Today is Maundy Thursday and we recall and have represented to us in the liturgy the events of Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples before his passion and death, in which he washed his disciples’ feet as one who came not to be served, but to serve, and instituted the Eucharist. In order to understand the Eucharist we need first to understand the Passover in which it took place.
The Passover was an annual commemoration which looked back to the foundational event of the history of the people of Israel, their deliverance from the yoke of Pharaoh and the house of bondage in Egypt. It was the supreme example of a God who was on the side not of the powerful (Pharaoh saw the Israelites as slaves who were to be manipulated for his own purposes), but of the weak. The Israelites were therefore themselves called to live as those who had been redeemed from slavery through obedience to the Law given through Moses, which was expressly designed to emphasise that, unlike the regime of Pharaoh, all were bound to the covenant with God which gave them equal access to dignity and hope.
In practice, the Israelites failed to live up to these high expectations and the ancient kingdom of Israel (subsequently divided into the Kingdom of Israel and Judah) proved a tragic failure. At the time of the fall of the kingdom of Judah to the Babylonians, the prophet Jeremiah looked forward to the dawning of a new covenant in which sins would finally be forgiven. It would not be like the old covenant which the people broke, but would be one in which the Law would finally be obeyed through being written on the hearts of men.
By the time of Jesus the Jews were subject to a new house of bondage, that of the Roman Empire. When they celebrated the Passover they not only looked back to their redemption from bondage under Pharaoh in Egypt, but also looked forward to their final redemption when God would finally establish his kingdom and his will would be done on earth as it is in heaven.
In his ministry Jesus had sought to regather the faithful remnant of Israel around himself (the calling of twelve disciples symbolised the twelve tribes of Israel) and he proclaimed the dawning of the time of the new covenant looked forward to by Jeremiah in which sins would be forgiven. At his last supper with his disciples he invested the Passover with a new significance and associated it with his own forthcoming suffering and death. The broken bread represented his body which would be sacrificed as the suffering servant of Isaiah as an atonement for the sins of the people. The poured out wine represented his blood poured out for many, that is his life sacrificed in death, the blood of the new covenant in which sins would be forgiven. The covenant through Moses had been sealed in blood, and so the new covenant would be likewise sealed in blood, but that blood would be his own blood, his own life, the gift of himself. His messianic destiny, his path to enthronement and rule would come through reversal, repudiation, suffering and death. “For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
After his death and resurrection, in obedience to his commandment, his disciples met in his name to receive his risen and glorified body under the forms of bread and wine. He had offered himself once and for all in perfect sacrifice for sin and now he ever lives to intercede for us. The Christian Eucharist is rather like a tape recording in which the past events are now made present to us, and we can share on earth in the heavenly liturgy, “a pure Victim, a holy Victim, a spotless Victim, the holy Bread of eternal life and the Chalice of everlasting salvation.”
For the Jewish nation the Passover celebrated their deliverance from slavery in the past and looked forward to their final deliverance when God’s Kingdom would finally come. For the people of the new covenant, the Body of Christ, the Church, baptised from every tribe, nation and tongue, the Eucharist looks back and now represents to us our own redemption from the slavery of sin and death through the perfect sacrifice of Christ for us. It also looks forward to the final redemption when the world will finally be redeemed from slavery to sin and death at the end of the age. “For as oft as ye eat this bread and drink this cup ye proclaim the Lord’s death until he come.”
Therefore we before him bending
This great sacrament revere
Types and shadows have their ending
For the newer rite is here Faith our outward sense befriending makes the inward vision clear.