On Palm Sunday our direction turned to the Herodian temple and it is there where it must remain if we are to properly understand Jesus’ atonement. Jesus’ first act in Jerusalem was to visit the temple. With the cursing of the fig tree, the parable of the wicked tenants, and the violent cleansing of its precincts, his rejection of the temple was total and unambiguous. By driving out the money changers he was certainly making a statement about financial corruption in holy places, but more to the point was that by doing so, the rituals of the temple were disrupted. This seems to be the central purpose of Holy Week: Jesus’ acts are an apocalyptic rejection of the Jewish temple and its replacement in his own body. Here he goes beyond the Qumran community who had fled to the desert to await the new temple; Jesus does not wait for God to act, he is God. The temple is symbolically torn down. Note the tearing of the veil at his death.
This would be hard for his Jewish followers to bear. Even after his death, even though the temple remains rejected, the Acts of the Apostles tell us that they still congregated at this place of Jewish national and religious identity. Old habits die hard, which is why Jesus had to go further. Religions need rituals and so he gave them a new one. The Last Supper makes this clear. For many Christians, the Last Supper seems to have made Jesus into a kind of Dionysus in which by eating his flesh we become joined to the god in a mysterious union. This is true on one level, and like all good myths and their ritual enactments, there are levels of meaning here. It is true in that in the Eucharist we are bound to Jesus, but not in some strange act of spiritual ecstasy but rather in a very practical way.
The Last Supper was the last supper of many similar meals, and it is Jesus’ social eating prior to the Passion that offers insight into how Jesus used food and feasting to drive a message of love and inclusion. His fellowship at meals was frequently criticised (Matt 11:19) because it broke Jewish purity laws when he sat down with “tax agents and sinners.” That Jesus of Nazareth tried to break down the social and ritual barriers that separated people is well-known, and we ought not to ignore this mission when he comes to Jerusalem, overwhelmed as we are by the grandeur of Holy Week.
Jesus’ view of purity ran perpendicular to that of the Jewish authorities. His cleansing of the temple was an act of aggression against the corruption of the Jewish elite (and from that moment on, he was doomed). But then he went further, saying over the bread and the wine in the upper room that “this is my body” and “this is my blood.” Read both in companion with the temple incident and Jesus’ history with food, he did not only mean, “here is my body, here is my blood” referring simply to symbols of his own flesh, but rather that, as one scholar suggests, “these . . . were his substitute sacrifices, replacing the blood and flesh of animals being sacrificed at the Temple” .
The Last Supper was thus another rejection of the Jewish temple and all the notions of purity and elite sociality that it represented. Jesus replaces this priestcraft with a communal fellowship of love, to be enacted by Christians in his memory. The emblems themselves do not transubstantiate nor are they simply symbols of an absent Christ; instead, it is the ritual partaking of this festal meal with friends and family, regardless of status, that is the real “remembrance” of Jesus’ body. As the Book of Common Prayer states, “The Lord is here,” but not in the bread and wine, but in the bread and wine partaken by the faithful. This is the miracle of transubstantiation.
St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians makes all of this clear: In chapter 11 he tells us that bread is Christ’s body, in chapter 12 he tells us that this body is the community of Christians. This then is the new temple, built in three days: The loving fellowship of believers. As he goes to the Cross this prophetic enactment reaches its crescendo. No longer the blood of a lamb in the temple but the Blood of the Lamb who will say “Father, forgive” and require his followers to do the same.
Next: Why Jesus was a substitutionary sacrifice, but not as an appeasement to a wrathful God .