INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE

Year A† - Holy Thursday

 

 

EXODUS 12:1-14. Originally a spring feast associated with the pastoral life, the Passover became one of the main religious festivals of the Hebrew tradition. Though attributed here to Godís instructions to Moses, the tradition of celebrating Feast of the Passover and Unleavened Bread may well precede its documentation in this reading by several hundred years.

†††† For Jews the Passover (Heb.: Pesah) commemorates the escape of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. Jews and Christians alike still maintain the tradition that the crucifixion occurred during this festival. Because of the uncertain day of the crucifixion, scholars debate whether the Last Supper was a Passover seder or not.

 

PSALM 116:1-2, 12-19. This thanksgiving hymn celebrates an individualís recovery from severe illness by worshipping in the temple.

 

1 CORINTHIANS 11:23-26. Paul gives the earliest and simplest description of the Lordís Supper. It has both similarities to and differences from the tradition reported in the first three Gospels, none of which are identical with the others. However, as the context shows, Paul wrote this description to counter some inappropriate practices during the fellowship meals of the early Corinthian church.


JOHN 13:1-17, 31b-35. Johnís Gospel gives no description of the Last Supper. Rather, John records how during an ordinary evening meal with his disciples, Jesus washed the feet of his disciples and began his last discourse about the meaning of his life and forthcoming death. Some Christian faith communities still celebrate the foot washing as a sacrament or special religious practice.

†††† At the end of the meal, Jesus set the stage for Peterís denial before dawn the next day.

 

 

A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS.

 

EXODUS 12:1-14. The celebration of the Passover has had a much longer history than this passage leads us to believe. Originally a spring festival associated with the pastoral life, it preceded recorded history and certainly its documentation in this reading by several hundred years and possibly much longer. It may even draw on an earlier agricultural festival celebrated by the Canaanites as well as nomadic pastoral cultures. Though attributed here to Yahwehís instructions to Moses, it was only after Israelís return from exile in Babylon that it became one of the main religious festivals of the Hebrew tradition.

 

This passage is taken from the largest block of material in the OT dealing with the festival (Ex. 12:1-13:15). As are most parts of the Torah (the five books of Moses), there may be considerable theological fiction behind the details of the celebration. The whole passage is a composite drawn mainly from the P document. It deals specifically with the slaughter of Egyptís first-born and the escape of the Israelites from Egypt. Accordingly, for Jews, the Passover commemorates freedom from slavery.

 

 

Notable mention of the ďfirst month of the yearĒ in vss. 1-2 immediately creates an anomaly with other references to the festival occurring at the new year† in the month of Abib (cf. Ex. 13:4; 23:15; 34:18). In the Hebrew calendar before the exile, the new year began in the autumn. During the exile, the Jews adopted the Babylonian calendar, but not their names of the months. This represented the work of the priestly school responsible for the greater part of the whole Passover narrative. By NT times, the month of the Passover had received the name of Nisan, but the new† year was still celebrated in the autumn.

 

In vs. 12, a significant statement occurs identifying the festival as divinely mandated. This refers to the event as the act of Yahweh for Israelís salvation in keeping with the covenant motif of the whole Moses tradition. Vs. 14 makes its celebration as a† perpetual day of remembrance, as it is to the present.

 

Jews and Christians alike still maintain the tradition that the crucifixion occurred during this eight day festival. Because of the uncertain day of the crucifixion, scholars debate whether the Last Supper was a Passover seder or not.

 

 

PSALM 116:1-2, 12-19. This thanksgiving hymn celebrates an individualís recovery from severe illness by worshipping in the temple. It has little relevance to the OT lesson above but more relevance to the Christian custom of celebrating the sacrament of the Lordís Supper on Holy Thursday as a Passover seder.

 

Some scholars believe that the psalm originated as two separate hymns later woven together for liturgical purposes. In Jewish use, it was included as one of the six psalms of the Hallel (Pss. 113-118). Christian practice made use of a greater portion of it (vss. 1-13, 18-19) in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer for the traditional service of Thanksgiving of Women after Childbirth commonly called The Churching of Women.

Perhaps it is for its the association with suffering, prayerful seeking of deliverance and trustful acceptance of the divine will that the framers of the RCL chose it for use on Holy Thursday when Jesus sought Godís will in Gethsemane before allowing himself to be arrested and crucifed.

 

 

1 CORINTHIANS 11:23-26. Paul gives the earliest and simplest description of the Lordís Supper in this brief excerpt from his correspondence with the troubled Corinthians community. It has several differences from the tradition reported in the first three Gospels, none of which are identical with the others. However, Paulís wrote this description to counter some inappropriate practices during the fellowship meals of the early Corinthian church.

 

Often acerbic in his criticisms of this congregation, Paul placed this little gem in what seems to be almost out of place amid so many negative instructions about the ways the Corinthians had failed to live in keeping with their new faith. They exhibited many of their previously pagan ways as the preceding paragraphs demonstrate quite graphically. It would appear that the subject of their behaviour at the fellowship meals of the community had been dealt with before (vss. 16-17). Dissensions had created small cliques and negated any spiritual benefit their assemblies might have had (vss. 18-19). It would also appear that the Lordís Supper was celebrated at these gatherings, but in inappropriate ways (vss. 20-22).

 

Paulís instructions for celebrating the Lordís Supper hardly amount to a liturgy. It can be assumed that he had learned the simple procedure from the apostolic community during his first visit to Jerusalem to consult Peter and James (Gal. 1:18-20 cf. Acts 9:26-27) Being the earliest report of the celebration, however, Paulís version had considerable influence. Although the words are not identical, all three Synoptic Gospels show that they were aware of a common tradition that it was at supper on the eve of the Passover, that Jesus broke a loaf of bread, blessed and passed it to his disciples, that he similarly offered thanksgiving for a cup of wine and passed that too to the assembled disciples.

 

Although Paul made no reference to the Passover or the preparation for the feast, his instructions Ė or more likely those of the apostolic community Ė also show a common reference to the covenant. This can only be understood as the creative reinterpretation of the Hebrew covenant given by the apostles to the liturgy and subsequently adopted by the whole church. The Jewish celebration recalled the painting of doorposts in their homes with the blood of the animal consumed at the feast.† The purpose of the Mosaic covenant was to bind Yahweh and the Israelites in a firm personal relationship which could never be severed. Although no narrative of the Last Supper appears in Johnís Gospel or in the Letter to the Hebrews, both texts undergird this covenant as a binding relationship with Christ mandating a moral response. Johnís Gospel illustrated this in his new commandment to love one another. The motif of Christís sacrifice as analogous to the shedding of blood and sprinkling of the unblemished lamb for the Passover feast stands out in Hebrews.

 

In his comment following the description of the simple liturgy, Paul emphasized that the practices of the Corinthian celebration desecrated of the body and blood of Christ. This, he claimed, would bring Godís judgment on the participants. True to his Pharisaic background, he went so far as to link sickness and deaths in the Corinthians community to this transgression in much the same way as the Deuteronomists, the psalmists and the prophets of the OT linked breaking the covenant by committing sin, especially injustice, idolatry sickness and death, with divine judgment. His concluding remarks only softened this severe attitude by pointing to this judgment as Godís discipline and warning to change their behaviour.

 

 

JOHN 13:1-17, 31-35. Johnís Gospel gives no description of the Last Supper. His commentary on the meaning of the sacrament can be found instead in one of Jesusí discourses in John 6. This comes very much to the fore in John 6:52-58.

 

In this passage, John records how Jesus washed the feet of his disciples during an ordinary evening meal with his disciples, then began his last discourse about the meaning of his life and forthcoming death and resurrection. Some Christian faith communities still celebrate foot washing as a sacrament or special rite mandated by Christ himself. In the Roman Catholic tradition, this is usually done by the Pope as an act of service and humility. In the post-Reformation Anglican tradition, the giving of alms to the poor replaced foot washing as an act of love. The name given to this practice is called ďMaundyĒ from the Latin *mandatum* as being mandated by Christ.

††††

The emphasis on humility comes from a normal practice of Palestinian life in the 1st century. The roads and streets were exceedingly dusty in the dry climate. The master of the house appointed a slave to stand at the door of the house with water and a linen towel to wash the feet of guests arriving for a feast. There were few more menial household tasks to be done. John makes the point in his narrative that Jesus, the host at the evening meal, took the place of the slave. In another instance recorded in Luke 7:36-50, he rebuked a host, a Pharisee, for neglecting this simple duty. In 1 Timothy 5:10, which probably comes from the early 2nd century, washing of the feet of the ďsaintsĒ appears to have become a designated task for an ďorder of widows.Ē

 

At the end of the meal, Jesus set the stage for Peterís denial before dawn the next day.

Peter frequently appears in the Gospels as a rather bumbling fellow, a born leader but always pushing forward in frequent mistaken initiatives, spokesperson for the disciples, but with a loveable inquisitiveness and somewhat undisciplined drive. These qualities show up in the first part of this reading. First, he refused to have his feet washed; then when Jesus rebuked him gently, he wanted more than just his feet washed. It is difficult to tell whether this is a character trait of the man or a useful element of the storytellerís style. It could well have been the former drawn from the tradition that Peter was ďthe prince of the apostlesí and declared the leader of the apostolic church by Jesus himself (Matt. 16:18). If so, the apostolic generation must have had ample reason to regard him with such honour that subsequent generations named him the first bishop of Rome and Vicar of Christ.

 

Uniquely in Johnís Gospel, twenty times in all, his name is given as Simon Peter. This may suggest that the double name came from the tradition that his Jewish name was Symeon, which appears only by James in Acts 15:14, but given a Greek transliteration as Simon elsewhere in the NT. Then too, the name Peter (Gk. - Petros) may also derive from the Matthean tradition. Some have suggested that he may have had a valuable gift for languages that enabled him to speak both Aramaic and Greek, which proved useful in interpreting the Gospel to Gentiles along with Paul. Yet in the Fourth Gospel he does not receive the same prominence as in the other gospels. Rather, John shares an equal or greater role as leader of the apostolic company.

 

It is undeniable that the there was a close relation between the concluding verses of this passage and the appendix to the gospel in John 21. Undoubtedly this incident at the Last Supper had precedence and Jesusí renewal of Peterís leadership in the church built upon it as well as on the later incident where the denial actually occurs (18:27).

 

On the whole, the image that these two incidents contribute to our knowledge of Peter appears as a very human, sometimes aggressive, often courageous and well-meaning, but also vacillating.† This Johanine image reinforces the Pauline image drawn from Acts and Galatians. The tradition in John also describes him less favourably than does the Mathean tradition or the tradition behind the Petrine letters. Yet certainly, since the 2nd century, Peter has stood out as foremost among the first apostles.