Maundy Thursday

Exodus 12:1-14

“The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the Lord. 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. The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.
This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.”

In the Judeo-Christian tradition blood is one of the most prominent and powerful symbols. When “shed” or “spilled” sacrificially to God, it is an act of forgiveness, setting persons and a people free from their sins before God. Elaborate and detailed forms of animal sacrifice on the altar were the ways God chose to keep God’s chosen people ritually clean. One of the twelve tribes of Israel, the Levites, were assigned the task of carrying our these purity rituals. When you read the history of Israel in the First Testament, it’s hard not imagine the overwhelming magnitude of gore contained within those rituals.

Of course, Jesus’ death on the cross, the shedding of his blood as the sacrificial Lamb of God, comes directly from this Jewish practice. Jesus’ crucifixion was the last “animal” sacrifice God required.

The use of blood in ritual sacrifice begins here with the Passover. Covering the door posts and lintel with the blood of a male, 1-year old, unblemished lamb or goat determined which houses God’s plague of death would “passover,” as judgment was passed on the Egyptians by way of death to every firstborn in the land. It was the  sign of deliverance for the Israelites.

Today, Christians remember the Passover as Maundy Thursday, a reenactment of the Last Supper. Some Christian traditions have their own Seder meal, representative of the meal the Israelites ate the night of the Passover. Others, offer a Tenebrae service (Latin for darkness) , the act of ritually extinguishing 15 lighted candles (much like and in contrast to lighting the candles on the Advent wreath) until there is nothing left but darkness in the sanctuary. It is a journey through Jesus’ suffering to his dying breath when the “light of the world” was extinguished. The Tenebrae ritual in the Catholic church lasts three days, Thursday-Saturday.

Each of these Thursday-before-Easter events is designed to convey the raw emotional power that led up to Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross. Without a real awareness of the suffering and death, the true cost of God’s redemptive act, Easter becomes little more than a new outfit, egg hunts, bunnies, and baskets of candy. The true joy that Jesus’ resurrection sets free in the world can only be experienced against the backdrop of suffering and pain. To skip over the uncertainty, emotional trauma, hopelessness, and suffering that ended on Good Friday, with Jesus’ crucifixion, is to miss the true, transforming power of the resurrection.

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