Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Holy Week Book: Maundy Thursday

Saint Matthias’ Anglican Church, Bellwoods Avenue, Toronto
Some Notes on the Readings for Maundy Thursday
by the Reverend Dr William Craig, Honorary Assistant

Maundy Thursday is the first day of the Paschal Triduum, the Three Holy Days, which commemorate the great events of Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection. There is no blessing or dismissal at the conclusion of the liturgy tonight, for this is only the first part of a single celebration. Tonight is a mixture of joy and sorrow, of loud rejoicing and silent contemplation.
On the night before he was crucified our Lord Jesus kept the Last Supper with his disciples. At that supper he gave to them the Eucharist, the Holy Feast of the new Covenant. He also took a towel and washed his disciples’ feet. It is from the foot washing that today receives its name, Maundy, which comes from the Latin Mandatum, “commandment”. For he said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
It was at the Last Supper that Jesus told his disciples that one of them was about to betray him, and when they went out after supper to the Garden of Gethsemane it was to agony, betrayal, and arrest. Just so, after we have celebrated the Eucharist and rejoiced in this great gift and sacrament, we take the simple task of removing the ornaments from the church and make it a solemn reminder of Jesus agony in the garden and arrest.

A Reading from the Book of Exodus [12.1-4 (5-10) 11-14]: This is the account of the institution of the Feast of Passover, which God commanded the people of Israel to keep as an everlasting memorial of the delivery from bondage in Egypt. The feast is called “the Passover of the Lord” because the Lord passed over the land of Egypt in judgement (verse 12), but passed over the houses where the Israelites were, which were marked with the blood of the Passover lamb (verses 7, 13). The first Passover meal was, as it were, the “last supper” of Israel in Egypt. The whole of the Exodus is celebrated in the Passover. The whole of the Exodus is seen in Christian tradition as a type or foreshadowing of the death and resurrection of Christ, the true Paschal Lamb. This is why we read about the institution of the Passover on the night we commemorate the Last Supper and the institution of the Holy Eucharist.

Psalm [116.1, 10-17]: This psalm is a thanksgiving for recovery from illness. This is part if the group of psalms [113-118] known as the “hallel” because they all contain the words “praise the Lord” (in Hebrew, Hallelujah). Psalms 115 -118 are sung after the Passover meal. In part then, this psalm is used at the Mass today as a comment on the first reading. It also looks ahead to the institution of the HolY eucharist: “I will take the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the Lord.” “Precious in the sight of the Lord” (verse 15) means that it is rare.

A Reading from the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians [11.23-26] It is an interesting fact that the earliest surviving account of the institution of the Eucharist was written because of the bad behaviour of certain Church members. In the first letter to the Corinthian Church, St Paul found it necessary to write in reprove of their behaviour at the Eucharist. At this time the Eucharist was still part of a real meal as the Last Supper had been. Paul has heard that when the Corinthians assemble, there are divisions among them, so that they do not really come together to eat the Lord’s Supper but each goes ahead with his own supper. It has been suggested that one root of this abuse was a Roman custom of classifying guests socially and giving little or nothing to those considered inferior. Since the church met in private houses, members had to eat in separate rooms. So some ate lavishly, and others poorly; one went hungry, another got drunk [verse 21]. By this some were displaying their affluence and over-indulging. St Paul indignantly declares that if what they care about is eating and drinking, let them do it at home. In order to call the Corinthians to celebrate the Eucharist in the right spirit, he reminds them of how Christ instituted the feast. In his account he makes use of the important words “received” and “handed on”, which were technical terms for transmitting an oral tradition. Indeed the Latin trado, “I give on”, or “hand on” is the meaning at the heart of the idea of tradition. Paul may have received the factual tradition by human means but received the interpretation of it directly “from the Lord.” His message is that every celebration of he Lord’s Supper is a proclaiming of Christ’s death, by which we are freed from the bondage of evil.

The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to St John [13.1-17, 31b-35] The Fourth Gospel does not report the institution of the Holy Eucharist at the Last Supper; its Eucharistic teaching is found elsewhere, particularly in the discourses on the Bread of Heaven in Chapter 6. Nonetheless, Jesus’ teaching about love and service in this account of the Last Supper are properly read together with St Paul’s teaching about the true celebration of the Eucharist. The centrepiece of John’s account of the Last Supper is Christ’s new commandment “love one another as I have loved you,” and his acting out of that love in the washing of the disciples’ feet.
If I, then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. Obviously Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet is an example of service. If we read the passage carefully however, we will see an even deeper significance. The Gospel relates that Jesus rose from supper, that is, he left his place at the table. Then he humbled himself to take on the dress of a servant, for he laid aside his garments, and girded himself with a towel. Then he poured water into a bowl and washed his disciples’ feet , wiping them with the towel. When all was done, he took back his garments and returned to his place at the table. As we hear this account, we are reminded of the hymn quoted by Saint Paul in the second chapter of Philippians, which was read on Palm Sunday. Christ’s action of washing the disciples’ feet shows the same descent to humility and return to glory that is proclaimed here. This is how he has loved us. Thus we may see it a parable of not only of service, but also of Christ’s giving of himself to the Father, which is as it were the reality of which even servanthood is the outward sign. Here is the hymn set out to give some idea of the verse structure
5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not count equality with God
a thing to be grasped,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a servant,
being born in the likeness of men.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself and became obedient unto death,
even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God has highly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name
that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus
every knee shall bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (2.5-11 RSV)
In our attempts to fulfil the great commandment of love we do more than simply try to obey, than simply try to imitate Jesus; we begin in our weakness to live the life of the Triune God. Later, in John 14, we read of Christ’s commandments: those who keep them are those who love him; those who love him will be loved by is Father, “and we will come to them and make our home with them” (14.21, 23).

The Procession to the Altar of Repose
By long custom the Holy Eucharist is not celebrated on Good Friday; and by ling custom people have desired the strength of the sacrament on that solemn day. So the consecrated elements are reserved over night for a very practical reason. The altar of repose is away from the main body of the Church so that we may also symbolize the “absence of the bridegroom”. It is useful to reflect on the varied feelings and senses that these holy days inspire in us. On a symbolic level, the people of God have come to take the opportunity of watching before the reserved sacrament as an answer to Christ’s question to St Peter in Gethsemane, “So could you not watch with me one hour?”

The Stripping of the Altar
Because Jesus expressed his love for us in willingly humbling himself to death, in the stripping of the altar our thoughts are brought back to the story of his suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane and his arrest. During this act we hear read the account of Christ’s agony from St Matthew, which we heard on Sunday. Three times Christ affirms his obedience to the Father’s will despite any desire to escape suffering . It might be helpful to remember that this agony of obedience which led to our salvation took place in a garden; unlike the disobedience of our first parents in another garden, which was the cause of all our woe (Milton).

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