Sermon by Fr. Joshua Bell SSC, Thursday 1st April 2021
Readings: Exodus 12:1-8,11-14; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-15
We have come to Maundy Thursday. It is the first of the three Great Days of the Triduum – and to my mind it is the strangest of the three.
Our mass begins so joyfully: the priests in white vestments – the colour of joyful celebration. Not only has the Gloria returned, it’s been accompanied by bells!
This joy mirrors the joy that Jesus and the disciples would have felt – that all the Jews would have felt – that night, as they celebrated the Passover together.
Modern-day Jews, when they celebrate the Passover, ask the question, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” And, indeed, we too could ask the question, because this mass is unlike any mass in the year; because, of course, for the disciples, that Passover was different from all other Passovers they had marked before.
During dinner, we hear how Jesus washed the disciples’ feet – a task that would be given usually to a servant, or in their absence, the lowest of the people there. For Jesus to take it on is a subversive act – but entirely in keeping with Jesus’s kingship – the one who comes not to be served but to serve. He has taught, during his ministry, that whoever would be king must become the least of all – and what better example than to wash the disciples’ feet?
We hear the discomfort of Peter who initially refuses to let Jesus wash his feet; and we may recognise in his words some of our own discomfort, at the thought of baring our feet for Father Adrian or another priest to wash in years past. But Jesus does this for an example: and whether we are physically washing others or no – we all must learn the humility of Jesus, we all must make ourselves the servant of others – especially those we would be minded otherwise to look down on.
The second strange thing Jesus did on Maundy Thursday may seem familiar to us but for the disciples it was wholly new: he instituted the Eucharist, in the words we heard in the second reading. He took one of the unleavened loaves, broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “This is my body – do this as a memorial of me.” He took the cup of wine, and told them to drink it as the cup of the new covenant – in his blood. The Jews lived by the covenant of Moses – but Jesus institutes a new covenant, a new Testament, with himself as the sacrificial lamb – whose blood seals the covenant. When we celebrate the Mass, we re-present this sacrifice, made once for all, we experience it as newly as if we were in that upper room.
And then, after the meal was complete, the disciples went with Jesus to the garden of Gethsemane – just as we accompany Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament to the altar of repose – and with the disciples, we watch and pray for an hour. But this night, which began with such joy, such celebration, such mysterious wonder and wonderful mystery – ends in the shock of Judas’s betrayal.
Jesus is arrested and taken away. His disciples scatter – and in union with them, we leave, we flee, the altar of repose. There is no final blessing at this Mass. No dismissal. Instead, as we hear the arrest of Jesus, we scatter – we leave. To signify the horror of Jesus’s arrest, we strip the church of much of its furnishings. We have already veiled the images in the church, but now even the fabrics, the frontals, the linens, will be taken away. THe candles removed from the altar – which goes from being ornately decorated to being bare, naked, empty.
There will be no end – no closure – not yet. We, with the disciples, must wait, through tomorrow and Saturday, until we mark the unlooked-for joy of the resurrection. But not yet.
Tonight we have celebrated the rescuing of God’s people from slavery in Egypt. We have received his new commandment, to love one another with the same self-giving, self-effacing love, that he has shown to us in the washing of the feet. We have heard how he instituted the Eucharist and in the preface to the Mass, we will praise God for this most sacred of meals. We will go with him to Gethsemane to watch, and pray, with him. And with his disciples, we will depart, forlorn, dumbstruck, as we flee the place of his arrest.
Why is this night different from all other nights? Because on this night Jesus gave his final, most powerful, teachings to the disciples before the drama of his trial, death, and burial began.