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“Religion Behind the Scenes” spotlights the less discussed, but no less crucial, tasks that keep religious communities running, and the people who make it all happen.
The “Lord’s Supper,” “Holy Communion,” or the “Eucharist” is a sacrament, rite, or ordinance that most Christian denominations celebrate or participate in. Some (like Roman Catholics) offer this sacrament daily, others (like Latter-day Saints) weekly, and still others (like Southern Baptists) typically only monthly or quarterly. Nonetheless, it is one of the most universal Christian sacraments, present in both High-Church and Low-Church Christian denominations.
Jehovah’s Witnesses also participate in the Lord’s Supper, often referred to by them as the “Lord’s Evening Meal” or “the Memorial meal.” As with other Christian traditions, Jehovah’s Witness employ the standard symbols of bread and wine.
Catalina is one of Jehovah’s Witnesses—a convert and baptized publisher. She has agreed to share a bit about the “Lord’s Evening Meal” in Jehovah’s Witness tradition, but on the condition that I emphasize that she is only sharing her personal experiences and thoughts, and that she is not a spokesperson for the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society (or Jehovah’s Witnesses).
In this informative installment of “Religion Behind the Scenes,” we’ll delve into how “Memorial Bread” is made and used in Witnesses tradition, but also into how their rite differs from other Christian denominations, both in the kind of bread that is used and in who is permitted to partake.
Catalina, can you tell us a bit about the “Lord’s Evening Meal,” what it is, when it is commemorated, and basically what happens at that each year?
Sure. On the evening prior to Jesus’ death (which would have been in the year 33), He gathered with his disciples to observe the Passover meal, which would have been the last one of His life. That evening He instituted the Lord’s Evening Meal. That Meal is the only event that the Bible commands Christians to memorialize. Jesus told His disciples to “Keep doing this in remembrance of me.” And so Jehovah’s Witnesses each year, on the anniversary of that first Evening Meal, hold a memorial, as commanded in scripture. On that occasion we remember what Jesus has done for us.
We only do it once a year because Jesus instituted this on the occasion of an annual festival, the Passover, rather than on a weekly occurrence (like the Jewish Sabbath). So, it seems pretty clear that He meant us to do this once a year, instead of daily or weekly, like some Churches choose to do.
Because of the pandemic, this year—in April [of 2022]—we held our first in-person Memorial since 2019. We keep track of how many people attend each year. More than 21 million attended in 2022. I believe that more than half of those who attend each year are not baptized Witnesses but either know one of Jehovah’s Witnesses or are participating in a Bible study with Jehovah’s Witnesses. On the night of the Memorial, you’ll see a congregation that maybe has 120 members, and basically it triples because of the number of people who attend. So, this is an event that attracts a lot of visitors because of how special it is. If you haven’t been, you should come.
As for your question about what happens at the Memorial, there are several components. We sing several Kingdom songs during the Memorial. (We always sing at our meetings at the Kingdom Hall.) The chairman will introduce the brother who is going to give the talk that night. The one who gives the talk is usually one of the congregation’s elders, and his talk typically focuses on what the Bible says about the meaning of the Lord’s Evening Meal. He will focus on what Christ has done for us—and the hope that offers us. The speaker will read the account of Jesus giving thanks for and then breaking the loaf after which a different brother from the congregation will come up and say a short prayer before plates of unleavened bread are quietly passed throughout the audience. Then the elder will read what Jesus said in the Bible about the wine, and then a different brother will come up and offer a prayer before several cups of red wine are carefully passed throughout the audience.
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So, essentially, during the Memorial we focus on the significance of the bread and wine, of what Jesus has done for us, and we basically reenact or simulate that original Evening Meal with Jesus’ apostles.
Like many Christian denominations, Jehovah’s Witnesses use bread and wine for the “Evening Meal.” Is the symbolism of those elements the same for Witnesses as they are for other Christians? Just what do the bread and wine mean for practicing Witnesses?
Okay, so it’s unleavened bread that we use, because Jesus would have used unleavened bread when he instituted the meal. The Jews used unleavened bread at Passover, so we know that’s what Jesus would have done. Scripturally, “leaven” or yeast was a symbol of sin. I’ve heard it taught that the reason unleavened bread is used during the Memorial is because it represents Jesus’ sinless fleshy body. He had no sins just like the bread has no leaven.
I can’t speak to what the bread and wine, or grape juice (or whatever they use), mean in other Churches. For us, they are only symbols. We don’t believe in transubstantiation, or whatever the proper term is. The bread and wine don’t “become” anything when the prayer is said. The unleavened bread is a symbol of Christ’s perfect and sinless body that He sacrificed for us. He said it represented His body, but it couldn’t be His body—because He was sitting there with the apostles as they ate it. So, clearly it didn’t turn into Him once the prayer was said. It was just a symbol then and is just a symbol for us today.
We use red wine because that represents Jesus’ blood that was shed. Like the bread, the wine can also be made instead of store-bought, though I’ve never known anyone who has made it for the Memorial. They usually just buy a Burgundy wine, or something like that. If you made it, you would want to make sure that you didn’t add anything to it. It should just be plain red wine. We know that the blood of Jesus, which the wine represents, makes valid the new covenant. That covenant or promise is what makes it possible for the “anointed” to go to heaven, where they’ll serve Jehovah-God as kings and priests.
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I want to talk more about the “anointed class,” but first tell us a bit about the process of making the bread; how is it made and what are the rules about making it—the dos and don’ts, per se?
Well, I should emphasize that this doesn’t have to be homemade. Many Kingdom Halls—most, I would think—just purchase theirs from a store. So, I don’t want to give the impression that we’re obligated to make this from scratch. Either way is acceptable.
Making it is a simple process, really. As I said, it’s unleavened bread, so you don’t have to worry about killing the yeast, which can always be a challenge when you’re first learning how to bake. And you don’t have to wait for the dough to rise, so it is a fairly quick process as well.
You start with flour. You can use any kind—wheat flour, white, or even things like rice flour or tapioca flour, if you know that someone is gluten intolerant. You mix the flower with water and knead it thoroughly and then just roll it out so that it is nice and thin. Experienced cooks might be tempted to add a bit of salt, as well, but that’s not appropriate. In needs to be just flour and water. Nothing else. Anyway, after the dough is made, then I simply lightly grease my baking tray (so that it doesn’t stick) and bake it until browned and somewhat crisp, like a cracker. I like to bake mine whole, and then break it after it is baked and has cooled. I have friends who prefer to cut it up before baking. The only reason I break it afterwards is because that’s how it would have been done in Jesus’ day—but it really doesn’t matter. Either way is fine.
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Are there any challenges in making it that people might be surprised by? Have you ever had a “fail” in making it?
Oh boy, yes! I’ve overcooked several batches. Well, “cremated” them is more like it! Unleavened bread is thin and cooks quickly. You probably shouldn’t multitask when making it. Focus and watch it closely once it is in the oven or you’ll burn it and have to start the whole process over again.
I suppose the other “fail” I’ve experienced, that I’ve learned from, is this: when you have young kids, don’t wear white to the Memorial. One year, as the cup of red wine was being passed down our row, my 6- or 7-year-old son received the cup before me and focusing his eyes intently on it (so that he didn’t spill it). He turned rather quickly to hand it to me but hit the side of my outstretched hands instead of placing the cup in my hands. Well, my white blouse was covered with red wine. I never could get the stains out of it. “Lesson learned,” as they say.
You mentioned that a prayer is said before the bread and wine are administered or passed; and you mentioned that you don’t believe in Transubstantiation or, I assume, Consubstantiation. So, do Witnesses believe that the Memorial Bread is somehow different once blessed? If not, what is the purpose of blessing it or praying over it prior to administering it?
Well, as I said, we’re kind of reenacting Jesus’ original Evening Meal. So, in many ways, we’re imitating what He did at that event, which included giving thanks. In Mark 14:23 it says, “taking a cup, he offered thanks and gave it to them.” So, we do that same thing. The bread and wine aren’t really “blessed,” but a prayer of thanksgiving is offered. At least, that’s how I understand it. (Questions like this are why I wanted to emphasize that I don’t speak for the Society. I can only offer what I understand to be the case. But I know the bread and wine don’t change and there isn’t anything like Transubstantiation going on.) In Luke 22, it says Jesus “took a loaf, gave thanks,” and then “broke it.” So, we don’t “bless” the bread, but we follow Jesus’ example by giving thanks to Jehovah—for the bread but also for what Jesus has done for us, providing a way for us out of our sins.
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Now, you mentioned earlier that the “anointed class” make a promise or enter into a covenant during the Memorial. The “anointed class” are the 144,000. I know it will be hard to answer this question briefly, but can you tell us why they the only ones that partake of the bread and wine?
Yes, it is only the 144,000 or anointed that partake of the emblems. So, in most congregations, during the Memorial only a few or perhaps no one will partake of the bread and wine. There aren’t that many of the anointed class alive today.
Based on the book of Revelation, we know that there are two classes or categories of saved people: the 144,000 or “little flock”—that we’ve already referred to as the “anointed” or “anointed class”; and then the “other sheep,” which includes the “great crowd” who survive the “great tribulation” or “end of the world.” The anointed will dwell in heaven with Christ—ruling and reigning alongside of Him throughout the Millennium. The “great crowd” will have the prospect of dwelling upon this earth in a paradisiacal state throughout eternity. Only those whom Jehovah-God has determined will rule with Christ in heaven eat the bread and drink the wine during the Memorial. As a consequence, most in attendance simply pass the bread and the wine to the next person.
I always hear non-Witnesses say, “Oh, it must be sad for you to not be one of the 144,000” or “Wow! What’s it like to not be able to go to heaven?” Those are all misunderstandings. I’m not sad that I’m not the CEO of the company I work for, but I feel blessed that I have a great job that is a blessing to me and my family. My skills aren’t at being a CEO, but my work is no less important. It’s just different. Those of the anointed class have a different “job,” you could say. Both the “little flock” and the “great crowd” are recipients of enormous blessings through the events we memorialize at the Evening Meal. Living in paradise on earth is hardly a second-class blessing. The reward of the “great crowd” is not less than the reward of the “small flock.” It’s just different.
Owing to the sacred nature of the meeting and what partaking means, how does it feel to be entrusted to make the memorial bread? What does making it mean for you personally and spiritually? Has making it influenced you or your family in any way spiritually speaking?
The symbolism of the Evening Meal and of the bread and wine is very special. Its scriptural. If you contemplate what the event commemorates, and how it is the most important celebration of the year, it’s hard to not feel a sense of reverence about being asked to make the Memorial Bread. As I knead the dough, I’ve found myself contemplating Jesus’ life and what He has done for me and my family, and I’ve gotten quite emotional. It is really quite touching—at least it has been for me.
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What has motivated you to participate in making memorial bread?
I’ve always loved to cook. Cooking for me is an act of service to others. I like to feed my husband, my kids, and now my grandkids—or a brother or sister in the congregation who might need a meal because they’re sick, or for some other reason. And the Evening Meal is really about service. It is a night on which we contemplate how Jesus has served us, and how Jehovah-God serves all of us throughout our lives. As Jehovah’s Witnesses, we are His slaves or “servants.” It is an amazing blessing to know about Jehovah-God’s visible organization upon the earth and to be part of that. So, I’m motivated to make the Memorial Bread as an act of service to those attending the Memorial and to Jehovah-God for allowing me to be a part of this work as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. It is a very small act, but it feels like a gift to have the opportunity.
You mentioned that a congregation is allowed to purchase or make the memorial bread. Do you think that purchasing is takes away an opportunity for members of the congregation to have a more impactful experience with Christ’s Evening Meal? In other words, would you prefer that your congregation always make it—and has your experience with Christ’s Evening Meal been deepened by making the memorial bread?
Well, this is a bit hard to answer. Witnesses are very careful about not creating some sort of “idol” in the form of some symbol, which you often see in various Christian Churches. We’ve very careful about things like that. While, for me, making the Memorial Bread has been a moving experience, if our focus becomes the bread rather than Jesus and the event in which He instated it, this can be a bad thing. So, I think we have to be careful in suggesting that somehow making it is more important than buying it.
Making it can be quite a reflective experience, as it has been for me. And I personally think others might enjoy the opportunity to feel what it’s like to reflect on the most important things of this life while making the Memorial Bread. It has certainly made my experience at the annual Memorial more impactful, not only the couple of times that I was the one who made the bread, but in all the years since. But its not “important” that we do this. What’s important is that we attend the Memorial; that we reflect on what Jesus has done; that we focus on our need to repent and change—and be obedient to Jehovah. So, I don’t want to say that it is “wrong” or a “missed opportunity” if a congregation buys the bread instead of making it. That feels idolatrous to me. I don’t want to place too much emphasis on the symbol, rather than on what the symbol (or bread) represents.
My grandmother—my mother’s mother—made it many years ago, and that was important to her. But that was before you could order it online or (in big cities) walk into a kosher store and buy it. I think most congregations today may be a bit uncomfortable if one of Jehovah’s Witnesses put too much emphasis on making it themselves or insisting that someone from the Kingdom Hall make it each year. It is nice to do, but not mandatory.
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Okay, thanks for that clarification. Is there anything else non-Witnesses should know or understand about the Memorial Bread and Christ’s Evening Meal?
Well, we’ve focused on the bread, mostly. But, if you don’t mind, maybe I could read something from JW.org. I think it’s helpful in better understanding the place or symbolic purpose of the wine in the Evening Meal.
“Jesus informed the disciples that the wine he had drunk (at this Passover preceding the Memorial) was the last of the product of the vine that he would drink ‘until that day when I drink it new with you in the kingdom of my Father.’ (Mt 26:29) Since he would not be drinking literal wine in heaven, he obviously had reference to what wine sometimes symbolized in the Scriptures, namely, joy. Being together in the Kingdom was what they looked forward to with highest anticipation. (Ro 8:23; 2Co 5:2) King David wrote, in song, of Jehovah’s provision of ‘wine that makes the heart of mortal man rejoice,’ and his son Solomon said: ‘Wine itself makes life rejoice.’—Ps 104:15; Ec 10:19.”
The wine, as part of the Memorial, is a symbol of joy. Jehovah-God wants us to experience joy. He wants us to live joyous lives. Being one of Jehovah’s Witnesses brings me great joy. It always has! And, at the Lord’s Evening Meal, we talk about the things Jesus has done for us that can make our lives more joyous and make it possible for us to have joy forever. I think that’s why the Memorial is meaningful to me, and why making the bread for it brings me joy—because it is a reminder of how good being a Witness has made my life, but it also reminds me of the wonderful things to come if I live faithful to Jehovah.
But here’s what I think most Witnesses would see as the most important part of the Memorial—and what the bread and wine are pointing to. The entire experience, the gathering together, the Kingdom songs we sing, the talk that’s given, the prayers that are said, the emblems that are passed, are all a reminder of the Ransom Sacrifice of Jesus and what had to happen for us to have this chance at redemption. That’s the focus. It provokes great gratitude. And it’s why we celebrate this event each year.
Interview conducted, transcribed, edited, and condensed by Alonzo L. Gaskill.
11/29/2022 11:22:41 PM