What Do Ancient Rites Mean for Us?
In the churches I grew up in, Palm Sunday typically was a celebratory affair with waving palm branches and fanfare and church plays. And Good Friday was a solemn occasion marked with various church-wide or private observances. But little attention was given to the days that fell between Palm Sunday and Good Friday.
I don’t remember ever hearing the words Maundy Thursday in church. My mom did personally commemorate that day in our home by preparing pancakes for the family. “The pancakes are unleavened bread,” she would tell us enthusiastically. “And on Maundy Thursday, you’re supposed to get all the leavened bread out of your house.” It was a tradition picked up from Catholic friends I suppose, seasoned with an influence from Jewish customs.
Some of the churches I attended would take Thursday or Good Friday to hold a Jewish Seder meal for Passover, of course with Christian recognition of Jesus as the Passover Lamb. In fact, holding a Passover meal on Maundy Thursday, in memory of the Lord’s Last Supper on that day, is a common practice in many church groups. Also, churches will often take Communion on that day or hold a special Mass.
A third Maundy Thursday tradition, held since ancient times in some church groups, is the practice of washing feet. Again, that hearkens back to Jesus washing the disciples’ feet before sitting down to the Last Supper.
What can those rites teach us? I believe they deliver lessons in two areas: in our own spiritual lives, and in pointing us toward evangelism.
The message of Communion is likely most familiar. Especially at this time of year, the symbolic breaking and sharing of bread, which is part of the Passover meal as well, is especially meaningful. As we pass that bread, we cannot help but think of Jesus’ words, “This is My body broken for you.” Sharing that broken bread surrounded by imagery, story, and song of how He bore out the truth of those words, we acknowledge His sacrifice and consent to participate in it.
Even before knowledge of Jesus, the figurative act of breaking bread was embedded in the Jewish Passover traditions. During the Seder meal, a type of unleavened bread called matzah is broken and shared among those at the table. Sharing the matzah recalls the time of want when the Jews were slaves in Egypt and illustrates provision for those in need. How much significance that holds for the Christian! Jesus broke His body, the bread, to provide for our great need.
Eating bitter herbs is another element of the Passover meal that subtly resonates with reflections on Christ’s atoning sacrifice. As one Jewish rabbi explains, “Feeling pain, the ‘bitterness,’ is actually a sign of redemption. Just feeling the bitterness is itself the first glimmer of freedom.” Christ tasted the full bitterness of death for us. When we regard what He has done for our redemption, may our own sin bring us enough of a taste of bitterness to cause us to cast ourselves wholly on Him.
These types of Maundy Thursday observances do not require response only on a personal level. They include an innate command. That is reflected in the name Maundy itself, which is believed to be derived from the Latin word for mandate. The term refers to the “new commandment” Jesus gave to the disciples at the Last Supper. “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another,” He told them. “Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35 ESV).
Why is it important for people to recognize us as His disciples? Because we are to be spreading, by word and by deed, the Good News we have received, the reason for who we are and what we do. The mandate we are given, then, is to evangelize, as we also know from Jesus’ last words in Matthew 28.
This is demonstrated most clearly with the most unusual of Maundy Thursday church traditions, the foot-washing ceremony. In the disciples’ sphere, the main mode of travel was by foot. Sandaled feet would quickly become, hot, sweaty, and grimy on the dusty roads, and it was customary to wash the feet after such travels. The disciples’ feet represented the manner in which they would go out into the dust and grime of the world, with the risk of becoming stained by it at times, as they shared the gospel.
Washing the disciples feet, Jesus tells them, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with Me.” He then instructs them to continue to do just as He had shown them, continuing to cleanse themselves from the corruption of the world even when their ministry brings them into the midst of it. Being in His service only increases the need to be sanctified every day by going to His Word and into His presence. As Jesus explains shortly after in John 15, it is necessary to remain in Him in order to be fruitful. When Jesus washed His disciples’ feet at the time of the Last Supper, He was commissioning them for service.
The careful transmission of faith beliefs, as performed with today’s Passover meals, adds another dimension to the instruction for evangelism. As Jews understand, the Passover ceremony is about preserving and sharing the hope and heritage of their faith. As a rabbi writes, “On Passover night we are to be sofrim, scribes, writing indelibly on the hearts and on the minds of our children the story that will be passed down to all succeeding generations.”
We are reminded of and given opportunities to practice the mandate for evangelism with each tradition we observe during Holy Week. In whatever way we may keep those days, they give us the chance to write on hearts and minds the story of Who and what we are commemorating.