On Thursday the atmosphere changes, just for a while. As Jesus stopped in his inexorable path to Calvary’s hill to celebrate the Passover with his friends, so we stop in our Way of the Cross to remember both what the Passover means and what Jesus did to make that Passover unique. The readings are quite different from what we have heard the previous three days. No Isaiah excerpts, no Servant Songs; Instead the Old Testament lesson is from Exodus, and relates how Passover is to be marked with a lamb or kid and unleavened bread. Further we are taught to remember that this night marks the Lord’s Passover and a terrible judgement on Egypt — a judgement and a warning.
In the epistle we hear the voice of St Paul as he recounts for the Corinthian Christians, and for us as well, the tradition that he received (perhaps from James and other leaders on his first post-conversion visit to Jerusalem) about the Last Supper. From Jesus’ words that Paul recalls for us, we take three lessons: first that a new covenant, the covenant foreseen by Jeremiah in which our sins are forgiven and remembered no more, has been established by Jesus. Second that, just as our spiritual forebears were told to remember the Lord’s Passover, we are to remember Jesus’ actions in blessing and offering the Passover bread and wine. Third that by our act of remembrance we recall “the Lord’s death” until he comes. That death, which we mark tomorrow, represents the sacrifice of obedience and love that brings the covenant into effect so, in recalling it, we necessarily recall the covenant in which we have new life in Christ.
And then in the Gospel John reminds us that more happened at the Last Supper than the repurposing of the unleavened bread and wine of Passover into the New Covenant meal. So far we have seen each Gospel of Holy Week reveal a prophetic sign of Jesus’ saving work for us: on Monday, Mary anoints Jesus, on Tuesday the Greeks seek Jesus out, on Wednesday Jesus tells Judas at supper “Do quickly what you are going to do”. Tonight the easy choice for the lectionary would have been to follow St Paul’s description of the First Eucharist with one of the three Synoptic accounts that tell that familiar story. Instead we see and hear Jesus washing his disciples’ feet, enacting his love for them as he gave them the new covenant’s new commandment: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
This is the prophetic sign for us on Maundy Thursday, that on the last Passover he spent on earth Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. We don’t know who all the disciples present that night were but no doubt that some of the female disciples were there, if only to ensure that room and the meal itself (including the ritual parts of it) were properly prepared and served. And we know that Jesus washed all their feet, taking upon himself the duty given not just to a servant or slave but to the lowest servant or slave in the household “pecking order”.
On Friday afternoon on the Cross Jesus will show his love and obedience for the Father who sent him and for us, his sisters and brothers, in a final act of love. Now on Thursday night among his friends, Jesus shows us the way to obey his commandment of love every day in our relationships with one another and with God. Let’s learn from it how to be like Jesus even in the small ways of everyday living. I think for myself that it can be harder to wash one another’s feet again and again than to make some ultimate unrepeatable sacrifice. May the Lord help us all to follow Jesus’ new commandment in love and take part in his new covenant of love.