Maundy Thursday

Maundy Thursday is the Thursday of Holy Week.

April 1, 2010

First Reading
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Commentary on Exodus 12:1-4 [5-10] 11-14

Maundy Thursday is the Thursday of Holy Week.

This day, recognized as a major liturgical celebration since the fourth century, commemorates John 13 where Jesus washed the feet of the disciples (verses 4-5) and gave them a new commandment (mandatum in Latin, hence Maundy Thursday) to “love one another” (verse 34).

So what does this have to do with the assigned Old Testament reading from Exodus 12, a ritual text from the Priestly Writer that institutes the Jewish festival of Passover/Unleavened Bread? It is a tortuous path!

Passover may be seen as a fusion of two festivals in which the early inhabitants of the Levant (Israel-Palestine) welcomed the spring in different ways:

  • Shepherds. As the month of lambing began in the flock the shepherds would celebrate the flock’s fertility by sacrificing a lamb, smearing its blood on their tent flaps, and dancing a hopping, skipping, limping (pesach) dance.
  • Farmers. To prepare for the spring harvest of barley and wheat the farmers would clear out all the old “sour dough” (chametz) they used to leaven their bread.

Thus, even before the existence of Israel as a people there were two spring festivals, the shepherds’ festival of “Passover” and the farmers’ festival of “Unleavened Bread.” In Exodus 12:1-20, which describes the birth of Israel as a “congregation” (verse 3, the first appearance of this word in the Bible) both these early festivals are brought together. That they have been so joined is evident in the parallel nature of their structure:

Intro: Yahweh speaks to Moses and Aaron (verse 1)

A Time Frame: The first month (verse 2)

           B Sign: Shepherds’ Passover (verses 3-11)
                 C Significance: Yahweh will kill the firstborn
                          (verse 12)
                      D Reason: Israel spared by blood of
                               passover lamb (verse 13)

           B’ Sign: Farmers’ Unleavened Bread
                     (verses 14-17a)
                 C’ Significance: Yahweh delivered Israel
                           (verse 17bα)
                       D’ Reason: Israel to observe this day
                                 (verse 17bβ)

A’ Time Frame: The first month (verses 18-20)

The shepherd’s festival was the first to be transformed in the exile as a result of the Priestly Writer’s placing allusions to it within the Exodus story. The first nine plagues are arranged as a unit that provides Yahweh’s answer to Pharaoh’s arrogant question, “Who is Yahweh that I should obey him by letting Israel go?” (Exodus 5:2). Thus, the first nine plagues demonstrate Yahweh’s power over Pharaoh, “For by now I could have stretched out my hand and struck you and your people with pestilence, and you would have been cut off from the earth. But this is why I have let you live: to show you my power” (Exodus 9:15-16).

This arrangement has the effect of isolating the tenth plague for the purpose of liberation. God didn’t fail to accomplish Israel’s release in the first nine plagues only to be successful in the tenth, resulting in a paltry 10% efficiency rating; God was 100% successful in the only plague that was designed to liberate the people!

The story now connects the birth of children and the birth of Israel with the birth of the new year in the spring. In the altered festival the sacrifice of a lamb in spring was reinterpreted as a ransom for the continued life of the first-born since in the tenth plague all first-born sons are destroyed. Only those Israelites who slaughter a lamb and smear its blood are “passed over” (pesach) by God as he executes judgment on Egypt. The crucial moment in the long process of shaping the festival comes in the merging of separate feelings about new birth in three areas of life: the flock, human families, and Israel as a political entity.

The farmers’ festival of Unleavened Bread was joined to the shepherds’ festival of Passover in the Priestly Writer’s exilic situation in verses 14-20. Here, the basis for the connection had nothing to do with clearing out the old leaven in preparation for the new barley harvest. The unleavened bread has come to symbolize the haste with which Israel had to depart Egypt, there was no time to let bread rise.

By the time of Jesus, Passover/Unleavened Bread had become one festival celebrating the Spring Equinox (the re-birth of the Sun), the springtime lambing of the flock and harvest of barley, the life of newborn children, the redemption of those children, and the birth of Israel as a people.

The synoptic gospels set Passover as the backdrop for Jesus’ passion, even staging the Last Supper with its inauguration of the Lord’s Supper as a Passover meal. The use of artos (bread) rather than azuma (unleavened bread), no symbolic foods such as bitter herbs or roasted lamb, as well as the absence of children and families (it looks more like “boys’ night out”!) leads this interpreter to favor Saint John’s appropriation of the passover imagery. John sees Jesus as the passover lamb who dies at the same time those other passover lambs are being slaughtered on the 14th of Nisan, that is, “on the day of preparation for the Passover” (Exodus 12:6; John 19:14, 31). Only John tells us Jesus’ legs were not broken, “None of his bones shall be broken,” so that scripture might be fulfilled (John 19:36). This is a reference to the Passover lamb requirements (Exodus 12:46).

John thus brings the Bible’s progression of the killing of lambs for the redemption of people to a close:
Cain and Abel: one lamb for one person (Genesis 4:4)
Passover: one lamb for one family (Exodus 12:3)
Day of Atonement: one lamb for one people (Leviticus 16:20-22)
John’s Gospel: Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29).

Truly, Jesus is, as John depicts and Paul declares “our passover lamb” (1 Corinthians 5:7-8).