I’m not sure whether we are sneaking up to Holy Week or it is thundering toward us. In either case, many of us will hear the reading of the passion narrative on Palm Sunday. In it is one very brief sentence from which we take a significant part of our understanding of Holy Communion: “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” At least that’s Luke’s version.
I imagine that the disciples had an almost instantaneous, instinctive grasp of what Jesus meant because they were familiar with scripture’s promise of a new covenant and the importance of sealing it with a blood sacrifice. That is not to say that they would have been able to formulate a sophisticated theological argument, but only that, in the context of their religious lives and beliefs, it made perfect sense.
That is not true for most contemporary Christians. They hear it, or something like it, every time Holy Communion is celebrated. Some believe it. Others accept it without much thought. Others never pay the slightest bit of attention, and still others reject it as barbaric. Almost none of them connect it with the promise in Jeremiah 31 of a new covenant, nor to the explanation in Leviticus 17 that the (God given) life of the flesh is in the blood, nor, and this is important, to the description in Exodus 24 of the sealing of God’s covenant with the Israelites by sprinkling sacrificial blood on them.
The disciples knew all of that. The symbolism of the post dinner cup of wine would have been very clear. If Jesus really is who he says he is, then the life of the flesh that flows within him is not simply God given but God’s actual presence in a way that cannot be replicated in any other creature. If the sprinkling of sacrificial blood on the people of Israel sealed their covenant with God, how much more would the holy blood of Christ seal the new covenant, especially when it is not sprinkled on but taken in. No longer was God’s seal on them, it was in them. They would not fully understand that for days, and perhaps years, to come, but the significance of it would become an essential piece of what it meant to be a Christian.
No doubt someone will observe that the wine is not sacrificial blood, it’s just wine, and besides, Jesus had not yet been crucified when he uttered those words. My only response is to cite what was once attributed to Queen Elizabeth I:
“Twas God the Word that spake it,
He took the Bread and brake it:
And what the Word did make it,
That I believe and take it.”
That aside, I believe that we who are called to teach must be more diligent in helping today’s followers of Christ understand these kinds of connections because, without them, we loose too much of what is essential. Finally, and for what it’s worth, I have tried to teach these connections for many years with only marginal success.