For March 28, 2013: Maundy Thursday

The Reading            Exodus 12:1-14

According to the instructions in the book of Exodus, the first Passover meal is to be eaten in haste by people who are packed to flee from a plague. Our ritual meals generally look far different—family gatherings amid the silver and the best china for rejoicing that can last for hours—but in this life, we are all in haste.

The Response            Psalm 116:1, 10-17

The Epistle            1 Corinthians 11:23-26

Writing to the Jewish and Gentile church at Corinth, Paul echoes Jesus’ words at the Last Supper: the bread and wine are not just things to eat and drink but signs of the new covenant that Jesus made with his own body and blood. These are our words of institution at the Eucharist, of course.

The Gospel            John 13:1-17, 31b-35

The Son of God teaches us the truest way to be God: love and serve.

 

Further thoughts

The lections for Maundy Thursday juxtapose two meals with great significance in the evolution of the relationship between God and humanity.

On the one hand, there is the first Passover with its carefully laid out specifications: a yearling male sheep or goat, slaughtered at twilight, roasted whole, eaten in haste with the quick-cooking unleavened bread and bitter herbs, and the lamb’s blood painted around the door to shield the Israelites from the shattering plague—death of every first-born in Egypt—through which God would effect their liberation from Egypt. The point of the roasting is that the creature is a ritual sacrifice. This first Passover meal is commemorated by observant Jews every year as the Passover Seder, though lamb is rarely the centerpiece; the reason for this is that ritual sacrifice can only happen in the Temple—which was demolished in 70 AD and has not been rebuilt. The modern Passover Seder thus commemorates the sacrifice without actually being the sacrifice, and it serves to help humans remember God’s mighty acts on their behalf.

On the other hand, there is the first Maundy Thursday meal. It is not the Passover meal, but rather a meal of the night before, and it may be remarkable as much for what does not happen as for what does happen: nothing is slaughtered; nothing is obligatory for the menu; no elaborate preparations are required. Instead, Jesus takes the sort of stuff we eat all the time anyway and serves it forth with his love in a way that makes it stand for all time for his own sacrifice of himself for us. Of course it is the prototype for our Eucharist. The word “eucharist” is most often analyzed as coming from Greek eucharistos ‘thankful’, though it’s worth noting that the Greek root charis– shares with the Latin root grati– the property of denoting either ‘thanks’ (gratitude) or ‘gift’ (grace).

That we have turned the simple meal into a ritual is unsurprising. As with the Seder, the ritual and elaboration help us remember by calling us mindfully to commemorate God’s mighty acts on our behalf, and this is a good thing. Many of us also say grace with more everyday meals, and that is also good and right. But what if we were to think of each ordinary meal—each ordinary act—also as a reminder to pay back by paying grace forward in Christ’s love to all to whom we are called to be neighbors?

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