MARCH 24TH, 2016: EUCHARIST OF THE LORD’S SUPPER
The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt,
“This month shall stand at the head of your calendar;
you shall reckon it the first month of the year.
Tell the whole community of Israel:
On the tenth of this month every one of your families
must procure for itself a lamb, one apiece for each household.
If a family is too small for a whole lamb,
it shall join the nearest household in procuring one
and shall share in the lamb
in proportion to the number of persons who partake of it.
The lamb must be a year-old male and without blemish.
You may take it from either the sheep or the goats.
You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month,
and then, with the whole assembly of Israel present,
it shall be slaughtered during the evening twilight.
They shall take some of its blood
and apply it to the two doorposts and the lintel
of every house in which they partake of the lamb.
That same night they shall eat its roasted flesh
with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.
“This is how you are to eat it:
with your loins girt, sandals on your feet and your staff in hand,
you shall eat like those who are in flight.
It is the Passover of the LORD.
For on this same night I will go through Egypt,
striking down every firstborn of the land, both man and beast,
and executing judgment on all the gods of Egypt—I, the LORD!
But the blood will mark the houses where you are.
Seeing the blood, I will pass over you;
thus, when I strike the land of Egypt,
no destructive blow will come upon you.
“This day shall be a memorial feast for you,
which all your generations shall celebrate
with pilgrimage to the LORD, as a perpetual institution.”
Brothers and sisters:
I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you,
that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over,
took bread, and, after he had given thanks,
broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you.
Do this in remembrance of me.”
In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying,
“This cup is the new covenant in my blood.
Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup,
you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.
Before the feast of Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come
to pass from this world to the Father.
He loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end.
The devil had already induced Judas, son of Simon the Iscariot, to hand him over.
So, during supper,
fully aware that the Father had put everything into his power
and that he had come from God and was returning to God,
he rose from supper and took off his outer garments.
He took a towel and tied it around his waist.
Then he poured water into a basin
and began to wash the disciples’ feet
and dry them with the towel around his waist.
He came to Simon Peter, who said to him,
“Master, are you going to wash my feet?”
Jesus answered and said to him,
“What I am doing, you do not understand now,
but you will understand later.”
Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.”
Jesus answered him,
“Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.”
Simon Peter said to him,
“Master, then not only my feet, but my hands and head as well.”
Jesus said to him,
“Whoever has bathed has no need except to have his feet washed,
for he is clean all over;
so you are clean, but not all.”
For he knew who would betray him;
for this reason, he said, “Not all of you are clean.”
So when he had washed their feet
and put his garments back on and reclined at table again,
he said to them, “Do you realize what I have done for you?
You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am.
If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet,
you ought to wash one another’s feet.
I have given you a model to follow,
so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”
Listening to today’s first reading, have you ever wondered where these strange – almost bizarre - rituals for celebrating Passover originated? Couldn’t the captive Jews in Egypt simply put some sort of a yard sign in front of their homes assuring Yahweh’s Destroyer that they actually were members of Yahweh’s Chosen People? What’s with this lamb’s blood on the doorpost, for instance?
The answer scholars usually give is a little complicated, but it does make sense.
If you want to remember something – especially an important event - you’re always encouraged to hook it up with something you already know. This is obviously what happened when the church wanted us to remember the birth of Jesus. The leaders simply hooked it up with an event everyone in the third and fourth century CE Roman Empire was already familiar: the pagan feast of Saturnalia.
The Saturnalia commemorated the “turnabout” of the sun which happened at the end of December, at the point the sun begins to shine longer each day. Since the sun was necessary for the earth’s fertility, lights, fires, evergreen trees and branches were employed to convey that concept. These symbols were utilized long before Jesus’ birth.
The church didn’t get rid of these symbols; when they put Christmas on December 25th, they simply gave them a new meaning. Jesus is now the light of the world; fire, evergreen trees and branches are symbols of this life Jesus brings us.
In a similar way, long before the Jewish Exodus from Egypt, every spring shepherds had to deal with the perils of moving their flocks from their winter pastures to their spring pastures. Not only were ewes lambing, there was always the fear that a demon “Destroyer” of young sheep was lurking around every corner. One way to keep the demon from devastating their flocks was for the shepherds to offer him an “apotropaic” sacrifice before they left: they’d slaughter one lamb and offer it to him so that he wouldn’t help himself to lots of lambs. To show the Destroyer they’d actually done this, they’d sprinkle some of the lamb’s blood on their door posts.
Need I go further? It seems 12th century BCE Jews simply reinterpreted a sign they’d been using for centuries; making it a symbol of Yahweh’s delivering them from Egyptian slavery.
In some sense, early Christians did something similar. They saw something deeper in their regular community meals than just taking care of their hunger. Remembering what Jesus did on the night before he died, they began to experience the risen Jesus in everyone with whom they shared those meals. And when they took from the “cup of the covenant,” they also committed themselves to carrying on Jesus’ ministry. They also became other Christs, something which only happens when we give ourselves.
But perhaps most important, they began to appreciate a deeper meaning in their service of others. The simple act of washing another person’s feet became an outward sign of their total giving. Many scholars today believe such foot washing is actually an eighth sacrament. It’s certainly an outward sign, instituted by Christ, which gives grace. But it’s rarely practiced. The reason is simple. As a friend once observed, “It’s impossible to wash someone’s feet while you’re standing on a pedestal.”
Tonight of all nights we’ve got to get down from our pedestals. We’re not just experiencing a set of liturgical rituals. They’ve become an outward sign that we’re continuing Jesus’ ministry of giving himself. If we refuse to do that, we might as well offer a sacrifice to a Destroyer killing our sheep and sprinkle some blood on our doorposts.