Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Maundy Thursday 2011
21 April 2011 at 17:00 pm
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
The Jewish feast of the Passover is their greatest annual celebration. It lasts from the 15th day of the Jewish month Nissan to the 22nd, like other Jewish festivals, eight days, from sunset the evening before the first day to just before sunset of the eighth day. Like the weekly observance of the Sabbath, it is essentially a domestic celebration taking place at the family meal table. The high point is the Passover meal that first evening. The associated ceremonies recall the escape of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. They tell of the hasty preparation of unleavened bread and of the lambs being slaughtered and their blood smeared on the lintels of Israelite houses as a message to the angel of death to pass over the house. As a result of the confusion and distress of the people of Egypt, Moses and his people are able to flee by night and eventually to pass through the Red Sea to safety and the Promised Land. In our Lord’s time, the Passover celebration was still preceded by the sacrifice of the lambs in the Jewish Temple, on the afternoon of 14th Nissan. But the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed by Titus the son of the Roman emperor Vespasian in AD 70, since when no lamb has been sacrificed for the Passover.
Tonight we celebrate the Last Supper our Lord Jesus Christ ate with his twelve Apostles in the Upper Room in Jerusalem. We recall his washing of the disciples’ feet as an act of humble service and as an example to them. We also recall his taking, blessing and breaking bread and taking and blessing a cup of wine and sharing them with the Twelve, saying This is my body and This is my blood. Then we remember his words to Judas who goes off into the night to betray him. The scene closes on the Upper Room as Jesus and the Eleven move off to the Mount of Olives where Jesus will pray before his arrest. ‘The one I will kiss is the man.’ [Mark 14: 44]
But is this meal, this Last Supper, the Passover meal or not? The evidence is confusing. The gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke seem to be explicit that it was. In Matthew, ‘So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the Passover meal.’ [Matthew 26: 19] In Mark, ‘On the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed, his disciples said to him, ‘Where do you want us to go and make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?’’ [Mark 14: 12] In Luke, ‘Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, ‘Go and prepare the Passover meal for us that we may eat it.’’ [Luke 22: 7, 8] John’s gospel, however, tells a different story. Tonight’s gospel reading from St John begins, ‘Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father.’ [John 13: 1] John does not mention the Passover again, but does make clear that the death of Jesus occurs on the day of Preparation, coinciding with the sacrifice of the lambs, and that the Passover festival begins this year on the Sabbath: ‘Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the Sabbath, especially because that Sabbath was a day of great solemnity.’ [John 19: 31]
So, put simply, St John’s Gospel appears on this reading to place the Last Supper one day before the synoptic Gospels, on the eve of the Day of Preparation not on the eve of the Passover itself. For St John this is no Passover meal; there is no reference to the words of the Lord in sharing the bread and wine; for him perhaps the symbolism is overwhelmingly important of the Lamb of God, whose sacrifice takes away the sins of the world, being sacrificed at the same time as the Passover lambs, whose sacrifice now avails nothing. Does St John then change the chronology to suit his theological purposes? That would be the conventional judgement.
But a recent publication urges another view. The author is Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, but writing as a theologian, suggestively and sometimes speculatively, not with all the authority of the See of Peter. He points out that most of the elements of a Passover meal are not reflected in the account of the Last Supper in the synoptic Gospels any more than they are in the Fourth Gospel. Nor he suggests is it absolutely explicit even in the Synoptics that this meal is itself actually the Passover; the disciples were asked only to prepare for the Passover. Perhaps Matthew, Mark and Luke too look forward to the fulfilment of the Passover sacrifice in the sacrifice of the Son of God on the Cross. What all the Gospels accept is that at the very least Jesus takes the Passover tradition and amends it, bends or transforms it for his own purpose.
There is no precedent in the Passover tradition for Jesus’ words over the bread and wine, attested first by St Paul little more than twenty years after the events he describes, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ and ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ [I Corinthians 11: 24, 25] The Jewish law does not allow anyone to drink of the blood of an animal. Jesus is making a radical innovation here, starting a new tradition. The sacrifices of the Old Covenant, of lambs and goats, pigeons and doves, are done away. The destruction of the Temple in AD 70 underlines the point that it is through the death of our Lord Jesus Christ and not through the sacrifice of any animal that we are reconciled to God and made one with the Father in the Son by the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus is the Passover lamb who takes away the sins of the world. And we can enter into the benefits of this sacrifice as we eat the bread and drink the cup transformed by the gift of the Holy Spirit in response to the words of the priest into the Body and Blood of the Lord.
This takes us far beyond any Passover meal and has been immensely fruitful for Christian theology and spirituality. It has also been of great controversy between the different traditions of Christianity, one of the rocks on which the storms of the Reformation broke. The key point at issue is how far and in what way the bread and wine change and become the Body and Blood of the Lord. The point of disagreement is, taken simply, comparatively narrow. Do the consecrated bread and wine as the Body and Blood of the Lord have a permanently changed essential character or do they have a passing significance for the faithful recipient? At either extremes of the discussion no one claims on the one hand that the elements cease at the consecration to have the physical attributes of bread and wine nor, on the other, does anyone claim that the bread and wine have no more significance than a slice of Hovis and a glass of Chianti. No one who accepts Holy Communion as a Gospel sacrament doubts that our Lord Jesus Christ on the night he was betrayed made a genuine innovation. This is a new thing quite out of keeping with the Passover tradition. Jesus offers his disciples for all time a means whereby he can for ever come close to those who seek to follow him and to sustain them in the journey of life. What we celebrate tonight is the amazing truth that in some way or other under the forms of bread and wine, sacramentally, Christ our Lord gives us his very life. And it is not just that truth we celebrate but the very present reality of Christ’s gift. Our Lord Jesus Christ himself is really present to the faithful believer and gives himself to and for us. More than that we do not really need to know. As a brief poem variously attributed to John Donne or to Queen Elizabeth I puts it:
He was the Word, that spake it:
He took the bread and brake it;
And what that Word did make it,
I do believe and take it.
Let us then prepare to meet our Lord here and now in his sacramental presence. Let him open for us in his own Body and Blood the way from slavery to freedom, from exile to the Promised Land.