning God to send the Messiah? Very well, here I am. Now I am going away, but I will be back once again to eat this meal with you in my kingdom. In the meantime, continue to eat this meal as a reminder (anamnesis) to me that this meal is yet unfulfilled.” The anamnesis is therefore a petition to Christ himself to return and to bring the Last Supper/Lord’s Supper to its fulfillment in the Messianic Banquet.

The early church believed that the Lord's Supper was a petition to Jesus to return (Maranatha! Come, O Lord!) and "fulfill" the meal they were observing as a prefigure to the banquet over which he would preside in his kingdom. Indeed, they fully believed that this petition would "hasten his coming." With that as the focus of the Supper, it is easy to see why the mood of the Supper was one of second-coming anticipation and "gladness" rather than solemnity.

Tomorrow’s blog: Since God is omniscient, why should he need to be “reminded” about anything? Also, the meaning and occasion of Maranatha; and the future-looking focus of the Supper in Paul's writings.