Maundy Thursday and the Passover Meal -- A Reflecton
Exodus 12:1-14 New Revised Standard Version
12 The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: 2 This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. 3 Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. 4 If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it. 5 Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. 6 You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. 7 They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. 8 They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. 9 Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. 10 You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. 11 This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the Lord. 12 For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. 13 The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.
14 This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.
My Jewish friends recently celebrated Passover. Even during a pandemic, an observance such as this must continue. It is, according to Exodus 12, a perpetual ordinance. I’ve been to a few Passover meals (and by that I don’t mean Christian reenactments, I mean real Passover meals either at a synagogue or in a Jewish home). They provide an important means of retelling one of the foundational stories of Judaism. What occurs in a typical Passover seder is not an exact replica of what gets described in Exodus 12, a passage offered by the lectionary for Holy Thursday/Maundy Thursday. Nor is what occurs today the same format as what is described in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (John’s meal isn’t a Passover meal). For one thing, in Exodus, the people are in a hurry. They need to eat and run so they can get on their way. That’s not quite what happens at a typical Passover supper, at least from my experience. There wasn’t a hurry to bring the feast to completion (and they tend to be feasts).
While the Synoptic Gospels suggest that Jesus was sharing a Passover meal with his disciples on that fateful Thursday evening, it also marked the moment at which Jesus instituted his meal of remembrance. This meal Jesus introduced has its roots in the Passover, but it has its own meaning and feel as well. What we participate in on Maundy Thursday is the foundation for Holy Communion or the Eucharist of Christian experience. The earliest version of the story that serves as the foundation for the Christian experience is found in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. He used this information about Jesus’ Last Supper to help guide the Corinthian table fellowship. It appears their meals were rather problematic. So, Paul wanted to put their gatherings in a more sacred context, though I’m not sure Paul would recognize what we do on a Sunday morning in his instructions. Here is, then, what Paul shared with the Corinthians:
23 For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Cor. 11:23-26).
This became the foundation for our Eucharistic services.
Getting back to Maundy Thursday, the service that many churches offer is designed to move the story along from the triumph of Palm Sunday to the horrors of Good Friday, before moving on to the glories of Easter. I expect that in one form or another, congregations will observe Holy Communion. They might have a meal along with the service, but there still will be the recitation of the words of institution, prayers, and consuming of the elements. This year, as with last year, many will do this virtually (if their traditions allow such things). When we do this we will remember that what are doing has its roots in Passover. We will look to Passover to provide meaning to our actions.
Because Jesus is understood to be the Passover lamb, by whose death, in some way, our sins are taken away, it’s important to remember that lamb of Passover has nothing to do with sin. It is, however, an offering of thanks to the God who liberated the people from slavery. In this perhaps we can find some sense of the meaning of the cross with regard to our sins. We are freed from our own slavery to those things that keep us bound. So, perhaps we should envision the meal we share as Christians as a meal of liberation. It is a reminder that God is the one who sets us free. Since Maundy Thursday leads to Good Friday and Jesus’ death on the cross, which in turn leads to the resurrection on Easter Sunday, perhaps we could think here in terms of freedom from death’s hold on our lives. It’s not that death is not part of life, but it doesn’t define our lives. Thus, the angel of death will pass over us.
I shared the reading from Exodus 12 as a reminder that the roots of the Christian feast celebrated on Maundy Thursday have their roots in the Passover. At the same time, I need to make reference to the reason why we call this day “Maundy Thursday.” The reason is that the word maundy comes from the Latin for mandate or commandment. So not only do we celebrate an institution of a meal, but following the Gospel of John, we receive at this moment a new command, the love command of John 13: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” (Jn 13:34). May we embrace this command in the way we live as followers of Jesus who goes to his death on a cross, but ultimately is raised to life, so that we too might experience resurrection.
Image attribution: Rossakiewicz, Jacek Andrzej. Last Supper, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56122 [retrieved March 31, 2021]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rossakiewicz_Last_Supper.jpg.