Home      Back to Maundy Thursday        





Sermon for Maundy Thursday

Fr. Ian C. Wetmore

St. Mary the Virgin Church, Fredericton, New Brunswick

March 20, AD 2008

1 Corinthians 11:23f     St. Luke 23:1f

Brethren, I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you.

In the Name of...

Of all the great and wonderful things recorded in the gospels, not all of them are recorded in all four gospels, as you may well know.  Lots of things appear in more than one, like the birth of our Lord, which is recorded in Matthew and Luke, and the baptism of the Lord, which is told by Matthew, Mark and Luke.  And although it is strongly hinted at by St John, it’s not actually recorded there.  In that gospel, John the Evangelist records the words of John the Baptist, who said, “I saw the Spirit descend as a dove from heaven, and it remained on him” (1.32) which, we know from the other three gospels, happened at our Lord’s baptism, though it’s not explicitly stated here.  But out of all the many events that we read about in the gospels, only two appear in all four.  They are our Lord’s feeding of the 5,000 and his Passion and Resurrection.  And these two are very intimately bound together.

If you’re into fancy terminology, this evening begins the Paschal Triduum, the three days of the Christian Passover, which ends on Sunday evening with the appearance of the risen Lord to his Apostles.  When we hear the word ‘Passover’ we immediately think of Moses and the Israelites on their last night in Egypt.  That is when, in obedience to God’s command, the enslaved Israelites smeared their doorposts with the blood of lambs and roasted those same lambs and ate them while the Lord killed the firstborn of all the children and livestock of the Egyptians, and of those Israelites who refused to bloody their doors and eat the lamb.  It’s called ‘Passover’ because on that night God passed over those houses that were so marked, and in the coming days he delivered the survivors and their families to freedom through the Red Sea and drowned the Egyptians who were chasing after them in order to keep them in slavery.

This is the image that the Church has probably most often used to describe what our Lord has accomplished for us in the Paschal Triduum. One of the great Easter hymns, written by St John of Damascus in the eighth century, which we will sing on Sunday begins this way:

            Come, ye faithful, raise the strain

                 Of triumphant gladness;

            God hath brought his Israel

                 Into joy from sadness;

            Loosed from Pharaoh’s bitter yoke

                 Jacob’s sons and daughters

            Led them with unmoistened foot

                 Through the Red Sea waters.           

                                       (Book of Common Praise, Canada 1938 #165)

Now you may be tempted to think that that’s a neat image which the Church has borrowed because it happens to bear some similarity to what Christ has done in Holy Week and Easter.  You may think that, but you’d be quite wrong.

Ever since that first sin of Adam and Eve, God had been laying the groundwork for Easter.  All the great acts he performed not only delivered his people from their immediate predicament, but also foreshadowed the events of Holy Week and Easter.  They point to Jesus and what he did, just as a shadow causes us to look up at the thing that causes the shadow. It’s all preparatory. In all those Old Testament events, God is saying to Israel, If you think this is something, just wait until the big finale.  And because of these things that you’ve experienced, you’ll be able to recognize the really big thing I’m going to do, not just for you, but for everybody.  Fr Geoffrey Kirk says, “The story is brought to its conclusion and we are set free from the images to apprehend the reality, only when Jesus Christ clothes himself in all the images of Jewish history and messianic prophecy and lives them out. He crucifies the images, as he himself is crucified.  The mystery is this: that the crucified reality is better than the figures of prophecy” (“The Irrelevance Argument,” New Directions, March 2008).  “He crucifies the images...”  He draws our attention from the groundwork to the finished work.

On Monday and Tuesday of this week we read from Isaiah who prophesied this finished work 700 years before it happened.  “I was not rebellious,” he writes, “neither turned away back. I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: I hid not my face from shame and spitting” (50.5-6).  Then last night we read from the NT epistle to the Hebrews how all the law and the prophets point to Jesus.  And speaks of how just as the first covenant was sealed in blood – the blood of the sacrifice is flung on the people as a symbolic washing of their sins and some of the flesh is eaten while the rest is burnt on the altar as an offering to God – so the new covenant is sealed with the blood of Jesus, which the people drink, and his flesh which has been offered on the altar of the cross is also given to us to eat.  “The crucified reality is better than the figures of prophecy.”  The crucified reality is the perfection, the completion of all that went before it.  It is the thing for which God has been preparing the world ever since the first sin of his first creatures.

So what’s the Feeding of the 5,000 got to do with all that?  Well, the 5,000 are Jews who know their history.  They know the story of the Passover, of how their ancestors were spared the destruction of the unbelievers by smearing their doorposts with blood and eating the lamb whose blood was smeared.  They would have understood that it was precisely because their ancestors believed God and obeyed his commands that they were delivered that night.  And they knew the story of how those same believing, obedient ancestors passed through the water to freedom from slavery while their unbelieving pursuers died in that same water.  And they knew the story of how, by a miracle, God caused manna and quail to fall from the sky to feed their ancestors in the desert after they passed through the water.  So when our Lord, after having fed those 5,000 men with five loaves of bread and two fish, and connecting it with the quail and manna, then says that he himself is the true bread that came down from heaven, and that whoever eats his flesh and drinks his blood will have eternal life, he has put one more piece in the puzzle which, along with all those events and images from the time of Adam and Eve right up until that moment form a nearly-complete picture of his crucifixion.

Then on this night, Maundy Thursday, he blesses the bread and the cup and says, “Eat this... this is my body... Drink this, all of you, for this is my blood, shed for the forgiveness of sins.”  Then the disciples remember, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”  How could they not remember, having been prompted by so bold a statement as “This is my body... this is my blood”?  It wouldn’t be for another fifty-three days, when the Holy Spirit was to settle on them that they would be given a clear understanding of all these things.  Then they would be able to see that, of course! everything from Genesis 3 to Maundy Thursday night is a lead-up to Good Friday when the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world was sacrificed on the cross.  And now our eating his flesh and drinking his blood is better than smearing the blood of an animal on our doorposts and eating its flesh, because this is the perfect sacrifice, the one that is sufficient for all sins for all time.  Thursday night he showed us how he intended to feed us from the sacrifice that he offered on Friday.  And he told us to do it in memory of Friday – even before Friday came; and he told us that by doing it our sins would be forgiven and we would be nourished for life in his everlasting kingdom.  “This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate [in the desert] and died.  Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.”

In the Name of...Amen.