There is a wealth of irony within the gospel stories, but nowhere is the irony greater than in the synoptic stories we call “the Last Supper.” Jesus, facing imminent destruction, sitting with the ragtag bunch of bozos that still don’t quite get what is coming, loving them as dear friends and worrying about what will become of them in the near future, is eating his last earthly meal (except in John’s gospel there is a post-resurrection fish breakfast…). The weight of the world on his shoulders and the immensity of the past three years’ labor with his disciples, Jesus makes a wonderful and powerful gesture — he takes leftover bread, the base staple of every meal, and he makes the following mnemonic connection: this isn’t merely bread, but it represents my body. Every time you eat it, morning, noon, night, and each time in between, think of me. Then he picks up a cup of wine — ordinary wine in an ordinary cup — a substance nearer and dearer to rough and ready men of the day like the twelve than even bread — and tells them that it is his life’s blood poured out for forgiveness. Each time wine passes the lips of a disciple, he should remember Jesus. What Jesus effectively did was make it impossible for any of the disciples ever to forget him. Bread and wine were consumed many times each day. In this simple but powerful act, Jesus created an unbreakable bond with his followers. No meal would ever be shared where Jesus was not present.
And so what did we do with this amazing act in the church? We turned it into a ritual. Don’t get me wrong… it is a sacrament and a powerful, beautiful act. But by making it SO special, we inadvertently made it LESS special. We are often so caught up in the extraordinary aspects of Holy Communion that we neglect to remember and honor the ordinary. The elements were leftovers (When the supper was over, Jesus took bread…), the tableware was everyday, the guys were wearing their work clothes, and the setting was an ordinary room. Jesus wasn’t consecrating his followers but sharing an intimate farewell act with his friends. He gave them a parting gift to remind them that he was still a very present part of their daily lives. He helped them remember.
Our celebration of this great sacrament shouldn’t obscure the simple fact that it is a gift to us from Jesus the Christ — reminding us that we are one with Christ, one in Christ, and one in the body of Christ serving the world. We are friends as well as followers. We are loved and remembered, and we are charged to remember Jesus each time we eat and drink, not just on the first Sunday of each month, or on special occasions. “Communion” isn’t really something we ‘do,’ but it is who we are. We are the Holy Communion of those united with Christ in service to all the world. It is what it means to be church, and it is the grand gift Jesus gave us as his disciples.
This is a “both/and,” rather than an “either/or” reflection. Let us celebrate the Last Supper together in Christian community as often as we can, following the ritual and traditions that come to us through the ages, but let us also begin to see each and every meal as a holy communion, a time to remember the goodness and greatness of Jesus Christ who gives his body and blood that we today might become his body for the world, redeemed by his blood.