Maundy Thursday 2017
Exodus 12: 1-4, 11-14 & John 13: 1-17, 31b-35
May I speak this evening in the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our first reading this evening reminded me that Moses wore a wig. How do we know that Moses wore a wig? Because sometimes he appeared with Aaron and sometimes without. Sorry.
Easter is, literally, a movable feast – sometimes, like last year, it falls very early and sometimes it falls very late but it always seems to cause huge confusion with school holidays.
Can anyone recall how the date of Easter is determined?
“Easter is the first Sunday following the full moon that comes on or after the vernal equinox (March 21). Thus Easter can take place as early as March 22 but no later than April 25”. [This full moon is normally the full moon which takes place on the 14th day of Nisan. Thus in most years Easter is celebrated on the Sunday following Passover.]
Evidently there are some serious moves afoot to fix the date of Easter.
Last year the Archbishop of Canterbury said that the Anglican church was joining talks with other Christian churches to fix Easter for one of the middle weekends in April and that this could happen within 5 to 10 years.
Now, as a parent of school age children (although they won’t be in 10 years’ time) I can appreciate that it would be hugely convenient for parents and for schools for this to happen. Even as a vicar, on one level, this would be convenient because it would avoid those years like last year when we came straight out of Epiphany and into Lent.
As you probably know, many parts of the Orthodox church work on a different calendar to the Western churches which means that the world is presented with the rather unedifying spectacle of the church celebrating both Easter and Christmas at different times which, for many, says all they need to know about Christian unity. So, if it were possible for all the churches, and I mean all the churches, to unify around one fixed date for Easter then this could be a wonderful witness to unity and, on that basis, I would give it my full support.
However I suspect that large parts of the church will not be able to agree to the proposal and I can fully understand why. Put simply the church’s year has nothing to do with our convenience. It could well be said that changing the church to fit in with our convenience rather than changing ourselves to fit in with the demands of Christianity sums up the rather wet approach to faith in this part of the world and at this point in time.
If you think about it can you honestly imagine any other faith changing its most important festival to make life more convenient for schools? Both Ramadan and Diwali are movable festivals but can you imagine the Muslims or Hindus changing these for the sake of convenience?
So why does Easter follow those rather peculiar rules and move around? Surely, it is possible to argue, that the events of the first Easter must have happened at a particular time, say the middle weekend of April, in the year 33 AD so why not celebrate it at that time? The answer is that the bible does not give us a date for the first Easter, but rather it gives us a season and that season is located in the events we have remembered this evening.
On Maundy Thursday we remember the events of the Last Supper when Jesus and his disciples gathered around a table to share a meal together. All four gospels agree that the Last Supper took place at the Jewish festival of Passover or at least on the eve of Passover. And, ignoring my poor joke about Moses and Aaron, it was the events of the first Passover which we heard in our old testament reading. In that reading the Hebrews are still in slavery in Egypt and, as part of God’s plan to free them from slavery, he tells them that every household should sacrifice a lamb and put its blood on the doorposts of their house so that when the angel of death visited the land of Egypt to claim the lives of all the first born he would spare from destruction all those who are protected by the blood of the sacrificial lamb.
God spared all those protected by the blood of the lamb. From the earliest days of Christianity, in fact from the first chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus has been identified as the ‘lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ and in 1 Corinthians St Paul referred to Jesus as ‘the paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed.’ And, of course, the early chapters of Hebrews are about how the sacrifice of Jesus is the last and ultimate sacrifice.
So there is a very intimate connection between the Jewish festival of Passover and the events of Easter – and it is not just an accidental connection of timing but a much deeper theological connection concerning the identity and purpose of Christ.
At the end of our reading God commanded the Jewish people to remember and celebrate the Passover as a “Perpetual Ordinance” which is why Jesus and his followers were celebrating the Passover, or at the very least preparing to celebrate it, and why the Jewish community to this day continues so to do.
Now I won’t lie to you and pretend for the sake of argument that Passover and Easter always fall on at the same time – there are some extra peculiarities of the Jewish lunar calendar which means that sometimes they don’t coincide. But they usually do fall together because they usually move together. It seems to me that to fix the date of Easter is not only to be spiritually lazy in sacrificing two thousand years of church tradition to the expediency of school holiday convenience but it also risks breaking the much deeper spiritual connection between Easter and Passover.
One final thought about Maudy Thursday. We often associate the Last Supper with Jesus instituting Holy Communion, and that is certainly the focus of the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. However this evening’s gospel is from John and his account of this event focuses not on the breaking of bread and the sharing of wine, although he does mention that elsewhere and he has a very high view of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, but here John’s focus is on Jesus washing his disciples feet and commanding them to love and serve one another. It is interesting to me that if sharing bread and wine are a central sacrament of the church, because that is what Jesus told us to do at the Last Supper, then why do we not treat the washing of feet and serving one another more sacramentally as that was also instituted at the Last Supper? We remember it here once a year at this service but that washing of feet in a spirit of love and sacrificial service was just as much a part of the story of Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples as the bread and wine.
Jesus said: “Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
In a hurting and broken world in which everything is monetised and everyone has an agenda we are called to a different way of living. Not to live for ourselves and our own convenience but to live for, to serve and to love one another. If we do that the world will see that we are living to different standards and we follow a different master – the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.