Maundy Thursday, 2015.
Exodus 12, 1-14: 1 Cor 11, 23-26: John 13, 1-17, 31b-35.
Whether as Mandate or Maundy Thursday in English, Groaning or Green Thursday in German, today gifts us with a flash of hopeful thankfulness before three days of enveloping darkness, after which the Word as Light shone on the grieving women in the garden and from them to the world and to us this Easter Sunday. But the crucial importance of the first sharing of God among all tends to be swamped by the subsequent scene in Gethsemane, a process helped in both English and German by the archaic nature of today’s name.
The English ‘Maundy,’ from Old French mandate, sounds too much like guilt-ridden mourning for Gethsemane. This neatly allows us to avoid Jesus’ eternally empowering directive for this night: ‘A new command I give you, to love one another.’ Truly these last three days of Holy Week framed and fill our faith, creating ecclesial networks like the one in Corinth to whom Paul explained what Christians variously call Communion, Eucharist, Mass, Holy Qur’bana, the Lord’s Table or Supper – as he told them how not to do it!
Equally misleading, the ‘green’ of the German ‘Gruen Donnerstag’ misses the archaic gronen or weinen, sighing and weeping, which again refers not to Gethsemane but to the reception back into the light of excommunicated church members who had served their isolating time out. And in a context where church membership equalled social survival, such isolation meant more than just exclusion from communion, but from all social and often economic relationships: the relief of renewed fellowship tonight must have been immense.
The Maundy mandate sees Jesus urging and enabling us to live in love and, as Micah says in an echo of the Exodus passage, to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly, which we easily wriggle away from or set aside. Yet it’s equally an evening of reliving Jesus’ voluntary gifting of himself to death for our life. But in remembering that, remember what he did first: inclusively affirmed Peter and John, Judas and the rest, just as each inept and skilled person here, each mindful and careless person, each saint and sinner, is inclusively welcomed as equally valued children of God. Would that the welcome included more who feel church is not for the likes of them!
Jesus celebrated the Seder meal at Passover in joyous fellowship, for it is the Jewish festival of thanksgiving for the way the houses of the Israelites, the chosen ones, had been spared by being marked and thus made sacred with the blood of sacrificed lambs, just as priests were marked. The Seder meal in all its careful detail of bread, lamb, bitter herbs, four glasses of wine, and fixed blessings thankfully recalled that event which had allowed those long in chains to scurry home from a stricken Egypt.
The recollection of Passover was done with carefully ordered precision, especially after the Destruction of the Temple in AD 70, but even before that elaboration which helped maintain fellowship across the diaspora, Jesus dramatically reshaped it! Think peanut butter sandwich on an empty Christmas goose platter, think tea and biscuits for the Eucharist, the latest raucous hit for the Gloria, put them all together and that’s only a faint glimmer of his shatteringly shocking act! The bread came in, and the lamb, and the herbs, the third glass of wine had been drunk. But then he broke the bread, and blessed the wine, in words which both made clear he was to be the sacrificed lamb, and the bread and wine his body, his blood, to be taken not only in remembrance of him, as Jews take the bread, lamb and wine of the Passover, but to be spiritually filled with him who is God.
It was vital that this mandate be spoken over food not only because that was the time of gathering for the chosen, but because all people were potentially chosen, and meat was too tangled up in Gentile worship to be used, and too hedged around with kashrut rules to be useable. Commensality of the soul expressed in the common cup was crucial, which is why Paul in Corinthians was so annoyed with the rich of that congregation eating in front of but separately from the poor. But he taught us not so we’d dwell on the ensuing darkness as an end in itself, which seems a perennial especially Protestant problem, but as a path to light; not that we’d feel sin-laden and unworthy of coming to share, but so we’d have the spiritual means to live in him for all. Providing this before he ascended to become one again with God as creator forty days after Easter was good parenting: no wise parent explains how to survive in the world the day before their offspring leave home, but rather throughout their childhood and adolescence.
Yes, there will be darkness, as there is in any life, repeatedly. And this is illustrated in many churches this night when lights are dimmed and the altar stripped: but dark always implies light. It was at such a stripping, in Melbourne twenty-one years ago that I glimpsed, anew or afresh, that Jesus is the Light for the world, in a church which thereafter left the Anglican Church due to the difficult problem of women – or the problem of difficult women – who felt called to celebrate this meal. Without that glimpse in the dark, Christ could not have steadied my soul in later bleaker years, and led me here. Of course we don’t like being in dark holes – Jesus wasn’t keen to die either – but there will be illuminating light, bright as the meteoric Light of Easter, or brief as a cardboard match.
Indeed, the two-fold gift of Jesus’ Maundy mandate is to live in justice and love towards all. The means to fulfil that is given in this groaning fellowship feast, for which we give thanks. Having reflected on our lives with varying degrees of mindfulness these last seven weeks of Lent and Holy Week, let us face and embrace the darkness of tonight, and the darkness in our lives, as we move forward to this exemplar feast. The light, which dwells in us even when we cannot see it and even fear our wrongdoing has doused it, will shine forth again and again and again! In thanks, a grateful thanks, may our eyes and hearts be open, our hands, minds and feet ready to serve by doing the work of God.
Elizabeth Koepping, Heidelberg, 2015