Maundy Thursday, 29 March 2018

March 29, 2018 | by Robert McDonald

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Exodus 12:1 – 4, [5 – 10], 11 – 14 Psalm 116:1 – 2, 12 – 19 1 Corinthians 11:23 – 26 John 13:1 – 17, 31b – 35

Discussion of the Texts: Today is Maundy Thursday (or Holy Thursday), and it marks — for some traditions, like my own Catholic tradition — the beginning of a period of the liturgical year which we know as the Holy Triduum, among the most sacred of days found throughout the entire liturgical year.  My own tradition demarcates levels of solemnity by categorizing certain days as simply memorials (such as certain feast days), special feast days (such as the Blessed Virgin, St. Joseph, the Apostles, and other significant saints), and holy days of obligation (every Sunday, as well as certain select feast days known as “Solemnities”).  Outside of the Christian tradition, however, today precedes a very different feast, one which begins at sundown tomorrow, and the celebration of which is commemorated in both the first reading and the Gospel: the Jewish Passover celebration.

We find in the first reading (from Exodus) that God has commanded Moses and Aaron to direct the captive Hebrews in Egypt as to how they are to prepare for and celebrate the Passover of God (Ex. 12:1).  Directed to obtain an unblemished lamb for each family or group of families (12:3 – 5), the Israelites are then to slaughter the animals and apply some of the blood to “the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they” are eaten, with unleavened bread and bitter herbs (12:7; 12:8).  The people, God’s People, are prepared to flee when the destroyer lays waste to the first-born of Egypt, protected as they are by the blood of a spotless lamb (12:13).

Just as the Israelites are directed to celebrate the Passover into perpetuity (12:14), the Psalmist rejoices by proffering their thanks to God for hearing the cries of the people (Ps. 116:1).  While the reading for today precludes verses 3 through 11, they continue the act of thanksgiving in which the Psalmist is engaged, extolling the ways by which God has looked with favor upon them.  But, it seems that the Psalmist then turns their attention to an important question: what shall we give to God (116:12)? The Psalmist declares their unending devotion to God (116:14, 18), being the servant of God and child of Gods “serving girl [sic] (116:16).  But it is ultimately praise without ceasing that the Psalmist declares and calls for (116:19).

Following the first reading and the psalm, we now turn to the New Testament readings, both of which are at the heart of today’s Christian celebration:  the Last Supper of Jesus, celebrated on the night before he died. In First Corinthians, we find Paul reminding the church of Corinth how they are to remember the Passover celebration of Jesus, recounting how Jesus took the bread and the cup, declaring them to be his body and his blood—signs of the new covenant — and that the Apostles were to do likewise “in remembrance of” him (1 Cor. 11:23 – 25; cf. Mark 14:22 – 24, Matthew 26:26 – 28, Luke 22:19 – 20), thereby proclaiming his death (1 Cor. 11:26).

Where the account from Paul is straightforward — being almost a declaration of a rubric to be followed when celebrating the breaking of bread and sharing of the cup — we find that John’s Gospel provides us with a fuller narrative for that night.  Though the reading for today does not include the prophecy of Judas’s intent to betray Jesus, as well as his subsequent departure (aside from Jn. 13:31, “When he [Judas] had gone out…”), we are provided two powerful messages nonetheless:  first, we read the account of the washing of the feet (13:3 – 15), as well as a new commandment: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (13:34 – 35)

Process Theology and the Texts: There may seem some difficulty in reconciling a process theological perspective with the depiction of God in the text from Exodus.  Consider: “For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD” (Ex. 12:12).  One avenue of approach is to simply write-off this passage as a “misunderstanding” by the original author(s) and/or later compilers of the Hebrew Bible. Another approach could be the standard process approach which states that God changes; as such, the vengeful God of Exodus and elsewhere in Scripture could merely be an “adolescent” God who is subject to mood swings.

Neither of these seem satisfying when we think about them further.  Consider the first possibility: how can we honestly write-off this passage as a mere misunderstanding when it describes a central component to the story of Exodus?  Recalling that Exodus recounts the enslavement and subsequent liberation of the Israelites, a mere misunderstanding cannot be (at least) the whole of how we seek to ameliorate this passage — and others like it — with a process perspective.  Indeed, this “story of Israel’s exodus out of Egypt” is one of the most important and influential narratives throughout Scripture (Dennis T. Olson, “Introduction to Exodus,” The Access Bible 2011 [1999], 115), so we can write it off.

Consider then the second possibility:  while process theology is clear in affirming that God changes, it may seem nonetheless sacrilegious to call the God of the Hebrew Bible an adolescent making His/Her way to maturity.  This seems especially problematic when we consider the Creation story of Genesis — God would appear to demonstrate therein a level of maturity beyond that exhibited in other passages, which we may again chalk-up to a simple mood swing.  The final problem seems to be that trying to reconcile this passage through a process approach will necessitate that we not read it literally, as the “God-as-moody-adolescent” seems to imply.  This seems quite evident from the outset.

This move, to refrain from a literal or superficial reading of the text, allows us to dive into the deeper meanings to be gleaned from the text.  One such deeper meaning is that God is not a deity who deals out death and destruction on a whim; rather, She/He is a God of justice, a God of deep love, and a God who ultimately liberates:  in the words of Whitehead, “What is done in the world is transformed into a reality in heaven, and the reality passes back into the world” (A.N. Whitehead, Process and Reality 1957 [1929], 532).  However, God does not simply “do” these things, specifically the last — God does not act-as-such in the world.  Instead, God’s “role in creation centers in the provision to each actual occasion of its initial aim” (John B. Cobb, Jr., A Christian Natural Theology 1965, 203), the summum bonum among which is the Divine milieu of Teilhard, the one in whose “burning layers” we are so enraptured that we cannot but adore (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Divine Milieu 1960, 112).1  It is within this milieu that we may love in the way to which we are called, to be liberators of others as God liberates us.

Preaching the Texts: There is so much we could unpack from these readings, given particularly how we may approach them from various process perspectives (e.g. Mainline or Evangelical Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, etc.).  I will endeavor to suggest some points of departure for preaching which toe the proverbial line between these categories.

For those who may desire to take an historical approach, one point to highlight could be how the reading from the Gospel points us to the traditional name of what some traditions call “Holy Thursday” — today is Maundy Thursday, coming from the Latin maundatum, which means “commandment.”  It is today that we are given the new commandment prefigured in Matthew 22:36 – 40 and Luke 10:25 – 28, as well as earlier in Leviticus 19:18.

What is more, and this could be another sermon, Jesus is said to have illustrated for us how we are to fulfill this commandment by his washing the feet of the Apostles:  as he has done, so shall must we do. Such a theme would make for an excellent sermon, especially for those traditions (like my own tradition) who practice a ritual washing of the feet.  From a process perspective, such demonstration of our love for one another is that which furthers the building of the Reign of God.

Another point of departure could be the institution of the Sacrament of the Eucharist, “the primordial sacrament” (Robert B. Mellert, What is Process Theology? 1975, 106), at the celebration of the Last Supper.  Recalling that “sacraments are outward signs instituted by Christ causing inward grace,” and that “sacraments are primarily signs, but they are not ordinary signs, because they also cause what they signify [which] is grace” (Mellert, 100), we can draw a connection to the sacramental process of being Church and the communal practice of the sacraments:  “In the process perspective, each sacramental action is both created by the community and creative of the community,” bestowing grace upon the community (Mellert, 101). This is to say that sacraments are constituted by the Church as it attempts to draw closer to the Jesus-event, which in turn leads them to constitute the Church precisely by drawing it closer to the Jesus-event (cf. Mellert, 105).

For those who wish to take an “old-school” turn vis-à-vis the sacramental themes of Exodus, First Corinthians, and the Gospel of John, a turn toward St. John Chrysostom’s “The power of Christ’s blood” can provide plenty of material.  This is a typical reading for Holy Week in the Catholic Liturgy of the Hours, specifically a Non-Biblical reading for the Hour of the Divine Office known as “the Office of Readings.”2  While many will read it tomorrow (including especially at Good Friday Tenebræ services), it is designated as being for Holy Week, and is thus apropos for today.  Personally, I have always read this ancient homily following the Catholic Mass of the Lord’s Supper (the Roman celebration of Maundy Thursday), being struck by many passages, including this one:

If we wish to understand the power of Christ’s blood, we should go back to the ancient account of its prefiguration in Egypt.  Sacrifice a lamb without blemish, commanded Moses, and sprinkle its blood on your doors.  If we were to ask him what he meant…his answer would be that the saving power lies not in the blood itself but in the fact that it is a sign of the Lord’s blood.  In those days, when the destroying angel saw the blood on the doors he did not dare to enter, so much less will the devil approach now when he sees, not that figurative blood on the doors, but the true blood on the lips of believers, the doors of the temple of Christ…  There flowed from his side water and blood.  Beloved, do not pass over this mystery without thought; it has yet another hidden meaning…  From these two sacraments the Church is born…[so] it was from his side that Christ fashioned the Church… (John Chrysostom, “The power of Christ’s blood,” in Christian Prayer:  The Liturgy of the Hours 1976, 1985 – 86; italics in original).

Whether we take either of the high or low Christological approaches (among others) with this passage, and regardless of whether we consider the Eucharist to be merely symbolic or that there exists therein the True Presence, I would suggest that we may glean a sense of the sacramental described by Robert Mellert, that our participation in the celebration of the Eucharist is both constituted by and constitutive of what it means to be Church.

Carrying over from this last theme, I would suggest that we may draw one further connection:  the establishment of the Eucharist, as well as its continued celebration, are intimately connected to the new commandment of John 13:34 – 35.  What I mean is that the Eucharistic celebration is not merely a re-enactment; rather, it is the means by which the Church is a Eucharistic People — within and without.  It is by the continued celebration of the Eucharist, as directed by Paul to the church of Corinth, that the Church (in all forms) gives thanks to God and for God.  As such, we can set foot in our places of worship today when we hear the following words: Venite, adoremus.


1    It is worth noting why Teilhard’s use of milieu is of central importance:  it carries the dual denotation of both an “environment” or “space,” and the point at the “center” of said space.  We could reasonably add a third connotation, that of a “horizon” — inasmuch as any center surrounded by its environment entails some horizon toward which one can always draw closer.

2    As I may have noted in earlier commentaries, the Divine Office, or the Liturgy of the Hours, is a set of prayers comprised of primarily biblical (as well as some non-biblical) readings and prayers which all Catholic clergy and religious vow to pray seven times daily, though lay Catholics are encouraged to celebrate the Hours (individually or communally).  The Liturgy of the Hours is, of course, not exclusive to the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church, nor the Catholic Church across all of its rites.

Robert McDonald

Raised Roman Catholic, Rob is a first year PhD student with the Center for Process Studies at the Claremont School of Theology.  Having studied philosophy, theology, history, and public policy/administration at the undergraduate and graduate levels at both Gannon University (Erie, PA) and Gonzaga University (Spokane, WA), his specific research interests with the Center and CST (to hopefully culminate in a dissertation) are the ethical implications (especially environmental and social) of a comparative analysis/integration of the lives/works of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ and Morihei Ueshiba (as well as the Kyoto School of philosophy), in light of Whiteheadian process thought.