A Night With a Difference

Homily at St Philip Evans for Maundy Thursday, 2017.

“Why is this night different from all others?”

Earlier this week, Jewish families around the world gathered to celebrate the Passover together. The youngest child able to speak would ask that question, and the father of the household would answer by telling the story of the first Passover, the story we heard part of in our First Reading.

The Jewish household would remember how, when they were slaves in Egypt, they were commanded to slaughter the first Passover lamb, and place its blood on their doorposts. Then they were to roast the lamb and eat it. Only those who had eaten of the lamb and marked their homes with its blood were protected when the Angel of Death passed over Egypt that night.

“Why is this night different from all others?”

We gather as a Christian community to celebrate the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, remembering how Jesus and his disciples gathered to celebrate a Passover meal. If you had lived in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus, you would have witnessed thousands of families bringing their lambs to the Temple that day, to be slaughtered. It is said that the lambs would be hung, to bleed out, on a crossbar, and then skewered from head to tail to be roasted… the skewered lambs would look very much as if they had been fixed to a cross. (See this example.)

We are not told whether Jesus and the disciples had a roasted lamb at their table – the Bible only speaks of bread and wine. But lamb was present – Jesus himself, declared by John the Baptist to be the Lamb of God. That night, as St Paul reminded the Corinthians, he would take the cup of wine, and declare it to be his blood, which was to be shed for many. The following day, not a wooden doorpost, but a wooden cross, would be stained by the blood of this Lamb. Upon that Cross, the Firstborn Son of God would fall victim to the plague of death.

In the Jewish religion, it was strictly forbidden to drink blood, for blood represented life. Even for the first Christians, when they considered what Jewish laws new Christians should have to keep, abstaining from blood was one of the four laws they retained. Yet the Lord Jesus commanded us to drink his blood, in the form of wine.

Only those who ate the Passover lamb – save perhaps infants too young in the household marked by blood – would be protected from the plague of death. Just after feeding 5000 people with loaves multiplied abundantly, Jesus said “if you do not eat my body and drink my blood, you do not have life within me”. So although we are forbidden to drink the life of any mere creature, we are commanded to drink the blood of Our Divine Lord; we, mere humans, to drink the life of heaven and consume the bread of angels.

“Why is this night different from all others?”

We’re going to do something in this parish tonight we haven’t done before.

Tonight, we are going to bless wooden crosses which from now on will be worn by the extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion on duty at Mass. We’re doing this for a very practical reason – if a minister on duty is delayed and arrives late, that person can see on arriving if a substitute has taken the last cross and relieve them of it. But when we decided to give our ministers some insignia, we chose a very particular source for these crosses. This wood is tainted – it is stained by sin. It comes from wooden moulds used to make concrete blocks – blocks which form a wall separating communities from one another in the Holy Land. Some of the local people rescue this wood and carve crosses from it, trying to bring some good from a work of division. In this way, material used in the construction of an oppressive barrier is being employed by local craft workers to create a symbol of the triumph of life over death and of love over injustice. This wood is both shameful and redeemed.

A wooden cross with a Celtic-style ring around the joining of the barsThese insignia are in the form of a circle on a cross. We might think of it as a Celtic Cross. But since our ministers give us the Body of Christ in the form of a small round wafer, the circle might also remind us of Christ’s Body, hung on the Cross for our salvation – just as those ancient lambs were mounted on cruciform spits to be roasted for the Passover meal.

“Why is this night different from all others?”

After the death of the Firstborn, Pharaoh King of Egypt sent the Jews out on their journey into the wilderness. God would provide for them, in the wilderness, manna from heaven, honey-sweet bread which was a foretaste of the Promised Land.

Perhaps the world we live in today feels like a wilderness. Acts of terrorism and conflicts between nations are never far away. The manna from heaven was God’s promise that he would provide for his people as they journeyed towards their Promised Land.

This is our security. Will we go to heaven because of the good works that we have done? No. We who are followers of Jesus will go to heaven because we have the life of God within us; we have feasted on the Bread of Life and drunk the Cup of Salvation.

Tonight Jesus challenges us all to perform good works which make this life a little more like Heaven. But he also points us to those two days in history when wood was stained with blood so that God’s people would be saved from Death – that first Passover, when the firstborn sons of Israel were spared, and Good Friday, when our debts were paid and the price of our sin paid by the precious blood of the Lamb of God. Eat the flesh of this Passover Lamb. Drink the Blood of the Saviour who died for you. Rejoice, for when you hear the words, “The Body of Christ”, “The Blood of Christ”, hear God’s tender voice: “This is how much I love you.”

Much of tonight’s homily is based on Brant Pitre’s book The Jewish Roots of the Eucharistas was the teaching about the shewbread in my Christmas Sermon.