Today, Christians in the Western tradition of the church enter a single worship service spread over three days: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Great Vigil of Easter. It begins with the story of the Last Supper Jesus had with this friends, and concludes with the proclamation of the resurrection of Easter.
Maundy Thursday is so named for the new commandment, mandatum novum. At the Last Supper, Jesus gave a new commandment, to love one another as he loves us. It is the commandment under which we live to this day. It is the first of the Great Three Days, the holy triduum. The gospel record says that the Last Supper was celebrated on or near the Jewish feast of Passover, and there is a strong metaphorical relationship between them.
Passover remembers the deliverance of the Hebrew people from bondage in Egypt. When God passed over the homes of Hebrews enslaved there, ‘he’ delivered them from death, and gave them life. It meant salvation, freedom from their days of bondage. A path was opened for them to become the people of God. Moses, God’s chosen agent, lead them to a promised land of their own, teaching them on the way what it meant to be a people of God. It was not an easy path, but it is one that has been trod by generations of faithful Jews for more than 3,000 years. For us, it was a foreshadowing of a greater deliverance from death and bondage, and a new path toward a greater land of promise, led by the Word of God made flesh, Jesus. The symbolic blood of Jesus, our paschal (which means passover) lamb signifies for us deliverance from death to life extending into eternity with God. It signifies our deliverance from bondage to the burdens of life that deter us from intimacy with God, not for some, but for all humanity.
On this first day of the Triduum, we read from John’s gospel that adds to the story of the Last Supper by remembering how Jesus took the role of a slave, stripped down, knelt and washed the feet of his disciples. As has been explained many times, it was a disgustingly dirty task only a slave could be forced to do, and Jesus did it. Then he commanded the disciples to go forth and do the same for those whom they would serve in years to come. Not all congregations practice washing feet on Maundy Thursday, but for those who do it is a powerfully emotional act. Whether done or not, it is a reminder to all clergy and parishioners of their proper role as followers of Jesus.
We also read from Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, providing us with the earliest description of the institution of Holy Communion at the Last Supper. It comes at least a decade or two before the first gospel record was written, and he says Jesus personally told him about it. Later he also says it had been explained to him by those who were present. Both can be true. In any case, Jesus took bread and declared it his body given for them. He took a cup of wine and declared it his blood, the blood of the new covenant. He is not only the paschal lamb delivering us from death into life, he is truly present with us and in us whenever we participate in the Holy Eucharist. We Episcopalians affirm that Jesus is truly present in the consecrated bread and wine. It is, in every way, Holy food and drink, so we take joyfully, but seriously. Other denominations have other views, but I’ll go with something Queen Elizabeth I is often cited as having said: “Christ was the word that spake it. He took the bread and break it; and what his words did make it, that I believe and take it.”
One final word for the curious: No, Jesus and his friends did not sit on one side of the table looking out at an artist painting the scene.