Who would have guessed that Lent 2020 would be like this? These 40 days have been sombre and unsociable, but there has also been quietness and even creativity. I hope we have all found some helpful ways of reflecting on our Christian journey towards Good Friday and Easter.
We are now almost there. But before we come to Maundy Thursday, we can remember that this year Jewish Passover started Wednesday evening. Their ritual goes back to between 1300 and 1250 bc, when Moses led the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt. And they were told to remember this at the special meal they have each Passover. As Exodus (138) puts it: ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt’. And as Jewish tradition instructs: ‘In every single generation it is a man’s duty to regard himself as if he had gone forth from Egypt’. [Cecil Roth: The Haggadah, p.36.] A Jewish family goes through the ritual of this special meal, as if they were there at the original Passover – and are reminded of God’s covenant that Moses voiced at Mount Sinai. Like us all, however, this year their celebration will be muted and different. As it has been through history – in the Middle Ages, the Spanish Inquisition and, of course, in the Holocaust. And yet still the Jewish People praise God for the miracle of Passover, for the Exodus and its long journey, with the covenant relationship, and the promise of freedom.
As Christians we follow Jesus’ way from Palm Sunday to Easter. And we bear in mind that Jesus was a faithful Jew. According to the Gospels of Mathew (chapter 26), Mark (14) and Luke (22) he and his apostles had a Passover Supper on the Thursday. (John’s Gospel takes a different approach – which we’ll come to later.) Jesus ensured that proper preparation was made. And then he and his disciples reclined around the table set out for the order of celebrating Passover. Few details are provided, as the Gospels were more concerned with what was new – and to be remembered.
Luke’s Gospel has a preliminary cup of wine – perhaps as an element of the Passover meal, in which by custom four cups of wine are taken during the meal. But all three Gospels are agreed on the new and central feature. Jesus took bread – which would have been unleavened – broke it, gave thanks to God (which is the same as blessing it), and gave it to his disciples. Jesus then said: ‘This is my body’ And Luke adds: ‘which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ The three Gospels have almost the same words for what happened next. Jesus took the cup into which the wine had been poured, gave thanks, and gave it to his disciples to drink. And Jesus said (in Luke’s version): ‘‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.’ And St Paul (in 1 Corinthians 11), who accepted this same tradition, adds: ‘Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’
So, if we share the Jewish approach to Passover, then we may think of Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples as if we were there. And we give thanks for this new type of Exodus – as well as the new covenant it initiated.
Christian tradition suggests that we take a further step. As we faithfully do this in remembrance – not only are we taken back as if we were there with Jesus and his disciples – but also in the here and now we have the risen Lord Jesus with us. I am not going to go into how or when exactly this happens, but simply say that this is the belief and experience of many Christians – that in breaking bread and sharing a cup of wine the Lord Jesus is present among us.
Except, except – this year we cannot share in our usual way in the Lord’s Supper. However, even though it is different, but we can still think about the Last Supper. And whatever we are doing, we can trust in the words of Jesus: ‘And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ So, we can be with him and he is still with us.
As a little aside, my mind takes me back to many times on holiday in France, when enjoying a bit of baguette and a glass of red wine, my thoughts have turned to thinking of the Last Supper. And if under present circumstances you should happen to be eating some bread and drinking some wine, then there’s no reason why you should not think of Jesus at the Last Supper. (And it does not have to be bread and wine. Bishop Wilson in a prisoner of war camp in Singapore shared a little cold rice and weak tea with his fellow prisoners. We can be creative.)
John’s Gospel (chapter 13) has a different approach. He writes that it was ‘before the festival of the Passover’ that Jesus had (what we might call) a Farewell Supper with his disciples. During supper he got up and went around his disciples, washing their feet. After which, 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.’
If Matthew, Mark and Luke were describing the new Passover covenant, then John (in his usual reflective way) was describing the new way of behaving. As John reports Jesus as saying: ‘I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.’ (It is from the Latin for these words, ‘mandatum novum’, that we get the title Maundy Thursday.) So, with Matthew, Mark and Luke we are called to remember Jesus and rejoice in his presence – and with John we are called to love like Jesus.
Mention of washing and caring immediately takes our minds to the dedicated and courageous work of all the NHS and Care staffs – as well as those working in essential services – not forgetting the kindness of neighbours. And if it is our part to have our feet washed, then like Peter we need to accept that gracefully. Just as when we have an opportunity to serve others – by prayer, kindness, action or whatever is possible – then this is part of loving one another.
The Last Supper finished with a hymn (perhaps a Passover Psalm) and then as Luke records, Jesus ‘went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him.’ Then followed Gethsemane, betrayal, arrest, trials, Crucifixion – and the miracle of Easter Sunday.
Two prayers to conclude this Reflection.
The Collect for Maundy Thursday:
God our Father, you have invited us to share in the supper which your Son gave to his Church to proclaim his death until he comes: may he nourish us by his presence, and unite us in his love; who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
From George Appleton’s One Man’s Prayers:
O Christ, my Lord, I thank you that in the hour of danger you thought of me and all your followers down the ages; and in this sacrament left us a memorial of your love, a sharing of your life, and part in your sacrifice to your Father and our Father. I come, Lord, in loving remembrance and in grateful participation, in company with all who love you, in every place and every generation. O Eternal Saviour, O Source of life. Amen.
May God be with you all, in all the strangeness of this time, through Good Friday and then as we rejoice on Easter Day in the faith and love of our Risen Lord Jesus Christ.