Holy Thursday, also called Maundy Thursday (we'll get to that definition in a bit), is the day we celebrate and remember the final evening that Jesus has with his disciples before his arrest, trial, and crucifixion. The biblical accounts of the day can be found in all four gospels (Matthew 26, Mark 14, Luke 22, and John chapters 13-17). It all took place in Jerusalem during the great Passover celebration, just days after what we now call Palm Sunday, in which Jesus entered into the city for his final confrontation with the authorities. Jesus and his disciples shared a final meal together in a sought out and secret location at a house within the city. There are two key things that we celebrate and were acted out by Jesus on this night. One is the foot washing and command to love each other, and the second is the great institution of The Lord's Supper.
Of the four gospel accounts, John's is the longest and the most different. In fact, John does not even mention the Lord's supper, and chapters 14-17 give an extended account of the conversation that continued that night during and/or after the meal. However, John does include the story of Jesus washing his disciples feet. After stooping to do the job as a servant even though he was their master and Messiah, Jesus tells his disciples "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; 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" (13:34-15). This is where the term "Maundy Thursday" originates. Maundy is thought to have derived from the latin word "mandatum," which means command or mandate. Thus the term from Jesus saying "A new command I give to you." Not that Jesus had not told them to love each other before, but now the disciples actually got a visual, a real act of selfless and humble servitude in the act of foot washing. While many churches do a foot washing ceremony from time to time, the washing itself is not the heart of Jesus' command, but rather the love and service to each other that are displayed in such an act. It is the key essential way in which Jesus says the world will know we are disciples of Jesus!
Matthew, Mark, and Luke all three record the institution of the Lord's Supper. The apostle Paul also gives a short account of this night in his first letter to the Corinthians. As the disciples gathered for their passover meal with Jesus, Jesus gave them a new meal. Jesus took bread and broke it and told the disciples "This is my body, which is broken for you." And then he took a cup of wine and told them "This is my blood which is poured out for the forgiveness of sins." And with the breaking of the bread and the drinking from the cup, Jesus gave us his meal. And the church has observed this and celebrated this night in various ways ever since.
There are so many neat details going on through the story. One key detail being that Jesus chose Passover as the moment not just for this night, but for what the whole night would signify, that is, his confrontation with the powers that be and his giving of his life for the forgiveness of sins. The people of Israel had long awaited a "new passover" so to speak, a true and final return from exile, from the hand of foreign rule. Many had hopes of a Messiah who would rise up, like a military leader and King, and overthrow the pagan Roman overlords and perhaps even the would be puppet authorities in their own land. It was all a hope that their story would be told again, like the great Exodus when God had delivered them from slavery under the power of Pharaoh. That was the hope, that was the celebration, and that is precisely what Jesus was doing and had in mind, although it would look totally unlike anything they could have expected! They would be set free, they would have their sins forgiven, they would be restored, but it would be from a deeper power, that is, the powers and principalities that enslave us all. The King would rise up and overthrow the authorities, but again it was a deeper authority to overthrow. He did so by laying down his life and exhausting all their powers upon himself, as he took upon himself the worst that the powers could offer, namely death. And of course he conquered and came out on the other side. This was God's wise plan all along, and Jesus was very specific in choosing Passover as the time for these events. It was no mere circumstance. It was in essence, Jesus' new passover meal.
Another astonishing thing about that night, and you see it throughout the whole of the gospels, is the utter confusion of the disciples. In John's extended discourse, you see so many questions and constant bewilderment by his disciples. And of course, two key disciples show the worst. Obviously we have the outright betrayal of Jesus by Judas Iscariot, but we also have Peter, who Jesus predicted on that night that before the next morning he would deny that he even knew Jesus. This shocks us now, as it obviously shocked Peter to hear it then. And of course, Peter says it won't happen. Even if he has to die, he would NEVER stoop that low. And don't we all think that about ourselves. We are all at times perhaps sure that we could never do such a thing. Yet there is a reason we can all so relate to Peter. We stand confident in our abilities to remain faithful to Jesus, yet before dawn, the rooster has crowed is our lives. For even this, the denial from his closest friends and followers, Jesus would lay down his life. Body broken and blood poured out on a Roman cross.
So today as we celebrate Holy Thursday, perhaps we can keep a few things in mind. First and foremost the bread and the wine, the body and the blood. We know now that it is coming on the next day, Good Friday, but we remember it in the holy sacrament of the new passover meal that Jesus gave. We also remember that Jesus gave us a model to follow, to stoop low and serve one another, to love one another as he loved us. In fact, this night culminated everything that Jesus ever taught, which can be summed up in the great commandment to love God, and to love our neighbor. And lastly maybe we can remember the disciples, because we see ourselves in them. We, especially this year, are faced with confusion and uncertainty. We don't understand and can't see what it is that Jesus is doing. We have questions. Perhaps we may even be tempted to turn our backs and betray him, or at the very least deny him in our lives. My encouragement is to rest in the finished work of Jesus. To take comfort in his solidarity with us in our sufferings. And while today and tomorrow on Good Friday we truly enter in to the sorrow and suffering of the story, we ALWAYS hold on to the great hope that death does not have the final say. Resurrection is coming! Jesus Christ rose from the dead, and has the keys to death, hell, and the grave! He is victorious, and in that we have a sure and final hope!!