At the Last Supper, the last Passover Seder meal Jesus shared with his twelve before His crucifixion, Jesus initiated the present sacrament of Communion.
We all know what happened at that Seder. Jesus took bread, thanked God, broke the bread and passed it among the twelve. And He did something else, something quite unusual at the time. He told the twelve that the bread they held was his body, that his body was given for them and that they should continue the new and unusual ritual in remembrance of Him. (Luke 22.19)
Of course, the bread Jesus broke and gave to the twelve at that Seder meal was from a special recipe and only consumed for one week out of the year. Other than the newly added ingredient of spirituality (the bread representing Christ's body) an ingredient was blatantly missing from this bread that made it so special -- leavening. It was unleavened bread, commonly known today as Matzah; and Mosaic law demanded such be eaten at the Passover meal and, moreover, for the entire following week.
The Jews of Jesus' time did not know what the unleavened bread fully signified. They did know that their ancestors when fleeing from Egypt, were command to make their bread without leavening so as to not delay their departure from bondage waiting for their bread to rise. And thus the use of unleavened bread was a way of reminding them every Passover of God's great work in setting Israel free from Egyptian servitude. But the unleavened bread told, and still tells of something far greater than just Israel's liberation from bondage.
It would seem that the use of unleavened bread in our memorial of Christ's last Passover meal lost its significance and importance not long after gentiles became the majority and dominate force in the Christian fellowship. That, of course, is not surprising. As gentiles we are just not “Jewish enough” to consistently understand Hebrew/Jewish history, culture, customs and historic traditions. The worse of it, however, is that we often think we do have such an understanding when studying Scripture. Revisiting the story of the first Passover can reveal much to us about the significance of unleavened bread in the Passover, then and now, and how is should play a role in our Communion memorial today.
In Exodus Chapter 12, within verses 8-20 unleavened bread and leavening is mentioned ten times. Five times leavening and/or leavened bread is declared as prohibited, and five times unleavened bread is commanded to be eaten only -- and not just for one night, the night of the Passover, but for seven full days! Moreover, the first and seventh days of the unleavened bread commandment are declared to be Sabbaths! The commandment to shun leavened bread and consume unleavened bread for an entire week casts unleavened bread in a rather significant light. And to have that week of unleavened bread bracketed by TWO annual (high) Sabbaths makes the focus of the event special indeed.
"8 They shall eat the flesh (of the Passover lamb) that night, roasted on the fire; with unleavened bread and bitter herbs they shall eat it.
14 “This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the Lord; throughout your generations, as a statute forever, you shall keep it as a feast. 15 Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread. On the first day you shall remove leaven out of your houses, for if anyone eats what is leavened, from the first day until the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel. 16 On the first day you shall hold a holy assembly, and on the seventh day a holy assembly. No work shall be done on those days. But what everyone needs to eat, that alone may be prepared by you. 17 And you shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread, for on this very day I brought your hosts out of the land of Egypt. Therefore you shall observe this day, throughout your generations, as a statute forever. 18 In the first month, from the fourteenth day of the month at evening, you shall eat unleavened bread until the twenty-first day of the month at evening. 19 For seven days no leaven is to be found in your houses. If anyone eats what is leavened, that person will be cut off from the congregation of Israel, whether he is a sojourner or a native of the land. 20 You shall eat nothing leavened; in all your dwelling places you shall eat unleavened bread.”
It has long been held that leaven in the scriptures represents sin and/or deviation from the Torah/Scriptures. Jesus warned of the leaven of the Pharisees, their traditions and customs perverting and superseding the Scriptures so as to enhance the standing of the religious leaders and creating a distance between the common man and God's written word-- a distance the leaders presumed to fill for their own prestige and advancement. But fundamentally, leaven, as it pertains to the bread of the Passover Seder and of our Communion, symbolizes sin -- or more revealingly -- the lack of sin, the lack of sin in the body, the very person, of Jesus!
But the significance of the Passover unleavened bread goes further than just a reminder of Israel's escape from Egypt and as a representation of the Christ's sinlessness. For hundreds of years prior to the Passover Seder of the "Last Supper", the unleavened bread also foreshadowed what the Christ would undertake and suffer on our behalf.
Unleavened bread, Matzah, displays on it surfaces markings that are likened to the marks, bruises and wounds of a flogging. These marks, or stripes if you will, speak of the wounds the Christ received from the flogging He suffered prior to the crucifixion. (Modern day, bakery made Matzah can display these marks/stripes even more dramatically.) Moreover, Matzah in its preparation receives piercings through its surfaces, tiny holes poked through the bread that speak of the piercing of Christ's hands, feet and side. And finally, the act of "breaking" the bread speaks of the death of the Christ. As the scripture declares regards the Christ:
"But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed." (Isaiah 53:5)
And Psalm 22:16
“For dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me;
they have pierced my hands and feet -
So, with the unleavened bread, the Matzah, we have a visual reminder of who Jesus is and what He suffered for our sake.
Jesus instructed his twelve and, presumably, all Christians to break the Passover bread in remembrance of Him. And not only in remembrance, but also (in the thinking of this writer) in continuance of its witness to who Jesus is and what, exactly, He experienced in our place. Since our Lord instructed us to remember Him through an act He performed at a Passover Seder, then should we not be eager to carry out that instruction as He, Himself, performed it?
It is true, of course, the breaking and eating of the Communion bread is done in many different ways wherever Christians gather. Some, without any thought or intent to be contrary, use regular, everyday, leavened bread, some use specially prepared bread dedicated solely to Communion and which is believed by its Communicants to be supernaturally transformed at some point. Some do use unleavened bread in their Communion while even others purposely use leavened bread to symbolize spiritual growth from Communion with Christ.
Although I understand there is a wide array of traditions as to what type of bread is used in Communion, I can only concluded that Matzah, the very unleavened, marked and pierced bread that was used at the Last Supper, that last Seder meal before Jesus was crucified, is unquestionably best suited to fully reveal to all in Communion who Jesus is and what it was He suffered for our benefit. The purpose of unleavened bread from the time of the Exodus until the crucifixion was to foreshadow God's provision for salvation. And since the crucifixion, its purpose has been to be a reminder of and continual witness to the saving work of God through the person of Jesus. As it is so readily available, or so easily made, why use any other bread at our Communion memorial than the unleavened bread our Lord, Himself, used for this very purpose?
This essay will explore the nature and use of the other element of Communion - the contents of the cup.
Firstly, there is the obvious issue as to whether wine, the fermented juice of the grape, or unfermented grape juice itself should be used in communion. The issue today is as it has been for a couple of hundred years, primarily an issue of alcohol consumption. For hundreds and hundreds of years before that, however, such was not an issue at all. The Roman church quite confidently used, and still uses, wine in communion without any reservations at all. It wasn’t until well into the Reformation, in particular the nineteenth century and the growth of temperance did the use of unfermented juice come into practice by some of the reformed churches. It is interesting to know that it was a Methodist who in 1869 applied a method of pasteurization to grape juice. This method resulted in preventing the natural fermentation of grape juice into wine thereby insuring the elimination of alcohol from the Methodist communion service as was “recommended” by the Methodist Church at that time.
According to Daniel Benedict in an article: Changing Wine into Grape Juice: Thomas and Charles Welch and the Transition to Unfermented Fruit (published on the UMC website at http://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/changing-wine-into-grape-juice-thomas-and-charles-welch-and-the-transition-) it was Thomas Welch a dentist and Methodist Communion steward who sought and achieved a non-fermenting grape juice for the Communion cup. It was his son, Charles Welch, however, who saw the economic advantages of a non-fermenting grape juice. His vision, of course, resulted in the Welch's Grape Juice brand.
I personally have no issue with the consumption of alcohol. However, I do believe wine is in fact inappropriate for use in the Communion remembrance. It is not because alcohol is present in wine that I feel wine is unsuitable as the second element of the Remembrance service. It is how the fruit of the vine becomes wine that disqualifies wine from the Communion cup.
Before we explore the what and why of that which should be in the Communion cup, it should be understood that the first Passover, the very Passover which purpose it was to foreshadow Christ and His crucifixion, had no drink prescribed at all. Lamb, unleavened bread and bitter herbs were all commanded to be eaten at that first Passover, but no command for drink was given. No drink is even mentioned in that narrative let alone prescribed. Of course, the actual blood of the lamb was present and a central focus of the Passover event; itself the foreshadow of Christ's very blood. But, the Fruit of the Vine which would, in fact, one day replace the blood of the slain lamb as a representation of Christ's blood, had no place in the first Passover -- especially as it more than likely would have been fermented. And why was no fermented grape juice, no wine, present at that first Passover? The very reason leavened bread was prohibited from the Passover meal would likewise prohibit wine. Wine is leavened!
The agent that brings about the fermentation process producing wine from grape juice is the same that causes bread to rise -- yeast. And, yeast is naturally abundant on the skins of grapes. Left to its own and natural propensity, the juice of crushed grapes will ferment. It is a fact, wine is leavened grape juice, and, therefore, because of that leavening, it is not even permitted in the same dwelling as the Seder meal.
Of course, just as leavening works in bread dough, consuming sugars and producing carbon dioxide and alcohol, so it does in the fermentation process with wine. The yeast introduced to the grape juice when the grapes are crushed, also consumes the sugars therein producing carbon dioxide and alcohol. However, whereas in the baking of bread the carbon dioxide and alcohol are eliminated by heat, with wine, although the carbon dioxide naturally escapes from the wine, the alcohol remains. But once again, the alcohol is not the biblical focus. It is the leavening that is a disqualifying factor.
Some who favor wine as the appropriate drink for Communion have argued that wine, because of the fermentation process, is "purified" of leaven, it being killed by the alcohol produced. There appears to be some truth to that argument. However, the same is true regards leavened bread. The heat applied in baking also kills off the leavening in the bread. Baked bread contains no yeast -- at least it contains no living yeast -- just like wine will not after fermentation. Yet the leavened bread is prohibited from the Passover meal. Therefore, it can only be concluded that "leavened" juice, wine, must also be prohibited.
Why should the leavened bread and leavened wine be rejected from the Communion remembrance when it could be argued that both had the leavening purged -- by heat for the former and fermentation for the latter? Simply put, it is because the leavening changed the two elements before it was purged! The bread and the wine were not the same elements they were before the leavening transformed them -- the one originally being crushed barley the other, crushed grapes.
So, how was it that the "fruit of the vine", which naturally carries upon itself leaven (yeast), was present at the Seder meal the evening of the crucifixion? Well, that leaven was purged from the juice before it could act upon the juice changing it to wine -- a leavened element. The ancients had a number of methods that removed the leaven from raw grape juice (or "must" as crushed grapes/juice/skins/etc. is called). One method is of particular interest here -- boiling.
It was a practice in the process of preserving the juice of the grape to boil off a certain volume of moisture from the must. The amounts varied, but boiling the must down a quarter to a third of its original volume was performed rendering the must into a thick syrup. The boiling of the must, in conjunction with reducing the moisture content and tightly sealing off the resultant syrup to exposure to air, eliminated the leavening permanently preventing the fermentation process. Thus the "fruit of the vine" was purged of leaven and the grape juice preserved as an unleavened, unfermented juice. Later, the syrup could be remixed with varying amounts of water and consumed as reconstituted, preserved and unleavened grape juice suitable for a Passover meal.
It is curious to note that is was not until the nineteenth century that fermentation was even partially understood. The Ancients could produce and use fermentation, but they had no idea what was taking place or what leaven actually was or how it did what it did in the fermentation process. Nonetheless, it appears God did. Thus, no wine was present at the first Passover nor would it be appropriate for Christ's last Passover meal before His sacrificial crucifixion.
It is my conviction then, and will be until proven otherwise, that the contents of the cup of the first Communion was boiled, preserved and reconstituted grape juice - the fruit of the vine, purged of any leavening agent and thus, coincidentally, unfermented. In light of the commands in Exodus 12 concerning the Passover, it only makes sense that such was the case. Thus, once again, alcohol, in and of itself, is not a biblical issue as Communion is concerned. But, how the fruit of the vine comes to be wine most certainly is!
As Methodist, the contents of our Communion cup is as it should be -- unleavened, and therefore, unfermented grape juice -- the very drink Christ, himself, command his disciples to consume in remembrance of Him. To be true, I look forward very much to when I put that cup to my lips once again.