Jesus, on the night when he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is [broken] for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” – 1 Corinthians 11:23-24
This and its companion verses in three of the Gospel books are known as the “Words of Institution,” referring to the moment during the Last Supper in which Jesus instituted the practice of the Lord’s Supper, also called Holy Communion or the Eucharist. A quick tour of various traditions of Christianity out there today will yield a vast range of theological perspectives on Communion, including various interpretations of these words in the Bible. Much ink has been spilled on this subject, especially centering around the words “this is my body.” A blog post certainly will not suffice to tackle that issue. Instead, I intend to narrow in on a different phrase in verse 24 that is frequently misused: “Do this in remembrance of me.”
For most readers, the command “do this in memory of me” is pretty straightforward. Even when some translations render it as “in remembrance of me,” the message seems the same: when you take Communion, remember Jesus. Absolutely, yes, we must “remember Jesus” when we participate in Holy Communion. It almost definitely is connected to St. Paul’s admonition a few verses later about “discerning the body,” which also is understood differently by different Christian traditions today.
In the original Greek, the phrase in question is: “τοῦτο ποιεῖτε εἰς τὴν ἐμὴν ἀνάμνησιν.” To give a translation in the exact same word order, it comes out to: “This do in/for the my remembrance/memorial.” Let’s look at how some other translations have handled this:
- “Do this as a memorial to me.” – Complete Jewish Bible
- “this do ye — to the remembrance of me.” – Young’s Literal Translation
- “this do for the commemoration of me.” – Douay-Rheims (American edition)
I picked these three translations because they’re apart from the mainstream translation families that generally copy each other, and they each represent a different bias. The Jewish Bible has Messianic-Jewish angle to it, attentive to the connections between the Old & New Testaments. Young’s Translation is a by a Calvinist Protestant. The Douay-Rheims is like the Roman Catholic equivalent of the King James Bible. Each of these translations point to the deeper and richer meaning of the phrase “in memory of me.”
What is a memorial?
As I have explored once or twice before, a “memorial” or “remembrance” in the Bible is more than just something that we remember. Drawing upon the work of a fellow clergyman, I wrote a blog post about this topic three years ago. In short, a memorial or remembrance in the Bible is an act of worship (often a ritual sacrifice) that serves as a plea to God for Him to remember His promises to us. When Jesus instituted Holy Communion, he set it into the context of the Passover meal and the Passover sacrifice. Jesus, the Lamb of God, was about to make the self-sacrifice that would atone for the sins of all, and thus at the Last Supper he said “This is the New Covenant in my blood” and “This is my body broken for you.” “This,” he said, “do for my memorial.”
Taking this biblical context into account rules out a number of translations that have come out recently:
- “Eat this and remember me.” – Contemporary English Version
- “Do this to remember me.” – The Message
- “Do this to remember me.” – New Living Translation
- “Do this to remember me.” – New Century Version
All of these renderings make the assumption that this phrase only means that we are the ones doing the remembering. In actuality, the “memorial” that Jesus is talking about is a mutual memorial: we are to remember Jesus to God the Father (in a sense remind Him), and He is to remember Jesus in return on our behalf. It is an act of worship that brings us and God together in unity, centered upon the death of Christ.
Applying this in prayer
Perhaps the best way to make sense of this is to see it in action. A contemporary translation of the traditional Anglican prayers during Holy Communion do an excellent job of describing this memorial. I’ll only quote the relevant parts so it’s easier to spot:
All praise and glory is yours, God our heavenly Father, because of your tender mercy, you gave your only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption; who … instituted, and in his Holy Gospel commanded us to continue a perpetual memory of his precious death and sacrifice, until his coming again.
Notice here, Jesus instituted a perpetual memory of his death and sacrifice. He didn’t just do something that we now remember, he instituted something to be that memory (or memorial) for the Church.
O Lord and heavenly Father, according to the institution of your dearly beloved Son…, we your humble servants celebrate and make here before your divine Majesty, with [this bread & wine], the memorial which your Son commanded us to make; remembering his blessed passion and precious death, his mighty resurrection and glorious ascension and his promise to come again: and offering our wholehearted thanks to you for the countless benefits given to us by the same.
Right after reading Jesus’ words of instution, we continue with this prayer, noting that what we are doing with this bread & wine in Holy Communion is the memorial that Jesus commanded us to make. So as we remember his passion, death, resurrection, ascension, and promise to return, we are not just reminding ourselves of these Gospel events, but reminding God of them, and thanking him for the countless benefits that they have procured for us.
The prayers go on to ask God for the forgiveness of our sins and for union with Him, and asking him to accept our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving on the merits of our union with Jesus (rather than upon any worthiness of our own). It is in this way (and this way alone) that we are able to offer ourselves as “a living sacrifice holy and acceptable to God.” Proper sacrifices, after all, are killed or burned or otherwise destroyed. We can only be living sacrifices if we’re united to the One Who Died, that is, Christ.
Anyway, it’s easy for me to get carried away on a topic like this. The point is that we are very prone, these days, to oversimplify the words “in memory of me” to an unbiblical scope. It’s not just about us, it’s about God himself!