So what’s going on when Jesus initiates this feast?
Well, what’s the sort of thing going on in the background, what are the traditions that he is drawing on as he shares this supper? The first one of course is Passover. Was the Last Supper a Passover meal? It’s ambiguous. The Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke say it was, John and possibly Paul say it wasn’t. John is fairly clear in specifying that the meal takes place on the day before Passover - John’s gospel has this slightly different chronology because he is having Jesus killed at the time that the lambs for the Passover meal will be killed, he’s really emphasising Jesus as the Lamb of God, which is one of the main themes in the Johannine literature, "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world". So that’s John’s emphasis, the Synoptics say that the Last Supper itself is the Passover meal and that Jesus is killed the next day. However, whether it’s on the day before Passover or whether it is the Passover meal itself is, in a sense, secondary. All of the witnesses agree it is in the context of the Passover, the great festival being celebrated in Jerusalem. And Paul says quite clearly, “Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us, so let us celebrate the feast.”
So what is Passover? I am sure you are all very familiar with the story of Exodus, with the Hebrews being taken out of the land of slavery and you have got the ten plagues, Pharaoh refuses to let his people go, and the people of Egypt suffer because of his stubbornness and in the end there is the slaughter of the first-born and so on. God says to Moses, “Tell the people of Israel to slaughter a lamb without a spot or blemish and to daub the blood of the lamb on the lintels and mantels of the doors of their house.” And then when the Angel of Death comes, who is going to kill all the first born in the area, the Angel of Death will pass over those houses which have been daubed with the blood of the lamb, so those who have identified themselves by this marker, become exempt from the death which is coming. That’s the core symbolism of Passover: the lamb is slaughtered and those who identify by the blood of the lamb do not then share in the death.
Of course there are other aspects: you are meant to eat it standing up, the meat is meant to be roasted, it is meant to be done with bitter herbs and so forth, it is meant to be done in haste because it happened to the people just before they were about to escape, and so the whole story of Exodus, of the people being led out of slavery into freedom into the Promised Land, this captures the moment of God’s activity, when God acts to redeem the people. As you will know, Passover, even now in the Jewish faith, is so crucial, this is very much the marker for the community.
For our purposes an important element is that this meal begins as the literal marker so the Angel of Death passes by, but it is maintained and renewed. When the people, the Hebrews, come together for their Passover, it is one of the principal ways in which their community is maintained as they keep telling the story. It is a memorial of the salvation but it is also an expression of identity with those who are saved. In other words it is not just past tense. It is not simply, “Hey we are the people and God acted a long time ago,” it is a re-enactment, "we are the people today whom God is redeeming". It is a present tense process. Does that make sense? It is not just telling a good story, it is actually re-enacting. When it says in Scripture how you are to celebrate the Passover there is a role for the youngest child who can speak in the service, and the youngest child says “Why is this different from any other night?” “This is the night when we were freed,” "what is the meaning of this service?" You shall say to them, “It is the Passover sacrifice of the Lord.” Not this was the Passover, it is the Passover. Just to emphasise it is an ongoing thing.
So that’s one root and a very important root, the Passover meal that remembers and retells and re-enacts God’s saving activity to the people of Israel bringing them out of the Egypt.