When I was a child in growing up in a Jewish home, Passover was my favorite holiday. Most religious holy days were celebrated corporately by our community at the local synagogue. But, Passover was different. In those days, Passover was celebrated at home with all of one’s extended family. Often, it was the only time you might see a distant relative for years at a time. It was a multi-generational gathering of family with grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, and the like all gathered together around one table.
Much of the world envisions Passover as looking somewhat like Leonardo Da Vinci’s mural of the Last Supper. While this is certainly great art, it is a poor exegetical representation of the Passover feast celebrated by Jesus that we are recalling this evening. Unlike the artistic masterpiece, the traditional and Gospel setting for Passover was evening rather than daytime. The table would have featured roasted paschal lamb and flat unleavened bread rather than fish and risen loaves. All in attendance were required to be reclining rather than sitting upright on benches. Missing also are the extended families of Jesus and his disciples, including women and children, whose attendance was mandatory for the feast.
Passover is one of the most continuously celebrated feasts in history. Its celebration was described in detail to Moses and Aaron in the 12th chapter of Exodus. By the time of Jesus, the Children of Israel had celebrated the feast for over 1,200 years with little change. St. John tells us in his Gospel narrative that in the course of his ministry, Jesus had gone to Jerusalem three times to celebrate the Passover. But this last time was to be different – very different.
In St. Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says (Lk 22:15-16) “With desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer…until it be fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” This is considered a very unusual sentence structure in the Greek language and indicates that “the knowledge of the intensity of the suffering does not cancel the intensity of the desire” and that the desire itself will be ultimately fulfilled in the kingdom of God.
In the Gospels, we are accustomed to the numerous instances of people desiring Jesus. The blind, the deaf, and the lepers came desiring healing. Friends and family would bring those who were crippled or demon possessed, desiring healing for their loved ones. The centurion desired Jesus to heal his servant from afar. Mourners desired Jesus to resuscitate their dead. There are many instances of desire in the Gospels, but nowhere else in the Scriptures does Jesus express such an intense personal desire – and it is to be at Passover with his disciples.
The Passover is comprised of a special meal called the Seder, or Order. It also follows a liturgical guide for the evening, called the Hagaddah, or the telling, which is an extended teaching by the leader, interwoven with partaking of ceremonial foods throughout the evening meal.
The youngest child in attendance was required to ask four questions that would provide the context for explaining the Passover feast so that all in attendance would be able to understand. Both the questions and responses were well rehearsed. The first and best known question of the evening is “Why is this night different from all other nights?”
Central to the familiar responses of Passover was the Hebrew concept of “Zikkaron” which is a reactualization of the event – not just a remembrance. It is to be “made present” at the event, a sacred “you are there” moment in time. Those who attend a Passover thus become actual participants in the events commemorated in the Book of Exodus. In celebrating Passover, Scripture instructs (Ex 13:8) the father’s to teach their children, “This is done because of that which the Lord did unto me when I came forth out of Egypt.” It was I who was a slave under Pharaohs’ cruel taskmasters in Egypt. It was I who witnessed the plagues God visited upon Egypt. It was the blood of the Passover lamb applied to the doorposts and lintels of my home that kept me alive when the angel of death passed through Egypt killing all their firstborn. It was my feet that walked on dry ground through the parted waters of the Red Sea. I witnessed the destruction of Pharaoh’s chariots and horsemen as the waters returned to their normal flow. Those who failed to observe the feast were to be excommunicated from the nation (Nu 9:13).
It is with this same understanding of becoming actual participants in the Passover, that St. Paul writes in this evening’s Epistle (1 Co 11:23-26), “That the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread: 24 And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do ing remembrance of me. 25 After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me.”
Why is this Maundy Thursday night different from all other nights?
Because it is the night we remember that it is we who are in attendance and present with the disciples at the Last Supper we remember tonight. Each time we receive the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Sacrament, we are grateful recipients of the intense desire and promise of Jesus to those whom he will lovingly redeem through his Passion at the conclusion of this long day – For (Jn 6:54) “Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.”
Plummer, A. (1896). A critical and exegetical commentary on the Gospel According to S. Luke (494). London: T&T; Clark International.
g in…: or, for a remembrance
The Holy Bible : King James Version. 1995 (electronic ed. of the 1769 edition of the 1611 Authorized Version.) (1 Co 11:23-26). Bellingham WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
The Holy Bible : King James Version. 1995 (electronic ed. of the 1769 edition of the 1611 Authorized Version.) (Jn 6:54). Bellingham WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.