The Lord’s Evening Meal—How Often Should It Be Observed?
CHRISTMAS, Easter, “saints’” days. Many holidays and feasts are celebrated by the churches of Christendom. But do you know how many celebrations Jesus Christ commanded his followers to observe? The answer is, Just one! None of the other feasts were authorized by the Founder of Christianity.
Clearly, if Jesus instituted only one celebration, it is very important. Christians should observe it exactly as Jesus commanded. What was this unique observance?
The One Celebration
This observance was introduced by Jesus the day he died. He had commemorated the Jewish feast of the Passover with his apostles. Then he passed some of the unleavened Passover bread to them, saying: “This means my body which is to be given in your behalf.” Next, Jesus passed a cup of wine, saying: “This cup means the new covenant by virtue of my blood, which is to be poured out in your behalf.” He also said: “Keep doing this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:19, 20; 1 Corinthians 11:24-26) This observance is called the Lord’s Evening Meal, or the Memorial. It is the only celebration that Jesus commanded his followers to observe.
Many churches claim that they hold this observance in conjunction with all their other feasts, but most commemorate it differently from the way Jesus commanded. Perhaps the most noteworthy difference is the frequency of the celebration. Some churches celebrate it monthly, weekly, even daily. Is this what Jesus intended when he told his followers: “Keep doing this in remembrance of me”? The New English Bible says: “Do this as a memorial of me.” (1 Corinthians 11:24, 25) How often is a memorial or an anniversary observed? Usually, just once a year.
Remember, too, that Jesus initiated this observance and then died on the Jewish calendar date of Nisan 14.* That was the day of the Passover, a festival reminding the Jews of the great deliverance they had experienced in Egypt in the 16th century B.C.E. At that time, the sacrifice of a lamb resulted in the salvation of the Jewish firstborn, whereas Jehovah’s angel struck down all the firstborn of Egypt.—Exodus 12:21, 24-27.
How does this help our understanding? Well, the Christian apostle Paul wrote: “Christ our passover has been sacrificed.” (1 Corinthians 5:7) Jesus’ death was a greater Passover sacrifice, giving mankind the opportunity for a far grander salvation. For Christians, therefore, the Memorial of Christ’s death has replaced the Jewish Passover.—John 3:16.
The Passover was an annual celebration. Logically, then, so is the Memorial. The Passover—the day Jesus died—always fell on the 14th day of the Jewish month Nisan. Hence, Christ’s death should be memorialized once a year on the calendar day that corresponds to Nisan 14. In 1994 that day is Saturday, March 26, after sundown. Why is it, though, that churches of Christendom have not made this a day for special observance? A brief look at history will answer that question.
Apostolic Custom in Danger
There is no doubt that during the first century C.E., those guided by Jesus’ apostles celebrated the Lord’s Evening Meal exactly as he had commanded. However, during the second century, some started to change the time of its commemoration. They held the Memorial on the first day of the week (now called Sunday), not on the day corresponding to Nisan 14. Why was that done?
For the Jews, a day started at about six o’clock in the evening and ran until the same time the following day. Jesus died on Nisan 14, 33 C.E., which ran from Thursday evening to Friday evening. He was resurrected on the third day, early Sunday morning. Some wanted the commemoration of Jesus’ death to be observed on a fixed day of the week each year, instead of on the day on which Nisan 14 happened to fall. They also viewed the day of Jesus’ resurrection as more important than that of his death. Hence, they settled on Sunday.
Jesus commanded that his death be memorialized, not his resurrection. And since the Jewish Passover falls on a different day each year according to the Gregorian calendar that we now use, it is only natural that the same would be true of the Memorial. Many therefore stuck to the original arrangement and observed the Lord’s Evening Meal on Nisan 14 each year. In time they came to be called Quartodecimans, meaning “Fourteenthers.”
Some scholars recognized that these “Fourteenthers” were following the original apostolic pattern. One historian said: “As regards the day for observing the Pascha [the Lord’s Evening Meal], the usage of the Quartodeciman churches of Asia was continuous with that of the Jerusalem church. In the 2nd century these churches at their Pascha on the 14th of Nisan commemorated the redemption effected by the death of Christ.”—Studia Patristica, Volume V, 1962, page 8.
A Dispute Grows
While many in Asia Minor followed the apostolic practice, Sunday was set aside for observance in Rome. About the year 155 C.E., Polycarp of Smyrna, a representative of the Asian congregations, visited Rome to discuss this and other problems. Unhappily, no agreement was reached on this matter.
Irenaeus of Lyons wrote in a letter: “Neither could Anicetus [of Rome] persuade Polycarp not to observe what he had always observed with John the disciple of our Lord and the other apostles with whom he consorted; nor yet did Polycarp persuade Anicetus to observe it, for he said that he ought to hold to the custom of the elders before him.” (Eusebius, Book 5, chapter 24) Note that Polycarp reportedly based his stand on the authority of the apostles, whereas Anicetus appealed to the custom of previous elders in Rome.
This dispute intensified toward the end of the second century C.E. About 190 C.E., a certain Victor was elected bishop of Rome. He believed that the Lord’s Evening Meal should be observed on a Sunday, and he sought the support of as many other leaders as possible. Victor pressured the Asiatic congregations to change to the Sunday arrangement.
Replying on behalf of those in Asia Minor, Polycrates of Ephesus refused to bow to this pressure. He said: “We keep the day without tampering with it, neither adding, nor subtracting.” He then listed many authorities, including the apostle John. “These all,” he maintained, “observed the fourteenth day for the Pascha according to the Gospel, in no way deviating therefrom.” Polycrates added: “I for my part, brethren, . . . am not affrighted by threats. For those better than I have said, We must obey God rather than men.”—Eusebius, Book 5, chapter 24.
Victor was displeased with this reply. One historical work says that he “excommunicated all the Asiatic Churches, and sent his circular letters to all Churches that were of his opinion, that they should hold no communion with them.” However, “this rash and bold act of his was ill resented by all wise and sober men of his own party, several of whom wrote sharply to him, advising him . . . to preserve charity, unity, and peace.”—Bingham’s Antiquities of the Christian Church, Book 20, chapter 5.
Despite such protests, the Christians in Asia Minor became increasingly isolated on the issue of when to celebrate the Lord’s Evening Meal. Variations had crept in elsewhere. Some celebrated the whole period from Nisan 14 through the following Sunday. Others were holding the occasion more frequently—weekly on Sunday.
In 314 C.E. the Council of Arles (France) tried to force the Roman arrangement and suppress any alternative. The remaining Quartodecimans held out. In order to settle this and other matters that were dividing the professed Christians in his empire, in 325 C.E. the pagan emperor Constantine called an ecumenical synod, the Council of Nicaea. It issued a decree that instructed all in Asia Minor to conform to the Roman usage.
It is interesting to note one of the principal arguments advanced for abandoning the observing of the Memorial of Christ’s death according to the date on the Jewish calendar. A History of the Christian Councils, by K. J. Hefele, states: “It was declared to be particularly unworthy for this, the holiest of all festivals, to follow the custom (the calculation) of the Jews, who had soiled their hands with the most fearful of crimes, and whose minds were blinded.” (Volume 1, page 322) To be in such a position was viewed as a “‘humiliating subjection’ to the Synagogue which irked the Church,” says J. Juster, quoted in Studia Patristica, Volume IV, 1961, page 412.
Anti-Semitism! Those who celebrated the Memorial of Jesus’ death on the same day that he died were viewed as Judaizers. It was forgotten that Jesus himself was a Jew and that he had given the day its meaning by then offering his life in behalf of mankind. From then on, the Quartodecimans were censured as heretics and schismatics and were persecuted. The Council of Antioch in 341 C.E. decreed that they were to be excommunicated. Nevertheless, there were still many of them in 400 C.E., and they persisted in small numbers long thereafter.
Since those days, Christendom has failed to return to Jesus’ original arrangement. Professor William Bright admitted: “When a special day, Good Friday, came to be devoted to the commemoration of the Passion as such, it was too late to restrict to it the ‘paschal’ associations which St. Paul had connected with the sacrificial death: they had been freely applied to the Resurrection-festival itself, and a confusion of ideas established itself in the ritual language of Greek and Latin Christendom.”—The Age of the Fathers, Volume 1, page 102.
What About Today?
‘After all these years,’ you may ask, ‘does it really matter when the Memorial is observed?’ Yes, it does. Changes were made by strong-minded men striving for power. People followed their own ideas instead of obeying Jesus Christ. Clearly fulfilled was the apostle Paul’s warning: “I know that after my going away oppressive wolves will enter in among you [Christians] and will not treat the flock with tenderness, and from among you yourselves men will rise and speak twisted things to draw away the disciples after themselves.”—Acts 20:29, 30.
At issue is the matter of obedience. Jesus established just one celebration for Christians to observe. The Bible clearly explains when and how it should be observed. Who, then, has the right to change that? The early Quartodecimans suffered persecution and excommunication rather than compromise in this matter.
You may be interested to know that there are still Christians on earth who respect Jesus’ wishes and commemorate the Memorial of his death on the date that he established. This year, Jehovah’s Witnesses will meet together in their Kingdom Halls all around the earth after 6:00 p.m. on Saturday, March 26—when the 14th day of Nisan begins. They will then do exactly what Jesus said should be done at this most meaningful time. Why not observe the Lord’s Evening Meal with them? By being present, you too can show your respect for the wishes of Jesus Christ.
Nisan, the first month of the Jewish year, began with the first appearance of the new moon. Nisan 14 thus always came at full moon.
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“THAT PRECIOUS RANSOM”
The ransom sacrifice of Jesus Christ is far more than a doctrine. Jesus said of himself: “The Son of man came, not to be ministered to, but to minister and to give his soul a ransom in exchange for many.” (Mark 10:45) He also explained: “God loved the world [of mankind] so much that he gave his only-begotten Son, in order that everyone exercising faith in him might not be destroyed but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16) For the dead, the ransom opens the way for a resurrection and the prospect of life eternal.—John 5:28, 29.
It is the vitally important death of Jesus Christ that is memorialized at observances of the Lord’s Evening Meal. His sacrifice accomplishes so much! One woman who was trained by godly parents and who has walked in God’s truth for decades expressed her gratitude in these words:
“We look forward to the Memorial. It becomes more special each year. I remember standing in the funeral home 20 years ago, looking at my dear dad and coming to a true heartfelt appreciation for the ransom. It had been an academic subject before that. Oh, I knew all the scriptures and how to explain them! But only when I felt the cold reality of death did my heart fairly leap with joy over what will be accomplished for us by means of that precious ransom.”