This day called Maundy Thursday is characterized by several distinctive features: the washing of feet, the new commandment, the institution of the Eucharist, the proximity to Good Friday and Easter Day. Let us consider why these features all belong to this liturgy, to this night. In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Tuesday evening I saw a beautiful full moon above the St. Clair River. It was a very significant moon for Jews and Christians because it helps to determine the date of Passover next week and the date of Easter Day this coming Sunday.
The full moon I saw, the first after the spring equinox, sets the dates for the central celebrations in Judaism and Christianity. These two celebrations––Passover and Easter––are closely related in their significance. Here on Maundy Thursday this relatedness becomes clear, particularly when we consider the passage read to us from the Book of Exodus.
There the Lord instructs Israel how they are to observe the Passover. Israel is still in Egypt, still held in slavery by Pharaoh. But the Lord is working to set them free. Again and again, the Lord sends plagues against Egypt. But Pharaoh’s heart becomes hard: he will not let Israel go.
Finally the tenth and most drastic plague is let loose against the land of Egypt. All the firstborn of humans and animals are struck down. But what keeps the houses of the Israelites from suffering this devastation? What distinguishes their homes from those of their Egyptian neighbors?
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Here’s where the Passover celebration comes in. God instructs the Israelites to slaughter an unblemished lamb and make a meal of it. They are to eat this meal dressed for travel, ready to get up and go, because the Lord is about to call them to move out of Egypt.
Furthermore, they are to take some of the blood from the slaughtered lamb and mark the doorposts and lintels of their houses with the blood. This bloody mark at the entrance will spare the Israelites from the tenth plague because the Lord will see the mark and pass over their houses. Hence Passover is the name of the festival that celebrates this deliverance and the entire Exodus.
This deliverance from Egypt is what turns a bunch of dispirited slaves into a people, God’s own people, intended to serve as a light to all nations.
Some three thousand years later, the Exodus experience and the Passover celebration remain at the heart of what it means to be Jewish. The Jewish people recognize that their God acts in history, liberates his people from bondage, leads them into freedom.
The Exodus is the outstanding salvation event that God brings about in the Old Testament. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus comprise the outstanding salvation event that God accomplishes in the New Testament. In the New Testament, we repeatedly see the great realities of the Old Testament reborn in startling, unexpected ways. This process of rebirth is especially apparent this night, the night before Jesus dies. For it is tonight, gathered with his disciples in the Upper Room, that Jesus brings his people’s heritage to a startling and unexpected rebirth.
The Passover provisions in the Book of Exodus require the slaughter of an unblemished lamb. In the New Testament, the lamb that goes to slaughter is Jesus. He is not an ignorant or unwilling victim as an animal is. Jesus knows about the death that awaits him; he announces it to his disciples. He could escape from it, but chooses instead to be the suffering servant, the lamb that is slaughtered.
The Exodus is a tremendous liberating action on the part of God. With a mighty hand and an outstretched arm the Lord leads his people forth from Pharaoh’s bondage into the land of promise. But the second Exodus, the one led by Jesus, is an event still more wonderful.
This new Exodus is not intended for one people only, but for all people who dwell on the face of the earth. Jesus delivers all people, regardless of their ethnicity. People of every race and nation find places in the Exodus he leads.
He delivers us not from Pharaoh and the gods of Egypt, but from sin, Satan, and death, from false allegiances and idols, from the corrupting and destructive powers of this world, from the evil desires that draw us away from God’s love. Jesus takes us on this new Exodus as a new and greater Moses. He leads us to the kingdom of God which we experience in part in this life, and where we find our home in the age still to come.
Moses delivers to Israel the commandments of God which he receives when he goes up to the top of the mountain. Jesus takes a bold step further. He delivers a new commandment: Love one another, as I have loved you. Love one another following my example. He does not convey to us simply a form of words, not matter how good and holy. He delivers a commandment he has already demonstrated in his life and will demonstrate again in his death. He does not go up a mountain to receive this truth. Rather, he has it already in his heart, and he goes down on his knees in front of his disciples to make his point still more apparent by washing their dirty, dusty feet, an act of humble service.
Moses delivers to Israel the means by which they are to keep the Passover. Jesus establishes a new liberation meal through what he says over bread and wine. Moses speaks about the Passover lamb connected with exodus from Egypt. Jesus is the Passover lamb for the new and universal exodus out of death into life. Moses points us to a feast. Jesus is the banquet and the host. Because we belong to him, he is also the group that gathers round the table, Christ’s Body made strong by feeding on this wonderful sacrament.
Maundy Thursday is not only when we receive the new commandment manifest when Jesus washes his disciples’ feet. This night is also the eve of Good Friday, the day of his death, the time when this new Passover lamb voluntarily goes off to be slaughtered for the love of you and me.
As the hours go by, and the time for his crucifixion draws near, Jesus focuses his attention on the legacy he leaves us. A new freedom meal. A new commandment of radical love. A new relationship between God and the world. A new start for the human race. This season of the Christian Passover––from tonight through the triumph of Sunday morning––bears witness that our God still delivers us, that the forces of destruction have no future.
What happens tomorrow looks like the end. It is really the beginning. Even now the shadows are infused with light.
Let us pray.
“Almighty God, by the Passover of your Son you have brought us out of sin into righteousness and out of death into life; Grant to those who are sealed by your Holy Spirit the will and the power to proclaim you to all the world; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” [The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Church Hymnal Corporation, 1979), p. 291.]
Copyright 2008, Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.