Crowds of Jews were in Jerusalem for the Passover celebration. The tradition was an important part of the collective memory of the people, though it may have been lost for a time. Through the Passover meal, they remembered the night of the final and most decisive demonstration in Egypt of the power of Israel’s God: the night death visited every Egyptian home, the night death passed over the homes of the Israelites.
That very night, a new tradition was born, the Passover meal, a ritual to be observed down through the generations (Exod 12:1-20). Remember. Celebrate. Tell your children what it means; tell them the story (vss. 26-27).
Even today, the elements of the Passover Seder symbolize elements of the story of slavery and exodus. Roasted meat represents the lamb of sacrifice. Matzoh, an unleavened flatbread, recalls the haste with which the Israelites fled Egypt. Bitter herbs, symbolizing the harshness of slavery, are dipped into a paste representing the mortar used by slaves. Four cups of wine memorialized God’s deliverance.
Jesus secretly arranged to eat the Passover with his disciples in private (Luke 22:7-13). He was eager to do so, presumably because he had something important to say and to do. During the meal, Jesus took the traditional elements and gave them new meaning. The bread now represented his body, which was about to be broken on the cross; the wine, the new covenant God was making with his people, a deliverance enacted through the blood Jesus would soon shed (vss. 19-20).
They were celebrating the same ancient tradition, remembering the same story, but with a new and unexpected plot twist. They were honoring the same covenant God, but being invited into a new covenant.
The disciples would not understand — not until after the cross and resurrection, not until they were filled with God’s Spirit at Pentecost. But then, at last, they would understand what Jesus commanded them to remember, and why.