Our journey to Holy Week continues comma and we have arrived at that night when Jesus gathers with his disciples an offers them a new commandment.
How is this night different from all other nights? Is one of the 4 questions asked at a Seder meal
How is this night different from all other nights?
It is also Passover. In our Old Testament lesson, we read about the very first Passover that happened long ago. When Moses issues instructions to the Hebrews to prepare for the coming of the Angel of death. The Hebrews were enslaved in Egypt and Pharaoh would not let them go despite the plagues that had befallen the Egyptians: blood in the Nile, frogs, lice, livestock pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, and darkness, Now in an ultimate show of force God is about to send the Angel of death to strike down the first born of Egypt.. As a sign of protection the Hebrews are instructed to paint lamb’s blood on the doorposts and the lintel. They are to eat in haste and be fully dressed and ready to go, shoes and all. The blood on the door of the houses will be a sign and death will pass over them. They are to keep this day and remember it, celebrate it as a festival, from generation to generation.
Throughout the millennia and even to this day, Passover is among the most holy of days in the Jewish calendar. Families and friends gather for the Passover seder, a meal of foods rich with symbols such as roasted lamb bone, bitter herbs, Charoset, eggs, and vegetables.
How is THIS night different from all other nights?
On this night, God’s chosen people remember how death swept over Egypt. They tell the story of how they escaped- leaving so quickly in the night that their bread did not have time to rise. They tell the story of how God protected them from the pursuit of the Egyptian soldiers with clouds and a pillar of fire. They remember the sea and the waters as they parted so they could cross on dry land- only to reconnect and drown their pursuers.
They remember the miracle of God’s deliverance and safe passage out of bondage. This Biblical Story is our story too, we claim it so and so we too asked this question with child-like inquiry:
Why is this night different from all other nights?
In this time of pandemic- the answer to the question should be obvious. But sill, on this night we read and hear about Jesus’ commandment to Love. To follow in his example in becoming the servant. On this night, he took things that were familiar and ordinary such as a bowl of water and a towel and gave them new meaning. In the ancient time, foot washing was a functional kindness. It is simply how you also welcomed barefooted or sandaled travelers who walked for hours on hot dusty roads.
But on that night, foot washing became a symbol of love. We have been told how important it is to wash our hands to avoid contracting or spreading germs. Think about it, it’s not just good common sense- it IS an act of love and caring offering to protect those we care about, and strangers alike.
On this night we recall that the Altar represents Christ’s body- we will strip it bare As he was stripped of his clothing before he was crucified. On this night we will recall his death on the cross as we wash the altar as a dead body being prepared for burial. But unlike what happened in the garden of Gethsemane, we do not leave him to pray alone, we surround him with beauty and keep him company as we do what he did, praying for the strength to do what God asks of us as we live on , in a cruel, destructive, and sin filled world.
So why is this night different from all other nights?
On this night, we place on the altar the reserved sacrament giving thanks for the blessing of bread and wine as the body and blood of our Lord in whose death gives life. We sit or stand before theses sacraments and symbols of the God who forgives us, restores us, and makes all things new.
On this night that is different from all other nights, we are called to bear witness to all that makes it different. It’s more than remembering and telling the story of God’s deliverance, more than hearing about the washing of feet. On this night we are given a new commandment. That’s where Maundy Thursday Comes from- the Latin Words Mandatum Novum- or A New Commandment.
And that new commandment is to love one another as I have loved you.
For Jesus and the Church, this loving act of foot washing involves a level of touching and intimacy. When we greet one another and pass the peace we shake hands, hug, offer a kiss of peace. When we present lei, we typically exchange a greeting like a hug or honi the traditional Hawaiian exchange of breath.
Just the other day, my dad happened to be at the commissary. I haven’t seen him in at least two weeks, we talk on the phone, but there we were in the Cereal Aisle, standing six feet part, talking about trying find my mom some ingredient. And I wanted to hug my dad so bad. But not now, not because I thought he had COVID or because I thought I might. We didn’t. And that too is borne of love. And that seems both right and wrong at the same time.
For now, outside of our own immediate household, there is no touching. Physical distancing is the rule of the day. And ironically enough in this time of physical distancing, Jesus still says to us, “do to others as I have done to you.” “Love one another as I have loved you.” We are still called to carry the goods news of the transforming message that God loved enough to send his son into the world; that God loved enough to become human and willingly endured pain and suffering.
Tonight Jesus is calling us to continue his great legacy, to live in to his commandment to love and find new ways to wash feet and nourish bodies and give comfort to people who are in pain; to bring Good News, to help the hungry, the homeless, and the hurting.
What makes this night different from all other nights?
In some ways, absolutely nothing. It is a Thursday among a string of Thursdays in pandemic. But our witness is to tell the story. The story of the hope that lies at end of this dark night. Of God working in our lives- All of our readings tonight show God in action: liberating, serving, taking, blessing, breaking, sharing. But our witness, even in this time, as those bearing the name of Christ, is that we make this night different by laboring with God to not give into the despair and hopelessness of our situation. The Church has been here before in its history- through times and places of plague, famine, war, economic stress and uncertainty. Through it all it continued to bear witness to the to the power of that great commandment to love.
“Love one another” is our mandate for this day. Tonight we lovingly prepare the altar and wash it in preparation for death. Tomorrow we will see love crucified on the hard wood of the cross. Tomorrow we will see love laid in a tomb to be buried and mourned.
Why is this night different from all other nights?
This night is different from all other nights because tonight, wherever we are, we write on our hearts, and teach to our children, Jesus’ command to love one another and care for one another. Through such acts of love, he says, “By this everyone will know you are my disciples.”
The Rev. Daniel L. Leatherman is priest in charge of St. Timothy's Episcopal Church.