On Maundy Thursday we remember Jesus' last supper with his disciples before his arrest, trial and crucifixion on Good Friday. There is some debate as to whether or not this supper was a Passover meal as is recorded in Matthew, Mark and Luke, but undoubtedly Jesus celebrated the Passover with his disciples Thursday evening, knowing what was going to happen to him on Friday.
And like that night, thousands of years ago, this Maundy Thursday we too are celebrating alongside the festival of Passover. Understanding the context in which Jesus instituted communion the night before his death helps us to greater appreciate his words and the new symbolism he invested in the simple elements of the Passover meal.
Celebrating the festival the night before the rest of the Jewish people would mean that the main part of the meal- the lamb- had not yet been sacrificed. And it was the lamb whose blood provided a way of deliverance and protection, the lamb's sacrificed flesh that was shared by the family celebrating.
So it may have been a bit confusing to the disciples to find themselves celebrating the Passover without the sacrificial flesh of the lamb, and its protecting blood. But that's when Jesus takes the bread and says that it is his flesh, that's when he takes the cup and says its his blood. Through the simple elements of the bread and the wine, Jesus declares his flesh as the sacrifice for them, his blood as the protection and means of deliverance.
The bread that is used in a Passover meal is called Matzah, which you can see in the picture below. During the Passover festivities, there is a tradition that points clearly to Jesus; the afikoman. What happens is that three matzah are wrapped in one cover. Then the middle matzah is removed and broken. Someone hides (or 'buries') it, and the children have to go and find it and bring it back (or 'resurrect'). Does this sound familiar?
Moreover, matzah is unleavened as the Israelites were instructed to make bread without yeast because they had to be ready to depart from Egypt at any moment and so didn't have time to let the bread rise. Leaven in Scripture refers to sin, and so to be unleavened is to be without sin. As you can see in the picture, matzah is pierced and the fast bake to cook it results in marks that look like bruises. And Jesus takes this bread and says it is his body, his flesh, pierced for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities.
Then taking the cup, he proclaimed that this now symbolised his blood. The Passover has 4 cups which are drunk; the first with the promise 'I will bring you out...'; the second 'I will free you from being slaves'; the third 'I will redeem you'; and the fourth 'I will take you as my own people and I will be your God.' After having shared this cup, Jesus states he will not drink of it again until in the new kingdom of God, and then they sang a hymn and left. Singing the hallel (praise) Psalms was part of the celebration, particularly between the third and fourth cup of the festival. Therefore, it is likely Jesus spoke of his coming death with the third cup that reminded the people of God's redemption, instilling new meaning in it through the redemption of his blood.
As we remember that last meal in the upper room today, we also remember the first passover and deliverance from slavery the Israelites experienced. And as we participate in this meal, we acknowledge that we too are slaves in need of redemption. Each self-serving choice we make enslaves us further in the bondage of our sin, and deafens us to the One who calls us into His freedom. Only his flesh and blood can deliver us from our slavery to ourselves, from our own sin, so that the curse of death will pass us over. Jesus is our afikoman broken for us. Jesus' blood brings us God's redemption. He is the only lamb we need.