By the Rev. David Brinton.
Exodus 12:1-14; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Tonight our annual Passover begins, the great three days of the Christian year ending at Evening Prayer on Easter Day.
If the primeval text from the book of Exodus heard tonight, (the story of how the angel of death “passed over” the Hebrews while slaughtering the first born of the Egyptians), and the one which will be heard on Saturday night at the Great Vigil, (the story of the parting of the Red Sea so that the exodus of the Hebrews from slavery might be accomplished even as their Egyptian pursuers are drowned) – if these tales seem barbarous and alien, with their ritual sacrifice, infanticide, and jealous, angry God, well………….. so be it.
Whatever elements in these stories have purely human and historical (or non-historical origins), we are called upon as Christians, throughout our lives, but especially in this sacred moment to, in some sense, embrace them. We share these stories with our elder siblings in the faith of Abraham, the Jews, who are reading them this week at their Passover celebrations.
We are asked to embrace these stories in all their foreignness, as surely as we embrace the bread and the cup of the Eucharist in all its familiarity, for they are in some sense the same story, the Exodus and the Eucharist.
For both the Passover of the Hebrews, and the Christian Eucharist are about liberation from slavery, about life after death, about light arising out of darkness. They are both about creating and sustaining a community, a people, which comes to learn that it does not exist for itself alone.
In the Eucharist we “proclaim the death of Jesus until he comes again”, in other words, we proclaim his Passover and his Exodus which is our Passover and our Exodus, and in doing so, we feed on it.
The death of Jesus is our Passover, our exodus from death to life, because in the death of Jesus, the divine Word, the Son, takes into himself, on the Tree of Shame, all the horror, and in that holocaust, the power of hopelessness, despair and death to kill us forever is itself destroyed in a divine exodus that leads to the promised land of resurrection.
It is that dreadful and glorious exodus into which we were baptized, and which we re-present in every Eucharist. It is that victory we eat and drink in every Eucharist.
But is that all? Remembering and reliving our own personal and communal salvation? Is this just about the “family”, the “tribe”? the ones who “get it”? No.
In tonight’s gospel, after washing their feet, as he prepares to go out into the dark, our Lord says to his disciples “where I am going you cannot come…”
And, of course, that is true. We cannot go there. The divine heart of love takes into his broken body all the betrayals of love that came before him and that came after him, including this year’s betrayals, the ones unfolding on the front pages of the newspapers and secretly in some hearts even as we gather, and he takes into himself even the ones yet to come, the ones which the great betrayer looks forward to so longingly. All of these betrayals, born on the cross by Jesus. “Where I am going you cannot come.” No, no one can go there, of course. Only the divine compassion can bear that burden.
But on the other hand, the gospel of the washing of the disciples’ feet, which occurs during the Last Supper, (and so tells us something of what the supper of the Eucharist means), says something to us about our relationship to the sacrifice and Passover of Christ – that it is not something which we are swept up into, or rest peacefully in, or struggle valiantly with, just for ourselves.
“If I your Lord and teacher have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” the Lord tells the twelve. And then a little later, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.” (One of the two commandments which give this day its name “Mandate” or Maundy Thursday, the other commandment being the one to continue celebrating the Lord’s Supper until he comes again.)
While these words in the first place suggest a way of living to which the leadership of the church is called, since it is the apostles he addresses, surely we are to understand that, just as the Hebrews ultimately came to realize that their freedom, their liberation, their community were not brought about only for their own sakes, but for all people, so the whole Church, born of the water and blood flowing from the pierced side of Jesus and fed by his very life in the eucharist, does not exist for its own sake, but for all people.
We are called, then, each and every one of us, in some sense to go where the Lord has gone, to bear the burdens of others, to help to usher them, welcome them, into the sphere of the divine mercy. To stoop down and wash their feet. We can only do so, because it has been done for us.
We are invited tonight, then, to remember, and to rejoice in, the embrace of the Lord in which he washed the alien and barbarous parts of our lives and took us to himself.
He did that for us and for all people in his divine Passover which we celebrate every year at this time.
He continues to make the fruits of that sacrifice available to us in every celebration of the holy Eucharist, which on this very night he commanded us to continue, until his coming again, so that we might become more and more like him, and learn to live not only for ourselves alone.
Sisters, this is the Passover of the Lord, and it is ours.