Words on the Word

Maundy Thursday

Exodus 12.1-14: An animal without blemish, one year old.
1 Corinthians 11.23-26: This is what I received from the Lord.
John 13.1-15: I have given you an example to imitate.

We have read from Exodus of the institution of ‘the Lord’s Passover’. The notion of ‘Passover’ or pascha has travelled far through time and cultures. It reached our Northern European languages through Latin and Greek from Hebrew, where pesach means ‘to pass over’ or ‘to pass by’. Passover is connected with the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. By a conceptual shift we easily think that the passing-over is Israel’s doing: that the people ‘passes by’ its enemies, passes through the Red Sea, and passes into the perilous freedom of the wilderness. The association is not invalid. The Biblical Passover indicates the movement of the people. But a more essential passing-over is at its source.

The night of Passover is awful, uncanny. Pharaoh has stubbornly refused to give Israel leave to follow God’s call. Moses and Aaron have tried, by means of signs, to prove that the call is real, that God is not jesting. Pharaoh has hardened his heart. One sign remains, the most terrible. ‘Moses said: thus says the Lord: About midnight I will go forth in the midst of Egypt; and all the first-born in the land of Egypt shall die, from the first-born of Pharaoh on his throne, even to the first-born of the maidservant behind the mill; and all the first-born of the cattle.’ He added: ‘there shall be a great cry throughout all the land of Egypt, such as there has never been, nor ever shall be again’ (Ex 11.4-6). 

Israel’s Passover meal represents action that causes wrath to pass the agents by. The Lamb is both sustenance and sacrifice. It provides a meal giving strength to those about to set out on a journey; at the same time it signals reconciliation. Death travels past a home marked with the blood of the lamb. The home itself is temporary, though. Remember: in the very same night, Israel leaves. While ‘a loud cry’ resounds throughout Egypt, ‘while it was still night’, the Israelites decamp (12.30ff.).

The Passover doesn’t provide anchorage; it leads to departure. Later, when the Passover was ritualised as liturgy, this aspect was emphasised. ‘You may not’, we read in Deuteronomy, ‘offer the passover sacrifice within any of your towns’, not at home; it is to be offered and eaten ‘at the place which the Lord your God will choose, to make his name dwell in it’. Only the following morning are people allowed to ‘return to their tents’ (Dt 16.5-7).

The lamb is to be ‘without blemish, one year old’. One doesn’t offer ailing beasts one could in any case manage well without. If we believe that God is God, he is entitled to the best. It is a sign of hypocrisy when we start offering God gifts from our stack of superfluities, from cardboard boxes kept up in the attic. In Tarkovsky’s film The Sacrifice a man gives his friend a precious gift. His friend protests: ‘This is too gorgeous! You will miss it!’ The man says: ‘What sort of a gift would it be if, having given it, I did not feel its absence?’

God does not need our oblations (cf. Hos 6.6). Our oblations give us the opportunity to practise generosity, to let our clenched fists become open hands, to start living by a logic of grace, in trust. In Egypt, Israel’s flocks were the people’s only asset (12.38). To sacrifice the best, strongest beasts the night before they set off into the unknown seems irresponsible, humanly speaking. Passover is about a transformation of perspective. The oblation stands for confident surrender; surrender chases death away; life received anew, consciously, as gift enables the following of God’s call, and makes people realise that life is about more than mere survival.

The story of the Passover lamb challenges us to an examination of conscience in general terms. Do I really believe that God is a God able to save? Am I prepared to set out, concretely, from limiting, familiar circumstances into something broad and new? Do I give God of my best, or do I try to purchase his favour at a rate of sale?

Such questioning is useful, but insufficient. We commemorate the institution of the Eucharist. Jesus, whom John acclaimed as ‘Lamb of God’ on the bank of the Jordan (Jh 1.36) is about to surrender himself into the hands of men. By strong and simultaneously peaceful signs he lets us perceive that the Passover lamb as Israel had known it until then was a preparation for a new, definitive victim. He himself is that victim, ‘a pure victim, a holy victim, a victim without blemish’ as we hear in the majestic cadences of the Roman Canon.

Today an ancient covenant is fulfilled; not so that we may make ourselves a nest in the fulfilment, but so that we may get moving. We have here no abiding city. We are called to follow Jesus outside the city, where in a few hours he will let the Blood flow that now is offered us in the form of wine (cf. Heb 13.13-14). The wine points towards a transfiguring communion in a dimension beyond the ones we know. That communion can no longer be called a paschal feast, for death will be no more. It will have been passed over for ever.

Today we cast our minds back in remembrance and project our hearts forward in hope. We are conscious that we’re part of a movement so immense that we simply cannot grasp it empirically. This movement is governed by God’s eternal providence. That is all we need to know in order to follow and not stand still. The most radical departure we are called to undertake is the departure from ourselves. Jesus shows us how such departure is practised (and tested) by washing the feet of the Twelve. In this way we intuit what it means to love, not just when it feels right, but definitively, ‘until the end’.

The Lord gives us this example and tells us we must follow it. We have been washed clean in the Blood of the Lamb (Rev 7.14). His name lives in us, we bear it on our forehead (Rev 22.4). Such a pledge liberates. It also confers obligation. Amen.


Detail from a print by C. Schönher (ca. 1880) in The Story of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation Told in Simple Language for the Young.