Maundy Thursday, 17 April 2014

Exodus 12:1-14
Psalm 116:1, 10-17
I Corinthians 11:23-26
St. John 13:1-17, 331b-35


                                                                                                               
Background:  The Great Three Days – Maundy Thursday
What we know about these days is due to a diary written by a Christian woman and pilgrim, Egeria or Aetheria who was from Galicia and travelled in the Holy Land from 381-384 CE.  Her diary survives in the form of a letter that was shared with a group of women in Galicia.  Here are her comments on the day as celebrated in the Fourth Century.

On the fifth weekday everything that is customary is done from the first cockcrow until morning at the Anastasis, and also at the third and at the sixth hours. But at the eighth hour all the people gather together at the martyrium2 according to custom, only earlier than on other days, because the dismissal must be made sooner. Then, when the people are gathered together, all that should be done is done, and, the oblation is made on that day at the martyrium, the dismissal taking place about the tenth hour. But before the dismissal is made there, the archdeacon raises his voice and says: "Let us all assemble at the first hour of the night in the church which is in Eleona, for great toil awaits us to-day, in this very night." Then, after the dismissal at the martyrium, they arrive behind the Cross, where only one hymn is said and prayer is made, and the bishop offers the oblation there, and all communicate. Nor is the oblation ever offered behind the Cross on any day throughout the year, except on this one day. And after the dismissal there they go to the Anastasis, where prayer is made, the catechumens and the faithful are blessed according to custom, and the dismissal is made.
Night Station on the Mount of Olives.
And so every one hastens back to his house to eat, because immediately after they have eaten, all go to Eleona to the church wherein is the cave where the Lord was with His Apostles on this very day. There then, until about the fifth hour of the night, hymns and antiphons suitable to the day and to the place are said, lessons, too, are read in like manner, with prayers interspersed, and the passages from the Gospel are read where the Lord addressed His disciples on that same day as He sat in the same cave which is in that church. And they go thence at about the sixth hour of the night with hymns up to the Imbomon, the place whence the Lord ascended into heaven, where again lessons are read, hymns and antiphons suitable to the day are said, and all the prayers which are made by the bishop are also suitable both to the day and to the place.

(c) Stations at Gethsemane.
And at the first cockcrow they come down from the Imbomon with hymns, and arrive at the place where the Lord prayed, as it is written in the Gospel1: and He was withdrawn2 (from them) about a stone's cast, and prayed, and the rest. There is in that place a graceful church. The bishop and all the people enter, a prayer suitable to the place and to the day is said, with one suitable hymn, and the passage from the Gospel is read where He said to His disciples: Watch, that ye enter not into temptation1; the whole passage is read through and prayer is made. And then all, even to the smallest child, go down with the Bishop, on foot, with hymns to Gethsemane; where, on account of the great number of people in the crowd, who are wearied owing to the vigils and weak through the daily fasts, and because they have so great a hill to descend, they come very slowly with hymns to Gethsemane. And over two hundred church candles are made ready to give light to all the people. On their arrival at Gethsemane, first a suitable prayer is made, then a hymn is said, then the passage of the Gospel is read where the Lord was taken. And when this passage has been read there is so great a moaning and groaning of all the people, together with weeping, that their lamentation may be heard perhaps as far as the city.

(d) Return to Jerusalem.
From that hour they go with hymns3 to the city on foot, reaching the gate about the time when one man begins to be able to recognize another, and thence right on through the midst of the city; all, to a man, both great and small, rich and poor, all are ready there, for on that special day not a soul withdraws from the vigils until morning. Thus the bishop is escorted from Gethsemane to the gate, and thence through the whole of the city to the Cross.

Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14

The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. 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. 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. [Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. 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. They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn.] 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. 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. 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.

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.



Here we have a set of instructions on how to celebrate the Passover.  These instructions are given “in the land of Egypt”, thus preparatory in nature.  The lamb that was taken could either be a young lamb or a mature sheep (in its first year).  The language of the instructions describes the lamb as something “that is kept.”  Thus it was selected and awaited its role in the Passover Liturgy.  The instructions continue with how the lamb, and later the bread, is to be prepared.  The methods are those of a nomad; with the lamb “fire roasted”, as opposed to being stewed or boiled (which would have required kitchen equipment).  The whole process reminds me of Fr. Michael Merriman’s description of the Great Vigil of Easter which he described as taking place around “the campfire” and “telling our stories and singing our songs.”  Here the mood is the same, simple bread and simple meal.  The slaughter is done at twilight (the new day just beginning) and the blood marks the door with its ritual marks.  The meal is seen as a reenactment of ancient national history.  What ever remains of the meal is to be utterly destroyed.  The English word “Passover” does not really translate God’s action, and our translation exhibits that as God “passing through” the Land.  The word Passover is related to a different root.  Like later prophets and their oracles, the Egyptian gods will be seen as nothing, and totally powerless when confronted by God’s act. 

Robert Alter[1] notes the power of “blood” in the Moses cycle.  There are several instances where blood is shed: a) the Egyptian taskmaster, the blood of circumcision, and the tenth plague.  These are all linked or participate in the signing of the houses with blood.

Breaking open Exodus:

1.     Is there an urgent nature to your faith?
2.     Can you take your religion and go anywhere?
3.     How basic is your religious life?

Psalm 116:1, 10-17 Dilexi, quoniam

I love the LORD, because he has heard the voice of my supplication, *
because he has inclined his ear to me whenever I called upon him.

How shall I repay the LORD *
for all the good things he has done for me?

I will lift up the cup of salvation *
and call upon the Name of the LORD.

I will fulfill my vows to the LORD *
in the presence of all his people.

Precious in the sight of the LORD *
is the death of his servants.

O LORD, I am your servant; *
I am your servant and the child of your handmaid;
you have freed me from my bonds.

I will offer you the sacrifice of thanksgiving *
and call upon the Name of the LORD.

I will fulfill my vows to the LORD *
in the presence of all his people,

In the courts of the LORD'S house, *
in the midst of you, O Jerusalem.



Here we have a thanksgiving psalm in which the author gives thanks for God’s attention to the author’s supplications.  The verses that are deleted from the reading describe the interaction between God and the psalmist, and the situation that calls forth his prayer, “the cords of death encircled me – and the straits of Sheol found me.”  The following verbs describe God’s response: rescue, showing of mercy, requiting, and freeing.  How then, returning to our reading, should the recipient of so great a grace respond?  Indeed that is the question on the psalmist’s mind, “How shall I repay the Lord?”  What is then described is the ritual of a thanksgiving sacrifice, especially a cup of libation.  Later verses make certain the ritual nature of this response, “In the courts of the Lord’s house.”  In addition to his participation in the temple rituals, the author notes a kind of dedication, “O Lord, I am your servant.”

Breaking open Psalm 116:

1.     How present is God in your praying?
2.     What difficult moments in life has God answered for you?
3.     How are you God’s servant?

1 Corinthians 11:23-26

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, 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." 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." For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.



This remembrance of the actions at the Last Supper predates any such remembrances in the Gospels.  Paul makes us clear that what he repeats for us he first was given by Jesus himself.  This notion of “passing on”, or in our translation “receiving” is a technical one denoting for Greeks, the traditions of a school of thought, or for Jew’s the same notion of the preservation of a tradition or rabbinic school.  Thus Paul passes on the tradition that is borne in Christ.  In his commentary on I Corinthians, Hans Conzelmann[2] notes that this strand, this tradition of words, incorporates both an earlier strand – no longer discoverable, and possible emendation by Paul.  Or as Conzelmann says, “Both in Mark and Paul we find older and younger elements.”[3]  It is not bread and wine that is lifted up here, but rather bread and cup.  Thus we see in the Eucharistic action the elements of the agape meal in which the final “cup of blessing” is the cup that Jesus lifts up.  Conzelmann continues on to detail what is much too familiar to us, so that we escape the basic elements.  The cup has more to do with the notion of covenant – covenant sacrifice.  It is these elements that we are bidden to repeat and with them to proclaim.

Breaking open I Corinthians:
  1. What have you received from Jesus and then passed on?
  2. What role does memory play in your life of faith?
  3. How do you proclaim “the Lord’s death until he comes?”

St. John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, "Lord, are you going to wash my feet?" Jesus answered, "You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand." Peter said to him, "You will never wash my feet." Jesus answered, "Unless I wash you, you have no share with me." Simon Peter said to him, "Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!" Jesus said to him, "One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you." For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, "Not all of you are clean."

After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, "Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord--and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.

Jesus said, "Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, `Where I am going, you cannot come.' I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."



And here we confront a classic conflict between the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) and John.  John holds that the meal was held “Before the festival of the Passover,” while the synoptics claim that it was held on the night of the Passover.  Some have argued that the synoptic date could not be the actual date because the trial would not have been held at the same time as the Passover.  One commentator adds, however, that perhaps the situation cited in Deuteronomy 17:13 might obtain here – namely, that a false prophet should be made an example of so that, “thus shall you purge the evil from your midst.”
Jesus takes the opportunity of this meal (whatever its actual nature) to provide an example of his message and commandment on love.  Here Jesus shows his own power of loving, which is done in great humility.  Peter’s reaction might prove to be a great basis for a sermon on this day.  His inability to receive, and to rethink the status people and events, might be similar to our own inability to receive grace.  I am reminded of the comment that a colleague of mine, Pr. Ruth Frost, made to me in the sacristy when she asked why I communed myself.  I gave the usual answers, to which she replied, “Michael, you need to learn to receive!”

What follows in the reading is a leap to discourse from Jesus on what his actions have meant.  He will build on these themes later in chapter 14.  In a sense, as John recalls Jesus words about what has happened, he looks forward in the use of the word “glorify” to what will happen, as if it were already complete.  The touching theme of love has a gritty accompaniment in the Passion of Jesus, which will immediately follow.  The softness of the day will soon give way to harshness and tragedy.


Breaking open Gospel:
1.     What events of your life inform you as you tell the story of the crucifixion?
2.     What are your emotions during Holy Week?
3.     How will you observe the week?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:



Almighty Father, whose dear Son, on the night before he suffered, instituted the Sacrament of his Body and Blood: Mercifully grant that we may receive it thankfully in remembrance of Jesus Christ our Lord, who in these holy mysteries gives us a pledge of eternal life; and who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


All questions and commentary copyright © 2014, Michael T. Hiller


[1] Alter, R. (2004). The Five Books of Moses, A Translation with Commentary. W.W. Norton & Company, New York.
[2] Conzelmann, H. (1975) I Corinthians, A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, page 196f.
[3] Conzelmann, page 197.

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