It is a generally understood thing that a memorial is done in remembrance of an actual event; otherwise it is a worthless memorial.
Take for instance the celebration of the Fourth of July. If the American colonies had not, in actual fact, secured their independence from England, then there would have been no occasion for the celebration. The existence of the celebration speaks to the historical reality of the event it commemorates.
To put it another way, nobody bothers to take the time to celebrate and remember events that never actually happened.
Biblically, and in historical relationship to the Jewish culture, this reality concerning memorial days showcases the historical nature of several Biblical events. The annual feast of Purim, celebrated by the Jews, since the 5th century BC, is a memorial of the Jews escaping death during the days of the Persian Empire, as recorded in the book of Esther.
Some modern critics argue that the story is fictional, and yet the feast has been kept as a memorial — speaking to the fact that something happened to occasion the memorial. People don’t bother to celebrate and remember events that never actually happened.
The Passover is another good example. The Passover is a celebration, or memorial, of God saving the Israelites from Egypt. Those who would argue that such an event never happened must find a way to explain how and why an entire culture would create a memorial to an event they knew was fictitious?
There is an analogous memorial in the New Testament: the Lord’s Supper, also called the Communion meal, or the Lord’s Table (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:16, 10:21, 11:20).
The Scriptures attest that on the night He was betrayed, Jesus established this memorial in anticipation of His death. This event is recorded in Matthew 26:26-29, Mark 14:22-25, Luke 22:19-20, and 1 Corinthians 11:23-26.
Let us note the words of Paul to the Corinthians regarding the matter. “I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, ‘Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.’ In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes.”
Jesus is thought to have been crucified, most likely, in 33 AD. Various dates are given for the Gospel of Matthew but, generally speaking, it seems likely it was written sometime around 55 AD, give or take. Luke can be dated to about 60AD and Mark to sometime close to 65 AD. Of the four accounts of the establishment of the Communion, it is possible that Paul’s account to the Corinthians might be the earliest and we can easily place Paul’s writing of that epistle at about 55 AD.
That is to say, the earliest accounts we have of the establishment of the Memorial come to us from between 20 to 35 years after the events being memorialized were to have taken place.
Luke wrote the book of Acts a short time after he wrote his gospel, perhaps about 62 or 63 AD. In Acts, Luke speaks of the church partaking of the Communion, using the term, “breaking the bread.” (cf. Acts 2:42). Luke speaks of this act being done on the first day of the week (cf. Acts 20:7), denoting a regularity to the celebration; a fact attested to by early Christian writers. The Didache for instance, often dated about 90 AD, reads, “But every Lord’s day do ye gather yourselves together, and break bread.”
People don’t bother to remember things that they know never happened. The celebration of the communion, dating back as it does to the very beginning of the church, and being a memorial of the death of Christ, is a reminder of the reality of that death, as well as the events that followed. Jesus was crucified. His tomb was found empty.
Christians that partook of the Communion in the first century were doing as Paul stated: they were proclaiming the Lord’s death. Christians today, as they gather at the Lord’s Table are doing the same; remembering the death of Jesus the Christ, the reality of the empty tomb, and the message of the blood of Christ which was offered on our behalf.
The church of Christ keeps the memorial feast of the Lord’s Table every Sunday, just as the church in the 1st century did. We invite you to worship and study with us at 234 Chapel Drive, Gallipolis, Ohio.
Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ.