Thursday, 24 March 2016

Remember and proclaim

Maundy Thursday takes its name from the Latin 'novum mandatum', meaning a new commandment. Two quite different eucharistic gatherings take place on this day. The first is with the Bishop in the Cathedral, when the focus of the celebration is the healing ministry of the church, featuring the blessing of Holy Oils used in baptism, confirmation and ministry to the sick. The Servant's missionary declaration of purpose from Isaiah 61 sets the tone - 'The Spirit of the lord is upon me.' read first, then re-read in the Gospel from Luke 4:16-21 where Jesus reads the passage during synagogue worship and speaks to the congregation about it representing his vocation to offer healing, liberation, and good news of hope from God.

It is an occasion for priests to rededicate themselves to ministry, following the example of Christ the servant. It is an occasion when all God's people can share in taking ownership of the church's ministry, as part of preparation to renew baptismal vows together on Easter Eve at the climax of this three days of re-living the Saviour's passion and passover from death to resurrection. 

This is also the time of the Jewish Passover celebration. This evening's Eucharist has a passover theme, opening with a reading from Exodus about remembering the events with a special meal. St Paul speaks of the commandment received by his followers from Jesus of remembering him by sharing bread and wine together in thanksgiving, but not only for the liberation of the Israelites at the first passover, but in thanksgiving for the self-sacrifice of Jesus for the forgiveness of the world's sin, and reconciliation with God.

'Do this ... in remembrance of me. Whenever you eat this bread and drink from this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.' (1 Corinthians 11:25b-26)

All those accompanying Jesus would have grown up sharing this special meal, remembering the Exodus and Passover to affirm their Jewish identity. The introduction by Jesus of the words 'This is my body ... this is my blood' over the broken bread and cup, change the meaning of the action forever. They provide a unique point of reference for Christian prayer and worship in relation to Jesus.

The Gospel read this night doesn't repeat the story Paul tells, or repeat what the first three Gospels report about Jesus' words at this meal. Instead, John's Gospel tells how Jesus washed the disciples' feet after supper and gave them the 'new commandment' - "Love one another, as I have loved you." Love, expressed in the humblest acts of service and in his own self sacrifice. Eating and praying together, bonded by love and mutual care are foundations of the personal relationship each person can make with God in the intimacy of their hearts. Jesus also says

'I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.' (John 13:15)

Each person who would serve others, must also let themselves be ministered to. Jesus showed this in accepting Mary's anointing of him a few days earlier. Whenever we pray, this is not just an occasion for us to offer something to God. God is already offering himself, his life for us, and this is cause for thanksgiving and praise. Words from a Psalm rejoicing in deliverance from peril and enemies, have long been linked by the church to the celebration of the Lord's Supper.

'What shall I render to the Lord for all His benefits toward me? I shall lift up the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the Lord.' (Psalm 116:12-13)

After the meal and conversation, Jesus and the disciples end with a hymn of thanksgiving and retire to the Garden of Gethsemane to enjoy the silence of night under the passover moon in personal prayer. The church imitates them by moving away from the main worship area to a place where worshippers can keep a prayer vigil as long as they wish during the night hours. It is a time to recall the agonising of Jesus over his ultimate surrender in total trust and obedience to God, even to death. 

'Not my will, but thy will be done.'  (Luke 22:42)

In recalling his betrayal, interrogation and abuse, also the disciples' flight and Peter's denial, we reflect on our own steadfastness of faith: 'Lord, is it I? Psalms of Lament and penitence can be read. Despite their grim intensity, they will be found ultimately to express trust in the One who vindicates His Suffering Servant.

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