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Maundy Thursday: Your Big Night

Reading Time: 6 mins

Maundy Thursday is your big night. For the Passover Lamb is given for you, given to you.

Holy (or Maundy) Thursday, occurring on the eve of our Lord’s crucifixion, begins the celebration of the holy three days of Christ’s Passover, commonly known as the Triduum. This service culminates the Lenten period of preparation for Christ’s Passion and Resurrection and leads into his sacrifice on our behalf, as well as the completion of his perfect obedience. As such, the Maundy Thursday Liturgy, like that for Good Friday, exhibits a mood of restrained joy amidst highly symbolic liturgy, intensifying the drama of Jesus’ Passion.

Holy Absolution signals the end of the Lenten preparation with the absolution and peace of Christ that stand at the center of the Three Days. Peace, not as the world gives, but only as the Messiah of God can give. The depth of Christ’s servanthood and humiliation is demonstrated as the altar undergoes a reverent stripping in preparation for the Church’s observance of Jesus’ victory-by-death on Good Friday. On Holy Thursday, the Church and her catechumens begin the journey through the Three Days of Christ’s Passover from death to life and from captivity to freedom.

In terms of the biblical narrative, this is Israel’s big night. [1] The night Israel walked out of slavery into freedom passing through the lamb’s blood painted on their doorposts. This is the night when our Lord sat at table with his chosen disciples—soon to be apostles—and put himself into the Passover. This is the night he transfers its symbolism onto himself and actuates its reality. This is the night when Jesus bequeaths an institution, memorial, and an example of his sacrifice. This is the night on which our Lord was “betrayed” to death for treason by one of his own and, at the same time, “handed over by the Father” to make atonement by his blood. This is the first night of the Triduum. And you are part of it.

“This day shall be for you a memorial day, a day of remembrance, and you shall keep it as a feast to the Lord; through your generations, as a statute forever, you shall keep it as a feast” (Ex. 12:14). Here are the origins of Passover. Each year, the Israelites gathered with their families to eat this feast of remembrance—bitter herbs, unleavened bread, roasted lamb. It was a monument in their history, a memorial that defined their lives. The blood smeared on the door was a sign. Where the blood was there death passed over. In eating the Passover you became one with Israel, bound by blood and bread and lamb. Each year, each member of the covenant would eat the lamb and drink the cup. Each succeeding generation didn’t say this is the night our fathers came out of Egypt; but, this is the night we came out of Egypt. When you ate the Passover, you were one with all Israel. This was a different kind of memorial — one that participated in the original event by actuating it in the present. It is little wonder that the Greek word for “participation” also translates to “communion.”

This is Jesus’ big night. He celebrates this Passover not with his mother and family but with the Twelve, the church’s first pastors. He gives it to them, to give to us. Jesus sits at the head of the table, the head of his family, his church. He takes the unleavened bread, gives thanks to his Father, breaks it into morsels, and gives one to each at the table with him. And he says something new, something never heard before at Passover. “Take this and eat it. This is my body, which is for you.”

Jesus’ blood is different. The life is in his blood. What life? The eternal life, the divine life.

After the supper, Jesus took a cup, raised it toward heaven, gave thanks, and then gave it to each of his disciples saying, “Take, drink. This is my blood of the covenant which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” His cup is theirs to drink; they have a share in his life as well as his death. 

Of course, blood was forbidden from consumption in the Torah. It was reserved for one thing: atonement. Leviticus 17:11: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life.” Leviticus 17:10-14 is one of the most forceful passages in Scripture, driving home the point that one must not, must never “eat the blood” because “the life is in the blood.” Blood is life, the life of the creature. Hence, there was blood sacrifice, and the pouring out of blood, but never union with blood through it’s consumption. Israel must not be united with the life of animals in their blood. But Jesus’ blood is different. The life is in his blood. What life? The eternal life, the divine life. Be one with his life by having your communion in his blood. Blood that will be given for us on the altar of the Holy Cross to make atonement for our souls. Drink you must. And in drinking, you commune with the blood of the atonement for the forgiveness of sins and unition with eternal life himself: Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

This bread is Jesus’ body, the body given into death on the Holy Cross. And his body is bread, living bread come down from heaven, the bread of life which he gives for the life of the world. This wine is Jesus’ blood poured out as the Passover lamb’s blood was poured out, and his blood is wine that gladdens our hearts with eternal Cana-joy. Faith believes it. Faith confesses its beauty and simplicity: “Christ is our Master. We must leave it to him. We must interpret the signs to be what he wants them to be, even as he did this with regard to the bread and wine: ‘This is my body. This is my blood.’” [2]

Jesus gives his body and blood to eat and to drink “for my remembrance”; “in remembrance of Me.” He places the tokens of his death before our eyes and in our mouths to remind us who he is for us and what he has done for us. This is faith’s true food and drink, stirring up faith’s memory to cling to Jesus’ death for our life. And yet it also brings forth our participation, our communion in the actual event itself in which Jesus collapses the “cup of thanksgiving” with the “cup of consummation” — the “it is finished” cup. The open parenthesis of the Passover meal in the Upper Room finds its closed parenthesis in Jesus’ blood atonement. Indeed, this is a different kind of memorial — one that participates in the actual event of the Upper Room and Golgotha’s atonement and brings it to the present as a unified event: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor. 10:16).

He places the tokens of his death before our eyes and in our mouths to remind us who he is for us and what he has done for us.

This is how he is to be remembered or, as the disciples on the Emmaus Road declared it, how he is to be recognized: In the consuming of the body and blood of the Passover Lamb that is Jesus. Indeed, “as often as we eat this bread and drink this cup we proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.” This is how the Lord’s death is proclaimed; this is how our Lord is to be remembered; this is how forgiveness, life, and salvation come to his baptized people. This is how we commune with Christ.

John’s telling of the Gospel doesn’t mention the Supper itself. Instead, John wants us to look ahead to the cross and the twilight when the Lamb of God is offered for the life of the world. John takes us to the moment when the Temple sacrifice was made during Passover and shows us Jesus on Calvary. In this way, the one thing never mentioned in Matthew, Mark and Luke’s account of the Passover meal—the lamb itself—highlight’s Jesus as the Lamb God provides to make atonement and effectuate communion in the life, the eternal life.

But John does tell us about what Jesus did during the Supper, how he stooped down as the lowliest of servants to wash the feet of his disciples. “For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.” This wasn’t a ritual to be performed once-a-year, but the pattern of service; it is what happens when Jesus’ body and blood have their faith-enlivening way with you, when the Life is in you. Jesus came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. In washing his disciples’ feet, he provides them the pattern of his humility, his self-giving love, his way of saving from the bottom up.

It is the Church’s big night. Having not only the Spirit of Christ in us through Holy Baptism, but also the blood, that is, the life of Christ in us through Holy Communion, we too are given to stoop down for one another as servants of the Servant of all. “Love one another as I have loved you.” His love precedes our love: from the Father to the Son; to you; to those around you. And “as often as you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to me.”

Maundy Thursday is your big night. For the Passover Lamb is given for you, given to you.

[1]  This homily is adapted from Rev. Dr. Charles Cortright’s sermon on Matthew 26:13-30, delivered in my home during Covid lockdowns, Rīga, Latvia, on Maundy Thursday, April 2020.

[2]  Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Word and Sacrament IV, 38:23.