There are two very prominent themes that come to the fore in the Holy Thursday scriptural readings. The first is theme is that service ministry, highlighted in the Gospel reading. The second theme is the origin of the Eucharist, alluded to in the passage from Exodus.
During his life, Jesus invested a lot of time preaching, spending time with the poor, the dispossessed, and those on the edges of society. While he dined with the religious leadership, he often reminded them that they should spend more time working with the marginalized, and less time seeking the approval of others. Christ also healed the sick – the lame, the physically challenged, those with communicable diseases, those on the point of death, and the blind. He also brought the dead back to life.
Jesus describes his own ministry as a ministry of service in several places. In Mark 10, he tells the disciples, I did not come to be served, but to serve. His says the same thing in Matthew’s Gospel, however he ties service to shedding his own life:
The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and the give his life as a ransom for many. (Mt 20:28)
The work of Christ is so demanding that it is self-emptying. Not only does he dedicate his life to showing solidarity with the poor, healing the sick, and proclaiming the Kingdom of God to the poor in spirit, but he expends everything to the point that it costs him his life. In the fourth Gospel, Christ tells the disciples that a Good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He says, I have the power to lay it down, and the power to take it up again.
John’s Gospel tells us that the disciples did not immediately understand the significance of service ministry. When Jesus knelt down to wash the feet of Peter, Peter balked, thinking it inappropriate for a rabbi to wash his disciple’s feet. But Jesus says, unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me. Finally, Christ says, ὑπόδειγμα γὰρ ἔδωκα ὑμῖν ἵνα καθὼς ἐγὼ ἐποίησα ὑμῖν καὶ ὑμεῖς ποιῆτε. He asks his disciples to imitate his footwashing, and to wash each others’ feet. He calls his action an “hupodeigma,” which means an example, a pattern, or a type. It is the only instance in the Gospels that we encounter this word.
The First Christian Eucharist
In the first reading from the book of Exodus, we are reminded that the Passover is, for the people of Israel, a perpetual ordinance. Though the Passover has its origins in the Exodus event and Moses’ initiative to lead God’s people out of Egypt, it will become an annual celebration commemorating the Exodus story.
The first Passover meal was performed by the Jewish people with a considerable sense of urgency and haste. Pharaoh had not merely allowed the Israelites to leave, he ordered them to leave Egypt after the ninth and tenth plagues struck upper Nile delta. At the time of the tenth plague – the death of Egypt’s firstborn – God instructed the people of Israel to slaughter a lamb, make a meal of the same, and smear the lamb’s blood on the lintel of their homes. In this way, the Angel of Death would “pass over” the homes of the Israelites in Egypt. The lamb becomes a “paschal lamb” or “sacrifical lamb,” symbolizing the deliverance of the Israelites from the slavery of Pharaoh.
The annual Passover meals for the Jews are a very special event. In re-creating the original Passover event each spring, Jewish families do not merely remember the story of Exodus. The story is, on the contrary, made present through the recounting. Anamnesis is the Greek term used to describe the retelling of a story in such a way that it becomes so real as to be present to those celebrating the Passover.
When Jesus celebrates the Last Supper, there is some question as to whether this was a Passover meal. It took place during the Holy Week – when the passover was celebrated – but scholars are divided whether the meal took place on the evening of the Passover. In either event, the Last Supper of Jesus becomes “the passover of Jesus Christ,” as Pope Benedict has said. And he establishes his own tradition. Rather than looking back to the time of Exodus, Jesus says of the bread in front of him, “this is my body,” and of the Passover cup of wine he blesses, “this is the blood of a new covenant.” For Christians, the Last Supper meal is no longer a Passover meal in a strict sense, but rather the very first Christian eucharist. Christ becomes the Paschal Lamb – the sacrificial lamb – in this first eucharist, that takes place only days before his crucifixion.