Maundy Thursday

The Passover narrative in Exodus is intriguing and frightening.

April 5, 2012

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

The Passover narrative in Exodus is intriguing and frightening.

The images from Cecil B. Demille’s Ten Commandments may be partly responsible: the darkness of night, haunting music, and a sinister mist making its way through the Egyptian streets. The Passover, or pesach which birthed the English adjective paschal, marks the defining redemptive moment of Israel’s history.

As Passover is practiced today, the eschatological dimension of Passover is expressed: “This year here, next year in the land of Israel; this year as slaves, next year as free.”1 In the Christian tradition of reading, the Passover narratives are read as a figural anticipation of Christ’s redemptive work and our Eucharistic participation in that work. In fact, the first recorded Christian homily, a homily by Melito of Sardis, is an extended theological exposition of the Pascha in light of Christ’s atoning work.

The images of Exodus 12 are ripe for Holy Week reflection. An unblemished lamb or goat is slaughtered; the sacrificial blood is smeared on the extremities of the family dwelling (when the priests were consecrated, the blood was smeared on their extremities as well: ear, finger, toe). When the angel of the Lord sees the blood on the mantel, the angel will pass over the house leaving its inhabitants in safety. The ritual is a communal ritual as the whole congregation of Israel participates. The Passover meal is eaten in haste. Loins were to be girded so as not to impede maneuverability and speed. The scene is visceral and filled with expectation. Redemption was imminent.

The liturgical placement of this text on Maundy Thursday provides an interpretive point of entry. Here we are in the middle of Holy Week moving gradually, meditatively, yet forcefully, to Good Friday and the hope of Easter Sunday. Anticipation is starting to build on this Thursday where we celebrate the new commandment Christ gave us: love one another in service, wash one another’s feet. Much like Israel in Egypt, we celebrate this feast day in anticipation of what is coming tomorrow. Our paschal lamb is about to be sacrificed for us. Our lives are about to be forever altered as we leave the chains of Egypt on a journey to the celestial city.

As Christians, we too live in the tension of looking back to the Easter event and hoping for the future consummation of all the promises attached to that definitive moment in history. Our annual celebration of Holy Week reminds us of the continued tension we live in as followers of Christ. Familiar terms used by theologians such as “already” and “not yet” tap into this tension. All the promises are yes and amen in Jesus Christ. Yet, more is needed, more is desired, more is promised: Maranatha! Who knows, maybe next year in the heavenly city?

“This day shall be a day of remembrance for you” (Exodus 12:14). Passover was intended as a perpetual day of remembrance. In biblical parlance, remembering is not a mere passive activity or a sentimental act of nostalgia. Remembering is active, a moment when members of the present community participate in the events of the past. The activity is more dynamic than inert as past events and their significance are brought into the present moment. The results of such active participation are twofold. One, active remembering produces contemporary action. Two, participatory remembering yields future hope.

The first result might be properly called the ethics of liturgy or liturgical ethics. Our gathering in worship to commemorate, to remember actively the redemptive works of God should motivate and encourage gracious acts of justice and mercy. For example, the verses that precede Micah’s call to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God (6:8) — a verse of bumper sticker status — are a challenge to remember the Exodus, to remember our redemption. Remembering in gratitude God’s gracious acts of redemption produces the good fruit of mercy and justice: a fitting theme on this Maundy Thursday.

The second result takes us from the tension of the current moment and thrusts us in hope toward a future day. If God redeemed in the past, we are confident God will do so in the future. “I believe in the resurrection of the dead,” so ends our creedal confession. This remembering the past for the sake of future hope is artfully summarized in Psalm 77. The Psalmist begins in the lamenting groans of the disoriented self: “I think of God, and I moan” (77:1).

Honest, if troubling, questions are asked: “Has God forgotten to be gracious” (77:9)? The moment of disillusionment is ameliorated when the Psalmist confesses, “I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord; “I will remember your wonders of old” (77:11). Our liturgical moments of remembering from Sunday to Sunday and in this Holy Week propel us to future hope. God inaugurated his kingdom in the work of his Son and will surely consummate it in the coming day.

Our sacramental life in the church is a physical reminder of God’s redemptive acts. Remember, you are baptized. Remember, you have made the Exodus journey, having passed through the sea to safety. “Do this in remembrance of me,” as we feast on Christ in faith. During this Holy Week as we celebrate our Exodus from the dominion of sin and death, we remember our Lord’s passion. May such remembering yield acts of mercy and justice and fill our hearts with hope.

1</sup As quoted in Brevard S. Childs, Exodus (OTL; Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1974), 208.