Maundy Thursday

Fr Paul’s Sermon.

This night which we are commemorating was especially important to Jesus. He knew that his appointed end was very near, the moment when his enemies would prevail, and have him killed. He knew that this is what the Father required of him, if the salvation of the world was to be achieved. He accepted this, in total obedience to the designs of God.

As a devout Jew, Jesus was familiar with the idea of sacrifice, and with the idea of atonement. Jewish sacrifices were of thanksgiving, and of reconciliation. “Atonement” is “at-one-ment”, bringing together again two parties that have been estranged. The Day of Atonement and the Passover festival were two distinct occasions in the Jewish calendar, but on this occasion, the night before his Passion, Jesus was bringing the two ideas together.

Passover was the festival of Liberation, the commemoration of God’s deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, and forming them into a People united to himself by a sacred Covenant. But that earthly slavery was only a reflection of a much more profound slavery, affecting the whole of humanity. This was the slavery of sin, slavery to Satan the Enemy of God. Sin is slavery, because it takes away human freedom, just as surely as addiction to drugs, or drink, or sex takes away freedom. Jesus knew that nothing less was at stake in his own fate than the rescue by God of all humanity. God does not have slaves, God has children whom he loves, and over whom he grieves when they sell themselves into the slavery of sin.

The notion of sacrifice, as Fr Jones was explaining to us the other Sunday, involves the idea of the giving of life. The sacrifices of the Old Law were symbolic: by offering the fruits of the earth or of the flock, God’s people represented the offering of themselves. A further foundation, for animal sacrifices in particular, was that blood is the principle of life. When God saved Noah and his family from the Flood, in the ancient story, he told them , “You shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.” This was the foundation for the Jewish and Islamic rules, even today, for the slaughter of animals to be eaten. All we need to bear in mind is that, for Jesus as a Jew, blood meant life.

At the last supper, which he shared with his closest disciples, Jesus took bread and a cup of wine. As he broke the bread and shared it with them, he said, “Take and eat; this is my body.” As he took the cup, he said, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Luke has a slightly different wording, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” Symbolically, his blood is separated from his body (the cup of wine from the bread), just as less than twenty-four hours later his blood would be poured out on the cross. By telling them to eat and drink, Jesus was in effect telling them to unite themselves with his self-sacrifice. He was making a new Covenant, not just with one People, but with all humanity.

And it was self-sacrifice. Although it was the Roman soldiers who actually nailed him to the wood, under the orders of Pilate, urged by the priests, to whom he had been betrayed by Judas: it was Jesus who by his willing obedience offered himself to the Father, as the sacrifice of atonement, of reconciliation, for the sins of the world, and as the true paschal lamb of the great Passover when God would rescue his people from Satan, and as the High Priest who offers it.. All this is represented in the Last Supper.

And it is re-presented now. As the sacrifices of the Old Law were foreshadowings of the one true Sacrifice of Christ, so our Eucharist (which means “thanksgiving”) is a participation in that one true, perfect and sufficient Sacrifice. We “re-pre’sent” it, in the sense of making it present in the here and now, not just two thousand years ago, and we “re-prese’nt” it in the sense of presenting it again to the Father, uniting ourselves with it as Jesus told us to do, offering (in the words of the Prayer Book) “ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy and lively sacrifice” to God. “Reasonable”, meaning deliberate and with full awareness of what we are doing; “holy”, because it is a dedication of ourselves to God; “lively”, because it is the offering of our living selves, with all the talents and gifts God has given us, but also with all the weaknesses and failings that beset us. When we join in this offering, by eating the Bread which is Christ’s sacred Body, and drinking the Wine which is his Precious Blood, we take his life into ourselves.

As is our custom, on this sacred night, at the end of Mass we take the Blessed Sacrament to the Altar of Repose, and like the disciples in Gethsemane we shall keep watch for a little while. Tomorrow, at the Liturgy, the Sacrament will be brought back, and as we remember our Lord’s death on the cross (which took place at the very hour, as St John explains, when the Passover lambs were killed in the Temple) we again unite ourselves with him. Then there is silence, all through the rest of Friday and Saturday, until on the eve of Easter we meet to celebrate the Resurrection.