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Preaching Notes for Holy Thursday, Year C

I had an opportunity a few weeks ago to hear scholar Amy Jill Levine speak at a Nashville synagogue on the subject of “The Jewish Origins of Holy Week and Easter.” The lecture I heard was the second in a series of three, and unfortunately I was not in town for the other two. However, I’m grateful for the one I did hear, and for the way it has shaped my comments for preaching on Holy Thursday.

One of the things Dr. Levine pointed out was that it is unclear whether the Last Supper was a Passover meal. John’s gospel, which is the reading for Holy Thursday, indicates that it was not. In verse 1 the writer clearly states, “Now before the festival of the Passover. . . .” No matter when it was that the meal took place, the commemoration of Israel’s exodus from Egypt provides the background for understanding the significance of the Lord’s Supper. Says Levine, “Jews acknowledge the continuing saving power of God by recalling the Exodus in the wine sanctification or Kiddush of every Sabbath as commanded in Exodus 13:3, “Remember this day on which you came out of Egypt” (Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Z. Brettler, The Jewish Annotated New Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, p. 306).

Here, then, is the background to which Levine refers. Remembrance is foundational to both Passover and the Lord’s Supper. The word translated in English as “remembrance” is the Greek word anamnesis. The most helpful definition I’ve ever read for this word comes from Laurence Hull Stookey in Eucharist: Christ’s Feast With the Church (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993). Stookey says that in order to get at “the Greek term anamnesis, rendered as “remembrance” in most translations . . . we need to engage in an imaginative exercise. Suppose someone were to say to you, ‘Remember your high school graduation.’ Likely you would say, ‘Now, I’m going to have to think about that for a few minutes. Please give me some undisturbed peace and quiet. . . . Let’s see, I can picture the building where it was held. My whole family was there, and it was crowded. I have no idea what the graduation speaker said, but I do remember going up to the platform to receive my diploma. Now what else can I remember? Oh yes, we had a nice party afterward.’ This is our accustomed way of ‘remembering.’ But if you ‘remembered’ after the fashion of the ancient Hebrews . . . you would do something quite different. Challenged to remember your high school graduation, you would rent a cap and gown. Clad therin, with great dignity and pride you would walk across a room while a recording of ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ played. Having previously engaged a caterer, you would throw a party for your friends. For most twentieth-century Christians, remembering is a solitary experience involving mental recall. But for ancient Jews and early Christians (the first of whom were all Jews) remembrance was a corporate act in which the event remembered was experienced anew through ritual repetition. To remember was to do something, not to think about doing something” (Stookey, 28). So for the people of Israel, when the Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt that this month shall mark for you the beginning of months, what this meant was that on the tenth of this month they were to remember by doing something. Doing what? By celebrating the Passover: Take a lamb for each family. Keep it until the fourteenth day. Then assemble the congregation and slaughter it at twilight. Take some of the blood and put it on the doorposts. Eat the lamb that night roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. “This is a day you are to commemorate; for the generations to come you shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord – a lasting ordinance” (Exodus 12:14)

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So Paul picks up on this same understanding of this Jewish ritual act of remembrance about a quarter century after the resurrection. In laying out this earliest recorded framework for the Christian tradition of Holy Communion, he uses the same word: anamnesis. Thus, as Stookey points out, in verse 25 the words “do this” are even more crucial than “in remembrance of me.”

“Do this! Do what? Take bread. Give thanks over the loaf for God’s graciousness. Break the bread. Give the bread to the people of Christ. Take the cup. Again, give thanks to God. Then give the cup to the congregation” (Stookey, 29). And once again, this is something that we as Christians are to commemorate; for the generations to come we shall celebrate it as a feat of Great Thanksgiving to the Lord – a sacrament. Especially we are to commemorate this event as we remember the Last Supper Jesus shared with his disciples as part of his earthly life.

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Perhaps the most interesting thing to notice about this passage detailing the events of the final meal that Jesus shared with his disciples in John’s account is that it was not, in fact, as Levine pointed out, a Passover meal, but rather a meal that Jesus had before the Passover. Furthermore, in this story the emphasis is not on the holy meal, but rather, on the holy act of footwashing.

Most congregations will not engage in a ritual footwashing on Holy Thursday; most will opt for a celebration of Holy Communion. But whatever sort of ritual remembrance we choose to engage in as communities of faith, the most important thing to not miss about this reading is found in the final verses, the mandatum novum, or “new commandment” in Latin). “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.”

How are we to love one another? Do this: wash the feet of others, especially those who consider us to be their teachers or superiors. In more common words, it means we are to show our love and our discipleship by serving others. Not just each other, but those beyond the walls of our buildings, those who stand below us on the ladder of worldly success. I’m afraid that many of us do not do this. We won’t even touch the feet of the people we know! How much more difficult is it for us to think about touching the feet of those among us who are strangers?

If we don’t have a footwashing on this holy night, perhaps we need to spend some time seriously reflecting upon what these words and actions on the part of Jesus mean for us. If this really is the new mandate that we are to follow, then how are we doing? What actions have we taken to effectively wash the feet of the poor, the downtrodden, the sick, the hungry, the imprisoned, the homeless, and the needy who live in our communities? And let us remember, the call is to not just “remember” inside our heads, in conversation amongst ourselves, but to engage in acts of “remembrance.”

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