Holy Thursday | Readings: Exodus 12:1-8, 11-14; John 13:1-15
As you would expect, we have three momentous readings for the day, and they are all in ritual settings. The older religions all understood the importance and power of group rituals. Without them, there is no memory, no re-creation of the founding myth for each new generation, no group cohesiveness, and no transformation of persons at the deeper levels of consciousness—and unconsciousness!
Because the message can be hardly missed in the Gospel, Jesus explicates it clearly, “As I have done, you also must do,” and then in several more repetitions (John 13:13–20). But I am going to primarily talk about the First Reading from Exodus. Here Christians might be the most ignorant. The central Passover ritual defined this people: “This shall be a memorial feast for you, which all generations shall celebrate in Yahweh’s honor as a perpetual institution” (Exodus 12:14).
I will only unpack the central part of the ritual, but I think your Christian imagination will take it from there. Note that it says on the tenth day of the month (“April”), they are to procure a small year-old lamb for each household. They are to keep it for four days— just enough time for the children to bond with it and for all to see its loveliness—and then “slaughter it during the evening twilight”! Then they are to take its blood and sprinkle it on the doorpost of the houses. That night they are to eat it in highly ritualized fashion, recalling their departure from Egypt and their protection by God along the way. Thank God, the Jews eventually stopped animal sacrifice, but it was meant to be a psychic shock for all as killing always is. You can see, however, that the human psyche is slowly evolving in history to identify the real problem and what it is that actually has to die.
A cultural anthropologist could explain what is happening here. The sacrificial instinct is the deep recognition that something always has to die for something bigger to be born. We started with human sacrifice (Abraham and Isaac), we moved here to animal, and we gradually get closer to what really has to be sacrificed—our own beloved ego—as protected and beloved as a little household lamb! We will all find endless disguises and excuses to avoid letting go of what really needs to be die for our own spiritual growth. And it is not other humans (firstborn sons of Egyptians), animals (lambs or goats), or even “meat on Friday” that God wants or needs. It is always our beloved passing self that has to be let go of. Jesus surely had a dozen good reasons why he should not have to die so young, so unsuccessful at that point, and the Son of God besides!
By becoming the symbolic Passover Lamb himself, plus the foot-washing servant in tonight’s Gospel, Jesus makes the movement to the human and the personal very clear and quite concrete. It is always “we,” in our youth, in our beauty, in our power and over-protectedness that must be handed over. Otherwise, we will never grow up, big enough to “eat” of the Mystery of God and Love. It really is about “passing over” to the next level of faith and life. And that never happens without some kind of “dying to the previous levels.” This is an honest day of very good ritual that gathers all the absolutely essential but often avoided messages—necessary suffering, real sharing, divine intimacy, and loving servanthood.
“This is how you are to eat it: with your loins girt, sandals on your feet and staff in hand, you shall eat like those who are going somewhere. This is the Passover of the Lord.” —Exodus 12:11
“Jesus had loved his own in this world, and now wanted to show his love to them unto the end. . . . He took off his cloak, picked up a towel, poured water into a basin, and began to wash their feet.” —John 13:1, 4–5
“On this holy night of prayer, I would like to ‘spend one hour with you,’ so you can teach me how I am to let go and how I am to live. Let me see your loveliness in bread and wine and song and even in the servant’s towel.”