(a meditation for Maundy Thursday 2019, based on Luke 22:7-23)
In his introduction of a booklet detailing the preparations and liturgy for an interfaith Passover Celebration, Gabe Huck writes the following: “There is a time when time stands still, motionless. There is a time in religious life when time becomes eternal, beyond recount, beyond hour divisions. There is a time when we leave the present to go back in memory, feeling and prayer to the past, to a past that is the very ground of our being. There is a time when we return to the sources. Such a time is Passover.”
And, might I add here, such a time is Holy Week, and in particular, Maundy Thursday.
It’s on nights and during services such as these that I am reminded of just how much of what we do in our worship is a matter of history, tradition and even, dare I say it… routine. Take the way that we “do” communion in the church; that is, how we share in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. It is a part of our worship that steeped with ritual rooted in a very specific and appropriate liturgy that dates from the very beginnings of our Christian faith. From the need for prayerful confession and pardon prior to coming to the table, through the so-called “words of institution” as spoken by Jesus himself, to the very ways that we actually partake of the bread and wine; these are things that happen – and have always happened (!) – just about every time we come to share in the bread and the cup. With some minor variations, you see, in every church tradition, in every local congregation, in every “where two or more are gathered” amongst the faithful there is a similar sense of continuity and tradition in our communion; to the point where sometimes I fear it risks becoming something commonplace in our life together.
But not tonight.
Tonight, it’s different; tonight is for us that time when time truly “stands still, motionless,” a time when we do “leave the present to go back in memory,” coming together in humble imitation of a Passover Celebration long ago; of a truly holy meal that was the first and in a very real way the last of its kind.
Actually, as Luke records the story, at least leading up to that that fateful night there was nothing particularly unusual about this Passover meal – the seder – which was and is amongst Jews the festive celebration of the Exodus from Egypt and “God’s redemptive liberation of Israel from slavery and spiritual misery,” (from “The Passover Celebration”), a huge feast built upon the remembrance of things past and an expression of true faith. It was also a celebration largely shared at home amongst family and friends; and so, like everyone else who was in Jerusalem that week, Jesus and his disciples would most definitely have shared in such a table celebration. So of course there would be a great deal of preparation involved and lots of ritual throughout, which is why much s said about Peter and John being sent to find the “man carrying a jar of water,” and going to “the large room upstairs” where “they prepared the Passover meal.” It was tradition; something that’s still done by faithful Jews the world over.
But this time, you see, it was different. To begin with, Jesus makes a point of saying how much he’d been looking forward to sharing this Passover meal with them “before I enter my time of suffering,” [The Message] and how it would be the last one they’d eat together until they’d do so together in the Kingdom of God! “I’ll not drink wine again” until that Kingdom comes. And then, again after having given thanks and broken the bread according to tradition, Jesus gave it to his disciples and said, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” Same thing after supper with the cup: “This cup is the new covenant written in my blood, blood poured out for you.”
Suffering? A last meal? A new covenant written in blood? One thing was for certain; this wasn’t the usual liturgy employed at a Passover celebration! And then there was all of Jesus’ talk about betrayal, and how the Son of Man was going down a path that had already been marked out, “but woe to that one by whom he is betrayed!” You have to wonder what the disciples were thinking at that moment; I mean, it’s not like Jesus hadn’t already spoken of how the Son of Man would be betrayed into the hands of sinful men, but here? Now? At the very moment we’re gathering to feast and rejoice at God’s providence and redemptive power for his people Israel, what do you even mean by suggesting the Son of Man is to be betrayed? Who would ever… who could ever do something like that?
It was unsettling, to say the very least, and it’s no wonder that as Luke tells the story, almost immediately the disciples start squabbling a bit amongst themselves and then, of course, Peter – good ol’ Peter – offers up his verbal assurance that he would never, ever betray Jesus, even as Jesus predicts that this denial would, in fact, happen not once but three times! All at once this Passover celebration had become something different, and I have to imagine that in those final moments of that Maundy Thursday evening – though they didn’t yet have a clue as to just how much things were about to change forever, and even less why – somewhere down deep in their hearts the disciples knew that they were all together sharing this sacred meal in the same time-honored way that they’d always done for the last time.
And they could not have possibly articulated this, but I also wonder if when Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them – just before the betrayal; before the denials of one and the desertion of many; before the arrest and the scourging, the jeers and mocking; before the cries for his execution; before they nailed his hands and feet to a wooden cross; before the hours and hours of agonizing pain and suffering as the life drained out of him; before he finally breathed his last; just before everything on earth and heaven shifted forever – I wonder if in that singular moment of “communion” offered to them by their Master and friend Jesus if perhaps time stood still for the disciples, motionless; in anticipation of eternity entering in.
In a few moments, you and I will return to feast at the Lord’s Table, to once again know his presence in broken bread and in a shared cup. And though tonight we’ll do so in a way different than how we usually share communion in our worship here, nonetheless, we’ll be following a liturgy and tradition that’s been ours for generations as the Church of Jesus Christ. So in many ways, tonight should be no different than any other time we eat a piece of bread and share a tiny sip of wine from a common cup…
…except tonight it is different.
Tonight we remember the night long ago when this holy meal was shared the first time; how it was given, and what Jesus said about it, and how the disciples responded and what it all meant, especially as we remember everything that was to follow. We remember how praise and celebration gave way to betrayal and desertion; how “hosanna” became “crucify,” and how the claim that “I will never deny you” becomes “I don’t know the man;” and ultimately, we are reminded of how the sins of all humanity are atoned by the sacrifice of the divine. Tonight, in the bread and the wine, we’ll remember all that happened on that fateful night; but also, if we’re remembering correctly and well, we’ll also recall how we were there when they crucified our Lord and how, in so many ways, in our weakness, shame and utter humanity, we still are.
There’s nothing routine or commonplace about this meal we’re about to share, beloved. This is no less than the gift of a holy meal, one that reminds us of whose we are, and what we have been given, now and eternally, by grace and infinite love. So let us come to the table; but not out of a sense of tradition or routine, nor because it’s what’s expected of us. On this night of nights, let us come to this holy feast with open and willing hearts, ready to receive all that our Lord is so wanting to give to us; let us approach this table as though we are coming to this meal for the very first time… and also the last.
Thanks be to God in Jesus Christ our Savior.
c. 2019 Rev. Michael W. Lowry