For April 5, 2012: Maundy Thursday

The Reading            Exodus 12:1-14

On this holy night we read instructions for the first Passover meal. Unlike most ritual meals, it is to be eaten in haste by people who are ready to flee, and the lamb’s blood marks the households of those who are to be spared.

The Epistle            1 Corinthians 11:23-26

Writing to the Jewish and Gentile church at Corinth, Paul passes on the words of Jesus at the Last Supper: when you eat the bread and drink the wine, remember that it signifies not just food and drink but the new covenant that Jesus made with his own body and blood.

Further thoughts

The book of Exodus compiles a number of oral traditions into a grand if somewhat jumbled account of God’s power in bringing God’s people of Israel out of bondage in Egypt. The passage we read on this holy night sets forth God’s instructions for the first Passover. It is a ritual meal—but unlike most ritual meals, it is to be eaten in haste by people who stand ready to run for their lives, and the blood from the lamb that is slain for the meal is to mark the households to be spared when God executes judgment. In this, we Christians also see the Last Supper.

The reading from Exodus instructs the people of Israel—who were in the first covenant with God—to commemorate the Passover perpetually. The Jews, our elder brothers and sisters in belief in the One True God, do this every year in the Seder, the ritual meal to which many invite those who cannot provide their own.

In writing to the Jewish and Gentile church at Corinth, Paul would have had this tradition in mind along  with the words of Jesus. The tradition would doubtless also have been taught to and shared with the Gentiles. Unfortunately, things had gone awry; seen in context, our reading scolds certain of the Corinthians for treating the celebration of the Eucharist—that which we are to do for the remembrance of Christ—as an opportunity to feast richly and get drunk while others in the community at the same feast go away half-fed because they can afford no more. For Jesus’ instructions on this holy night are quite clear: Love one another, and serve one another right.

We humans can be remarkably talented at misusing and misconstruing so many of the gifts of God, but on some level we do recognize that loving and serving are the names of the game. Perhaps this recognition, and our awareness of our need to be reminded like the Corinthians, explains why, bit by bit, the older names for this day—the Latin cena Domini ‘meal of the Lord’, the Anglo-French jour de la cene ‘day of the meal’, the English Sheer Thursday (most probably ‘clean Thursday’), Holy Thursday—are giving way even in other denominations to the name Maundy Thursday, This Anglican name, which dates back to the sixteenth century, reflects the mandatum novum ‘new commandment’ of John 13:34 by way of the medieval maundy, the practices of foot-washing and giving of alms (most probably packed in the baskets called maunds).

It can be hard, though, to remember that the commandment isn’t limited to Maundy Thursday. How can we “do maundy” the rest of the week, the rest of the year, the rest of our lives?

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