John says that Jesus was crucified on the Friday before Passover (John 19:14), called the Day of Preparation.
Jesus entered Jerusalem in the Triumphal Entry the week before Passover on Selection Day, that is, the day each family selected the lamb to be sacrificed.
Jesus’ final meal with his apostles was likely on Thursday night before Passover, and yet it was a Passover meal (Mat 26:17-19; Mark 14:14; Luk 22:15), likely taken out of time, although opinions differ.
For our present purposes, the point is that the Lord’s Supper carries Passover symbolism, and so it’s helpful to consider what the Passover was really like in Jesus’s day.
Although the Passover was eaten with family, the Passover had to be taken in Jerusalem. As a result, each year perhaps a million Jews took a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. Obviously, the sheer logistics of housing and feeding 1,000,000 pilgrims presented serious challenges to the city’s officials.
An article at The Temple Institute tells the story well —
Ovens for roasting the Passover sacrifices were set up throughout the city, for after the sacrifice is offered, it will be taken by each family and group, and roasted in a special manner as prescribed by law, to be eaten in the evening at the seder. …
[The Talmud’s] descriptions include the sight of the huge Temple gates opening, and the vast multitudes of joyous celebrants, divided into three groups, streaming into the beautiful and majestic Holy Temple courtyard. Then, blasts are sounded from the trumpets, and the Levite choir sings. After the sheep is slaughtered, the Passover sacrifice itself is eaten by everyone together, with a deep feeling of joyous religious freedom. Song and hallel prayers of thanksgiving resound within the walls of Jerusalem. …
[G]nerally only the Priests had an active role in the sacrificial service itself. Thus the Passover offering was particularly special in that it provided one of the few occasions when the ordinary people could enter the Temple’s inner court, where the altar stood. …
The overwhelming sense of joy and elation in Jerusalem itself knew no bounds; it permeated every street, every courtyard, every house… the homes were filled to capacity with family and guests from far and wide. It was an unparalleled feeling of belonging and brotherhood that encompassed all the participants and their great sentiment of freedom and redemption was the unsurpassed height of true religious experience. Jerusalem veritably rang out with song and the holy, intense celebration of life lived in religious freedom and Divine purpose. Indeed, a popular expression in the Talmud coined by the rabbis recalls that the very walls of Jerusalem shook and “the roofs were shattered” from the sounds of joy as the Passover sacrifice was eaten and songs of Hallel [Psalms 113-118] thanksgiving burst forth from every house and courtyard at midnight. …
The Torah requires that the Passover sacrifice be eaten in a “band,” in a large communal meal, as opposed to each man for himself. For by gathering as many people as possible to participate in each band, the Torah thus brings about harmony and an immense feeling of unity amongst Israel. This feeling amplifies the nation’s joy. Such a consideration applies even more to the poverty-stricken; the joy of the Passover celebration is simply not complete unless these individuals are present as part of the community. And if such sensitivity towards the poor should normally be the rule, then it is especially true on this holy night, the night of the Exodus, when we celebrate the transition from slavery to freedom. …
Once the congregation arrived in the Courtyard, the gates were closed and the service was conducted to the sound of the levites’ trumpet-blasts. The entire assembly sang the Hallel prayers of thanksgiving together, led by the levite choir. …
After the meal was prepared, each group reclined at their respective table to conduct the festive Passover seder. They spoke of the miracles of the Exodus, ate matzot and bitter herbs dipped in the haroset of the seder plate, and concluded by eating from the Passover sacrifice.
As midnight approaches, the entire household raise their cups for the singing of the hallel prayers of thanks. All were affected by this special atmosphere, as the festive Hallel burst forth from every house. …
On the day of the Passover sacrifice, the 14th of Nisan, the hallel is sung more than on any other day of the year… for as the Mishna taught us, the members of each band who offer the Passover sacrifice read the hallel several times, while the Levites, too, accompany them from atop the platform, adding the sounds of their harps, lyres and cymbals to the joyous harmony.
The Levites stand atop the platform and sing the entire hallel. Those Israelites present in the court are also commanded to accompany their sacrificial service with song; these join in with the Levites’ song. Thus the sound of the festive hallel was practically constant in the courtyards of the Holy Temple, and around Jerusalem, throughout the entire 14th of Nisan. To the Jewish people, this day became the symbol of the ideal joy; in the words of the prophet, “the night of the holy festival.”
And so the Passover, on which the Lord’s Supper is modeled, had these characteristics —
* It was taken in “bands,” that is, in community.
* The poor were invited to the meal — an invitation considered essential to the faithfulness of the practice.
* The meal was celebratory, filled with congregational singing of the Hallel (Psa 113-118) and instrumental accompaniment. The mood was one of camaraderie and joy.
* The meal was taken in the evening and continued until midnight.
* The meal was full meal.
So how much does this sound like the Lord’s Supper as we celebrate it today? Not so much.
We do take it in community, but we do it in a way that’s highly individualized. We normally take it in silence, staring at the floor. There is little in the way of actual community.
We don’t invite the poor, although we do open the meal to all who wish to participate. Besides, our portions are so small that no one would consider this an actual meal. For us, it’s a purely symbolic meal, which eliminates any reason to invite the poor. We don’t think of this in terms of food and drink at all.
Some in the Churches of Christ consider it sin to sing during the communion, although I’ve yet to hear a real argument for that position. And so most of our churches don’t sing during the communion, although the meal is taken during an assembly that features congregational singing.
In the Churches of Christ, of course, we largely reject instrumental music, contrary to the Passover practice.
Our mood is reflective and somber. Smiling and celebration are considered out of place.
We take the meal — a “supper” — at brunch time, and it only lasts about 10 minutes, contrary to the Jewish meal, which lasted from about 6 pm to midnight.
Ultimately, where we’ve messed up, I think, is in converting a meal into a symbolic event in which real food and drink are minimized into near nothingness. This takes away the opportunity for the meal to be a sharing with the poor, and it prevents the meal from being a true fellowship event.
But we’re so caught up in treating the assembly like theatre, with active performers on stage and passive audience in the seats, that we can’t find a way to eat together. Theatre audiences don’t sit around a table to eat as family. And so, our paradigm creates limits that are invisible to us.
The solution is to take the Lord’s Supper in the evening in homes as part of a full meal. The solution is to follow First Century practice, just as we see in the Gospels. The easiest way to do this is as part of a small groups program. Most small groups meet in homes in the evening. If they were to take the bread course and a cup of wine/fruit of the vine as part of the meal, the Lord’s Supper would become not only a supper, but community forming and celebratory. It’s easy and natural to be joyous while sharing a meal.
This would also make sense of the injunction to invite the poor to join the festivities. Small group leaders would be careful to be certain that the poorest of the church members are included — and a shared meal at home is a great way to share food with those in need.
(Luk 14:12-14 NIV) Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
The spiritual discipline of hospitality is nearly forgotten, and our Lord’s Supper practice is part of the reason. We don’t have to share our food when hardly any food is being served. But when we eat together in our homes, suddenly we find ourselves subject to a commands we’d forgotten about entirely.
One last point: The Jews took the Passover meal outside the temple in “bands” — at large common tables. If the church were divide into groups and meet in homes to take the Lord’s Supper, this would be very much in the spirit of the Passover.