In Luke 22:14-20 we see Jesus meeting with His disciples for the last time before His crucifixion. It was during this ‘Last Supper’ that Jesus commanded His friends to continue meeting together to celebrate and remember what we now call the ‘Eucharist.’ The wine was given to represent Jesus’ blood that was to be shed and the bread was given to represent Jesus’ body that was to be broken.
There are no two substances in creation which have more traditionally nourished man than bread and wine. The severe process by which these two substances become nourishment to humanity is remarkable in visualizing the suffering of Jesus. Wheat must pass through the blistering winds of the winter, be ground beneath a stone, and then undergo the purging fire before it can emerge as life-giving bread. Grapes too must be subjected to the wine press and have their life crushed from them to become life giving-wine.
Jesus commanded His disciples to remember His suffering. Memory escorts the past into the present moment. As we sit at the table, the Cross of Christ steps out of the frame of history and becomes present and vivid before our eyes. We use the five senses to remember what was done long ago. In partaking of the bread and the wine, we are remembering Jesus’ Cross and His sacrifice. And yet, at the same time, we are also casting our eyes forward in eager expectation of His return.
The Eucharist began its long history with the prayer ‘maranatha,’ an aramaic word meaning ‘our Lord, come;’ (1 Cor 16:22, Didache 10:6) which can also be translated ‘our Lord has come’. The double thought of the Lord’s first and second coming runs through this ancient watchword. Both the Gospel authors and Paul purposefully attach an eschatological dimension to the Lord’s table. We are to break bread ‘until He comes.’ It is stated in the Gospel of Luke, that Jesus would not drink of the fruit of the vine again until the Kingdom comes. In the Lord’s Supper, we can also see faintly the image of the great banquet and marriage supper of the Lamb. The image of the great banquet in the Messianic Age appears in Isaiah 24:1-27:13 which looks forward to the day of salvation when the Lord prepares a feast for all nations.
“When the early Christians celebrated the Eucharist, their eschatological imagination was much in evidence. The Eucharist itself symbolized the great messianic banquet in the kingdom, and their liturgies expressed in prayer and posture their hope for the Lord’s Parousia or Second Coming... the congregation proclaims that the Lord has come in the Eucharist and will come again... As they gathered for liturgy, these early Christians prayed facing East toward the rising sun, the symbol of the risen Christ, now reigning and who would return to establish the kingdom of God in the world... the classic liturgies of the early church saw the Eucharist meal as a sign, pledge, and anticipation of the meal of the eternal kingdom to come. The basic Christian confession of the resurrection of the body was the central star in the firmament of Christian confession.” Thomas P. Rausch, “Eschatology, Liturgy, and Christology” (Liturgical Press, 2012) p.1-2
The way of Jesus involves suffering. It involves embracing the cross. It means taking the last place and becoming the servant of all. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone, but if it dies it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). However, solidarity with suffering cannot be sustained without the hopeful cry, ‘Come, Lord Jesus!’ It is simply not possible to radically imitate Jesus without a vision of this future glory.
The disciples remembered Jesus not just in theory, but in practice, and looked forward to the Day when He would return and reward those who remained faithful to Him. At the Lord’s table we remember His death and resurrection and we are challenged to hold fast until He returns and makes all things new. The church is reminded at the table that it is a pilgrim community, living between the first and second coming sustained by the spiritual food and drink that is Christ (1 Cor 10:1-4). For here we do not have a lasting city.