The Hebrew Passover is a family feast. It was not celebrated in the Temple, but at home. In the account of the Exodus the home already appears as the place of salvation and of refuge in that dark night of the passing over of the Angel of the Lord. In another way, that night in Egypt is an image of the power of death, of the destruction and chaos which are always rising up from the depths of the world and of humankind, and which threaten to destroy the ‘good’ creation and transform the world into a desert, into something uninhabitable. In these inhospitable situations that are so everyday in today’s world, the home and family offer a place of shelter. In other words, the world has to be continually defended from chaos, creation must always be protected and made new.
This family motif is all the more important these days when the family is under threat as never before. Here we need to learn and learn again that the family is the place of growth, of protection, of love and care and sensitivity. The home and family are the protecting wall in life, the place in which we are safe and at peace, the peace of being together, which lets us live and preserves creation.
If, in the Old Testament, the Passover was a family meal, how much more so is this the case in the new? In the new Passover, it is God who takes the initiative. It is God who passes over us, saves us, nourishes us and serves us. Jesus, however, introduces a radical newness to the Passover meal. First and foremost he offers himself as the Passover Lamb, willing to be sacrificed for our sake. He becomes the bread broken for us, the blood poured out for us, symbolising the love that was poured out for us over a life-time.
What makes the Last Supper so moving is that Jesus knew he was about to be arrested, tortured and crucified. He knew that his own chosen would betray, deny and desert him. Yet despite all of this he didn’t spend his final meal focussing on that frightful, lonesome path that was laid out for him – like someone on death row. He refused to be a dead man walking. Instead he focussed on his friends, weak and sinful though they would prove to be. He dedicated his last hours to caring for them and showing the way forward after his passing from this world.
Despite his impending death, Jesus longed to eat this Passover with them and he longed with a deep craving of the heart—that kind of craving that can only possess a heart willing enough to die for his friends. But this is what God is doing in Jesus. God is committed to utter self-emptying in his deep desire to lavish us with all the goodness and beauty that only God can muster.
This self-emptying is expressed above all in the washing of their feet. It was a common enough practice in Eastern hospitality, but it was always a slave who performed this duty. Here it is Jesus the God-man who sets about washing the feet of his disciples and in so doing tells us exactly what kind of family he is forming us into. As you have seen me do, he says, do you also! We are all called to be a foot-washing community.
The foot-washing ceremony on Holy Thursday has become a curious ritual. We watch it year by year but are no longer shocked by it. And then along comes Pope Francis. His first foot washing as Pope was not of 12 specially selected and pedicured seminarians, but a group of juvenile delinquents, 2 of them Muslims and 2 of them women. A year later it was men and women with physical and mental disabilities. This year it will be criminals in a prison. I sense the Pope is very close to the mind and heart of Jesus. There are two places where Jesus says this is my body. One is tonight when he takes and breaks bread in his hands and offers it for our nourishment. The other is put in slightly different words when he says if you give to the least of my brothers and sisters to give to me.
The psalm tonight sums up our attitude: “How can I repay the Lord for his goodness to me?” We can begin by appreciating the deep significance of this holy night. For here God passes over as a protective angel, preserving us from harm and leading us out of bondage into freedom. And that word bondage can stand for many things—our selfishness and sin, our inability to move forward, our small-mindedness and our fixation with petty things. God, in Jesus, is forming us again this night and making us into a foot-washing community, because it is only love that will transform the utter darkness of our night and make all things new.
“How shall I make a return to the Lord?” Incredibly Jesus does this for us also by offering us the Eucharist whereby we are able to make a response fitting to the Lord. “This is my body; take and eat! This is my blood; take and drink!” The sacrifice of Christ’s body and blood has now become our food and drink. It is our pilgrim food for the journey. It also stands ever as a reminder that we must become what we consume—a sacrifice of self-emptying service like that of Jesus.
Thursday 2 April 2015