I guess we’ve all heard the expression, ‘the condemned man ate a hearty meal’. My feeling is that it’s very rarely true - although apparently the great 16th century Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, did. Surviving records of his trial and incarceration show that several shillings were paid for a fine Thames River trout, which he ate with gusto the night before he was burned at the stake. Tonight’s readings centre on two meals - both I suspect more hurried than hearty, both eaten in the shadow of great and bloody events, both destined to be eaten and re-eaten, chewed over for millenia but never to be finally digested.
The first, of course, is the travelling meal of the people of Israel, eaten shod and standing, straight from the open fire on which it was roasted whole and unskinned, head, hooves and inner organs, a perfect one-year old lamb - a wasteful extravagance at any other time. This meal is a last chance to fill your belly before striking out into the desert with the might of Egypt bearing down on you, a meal prepared in a hurry and eaten in a hurry - unleavened bread is bread you haven’t got time to wait around watching while it rises, bitter herbs the last handfuls of roughly pulled rocket gone to seed, the blood smeared on the doorpost a crude graffiti that tells God’s scary angel to pass us by - that informs tomorrow morning’s pursuers that we were slaves in your rotten, plague-stricken land but now we’re free.
It’s the defining narrative of the Jewish people, the Passover meal that evokes for Jewish men and women even today the remembrance and the promise of liberation, the Passover from slavery to freedom. It’s a solemn, frightening story, and you can’t help noticing that the freedom it tells of comes at a horrifying price. Waters turned to blood. Families inundated in plagues of flood and famine. Every firstborn son of Egypt stricken. You’d smear lamb’s blood on your doorposts that night with an awe tinged with dread at God's power to protect and the horror of what was about to happen to your enemies. Celebration of Passover calls Jewish people to remember not just a historical freedom but the horrors of slavery itself, the temptations to visit slavery on others - and to remember not just God’s miraculous protection of their mothers and fathers in faith - a saving act that would form the people of the Torah, a people destined to be a light to all the nations - not just God’s saving actions but their dreadful shadow, the grief of Egyptian mothers weeping for a son touched by the angel of death or swallowed in the mud of the Red Sea.
For a number of years, back in the 80s, there was a fashion in Christian circles to celebrate a Seder, a Passover meal, on the night of Maundy Thursday. It was even felt to be inclusive, a way of acknowledging the Jewish roots of our tradition. But it was done without understanding the moral seriousness of the tradition we were appropriating, without understanding the affront we were causing to our Jewish brothers and sisters. A colleague reports having a conversation at the time with a Jewish acquaintance who remarked with a shrug, ‘well why not? You Christians have taken everything else’. And it was also done without understanding our own, Christian, tradition.
The gospels don’t agree on what the solemn, improvised meal actually is, that Jesus eats with his disciples tonight. The three narrative gospels, Mark, Matthew and Luke, all have the date of tonight’s meal as Nisan 14, the evening on which the Passover meal should be eaten. John’s gospel, that we read from tonight, tells us that at the time of Jesus’ trial the Jewish leaders had not yet eaten the Passover meal, and that just before his sentencing, ‘It was the day of Preparation of the Passover, about the sixth hour’. So on John’s timetabling, the last meal with his disciples isn’t a Passover meal, but instead Jesus is crucified on Nisan 14 and dies at exactly the same time in the afternoon as the priests begin slaughtering the Passover lambs in the Temple precincts. We can’t smooth this over or reconcile the timing, but John’s version makes clear that the Christian Passover isn’t tonight. The Christian Passover is Pascha, the original word for Easter, the word from which we get Paschal, the passover of the lamb of God from death to life - and for that we have to wait until the dreary hour before dawn on Sunday morning.
Although it probably wasn’t a Passover meal, the meal that Jesus eats with his disciples - a meal laden with expectations and undercurrents - does mirror the Exodus meal in another important way. It’s a traveller’s meal, a meal eaten on the threshold of flight and danger, and a meal with high stakes. But the participants in the Exodus meal, the gnawers of half-raw lamb and doughy unrisen bread, are preparing for the impossible dream of freedom. With his disciples in the dingy borrowed room in Jerusalem, aware that outside the combined forces of the religious authorities and the Roman governor are hunting him, Jesus is preparing to lay his freedom down.
There are, I think, so many possible meanings and nuances of Jesus’ actions on this evening that we stand in danger of missing the obvious one. Thirty years or more ago, living in Brisbane and travelling every morning on the train into the centre of the city, I would be greeted when I got off at Central Station by a shoe shine kiosk. I don’t think you’d see one anywhere today, but back then there was one in Brisbane, a man who would shine your shoes for a couple of dollars, sitting on a little stool at your feet and scuff-scuffing at your shoes with black or brown Nugget and shining them up with a rag. Sometimes you’d try to have a conversation with him, maybe an awkward remark about the weather. But his face was looking down, at your feet, a humble act of service, no matter that he asked a couple of dollars and you often gave him a couple more. An action that acknowledged he had very little, but that he could make you look good. I’m not sure it ever made me feel very good.
The point of tonight’s reading is Jesus’ act of self-humbling, his washing of the disciples’ feet. It’s just the beginning, of course, he already knows that tomorrow he will be bent over further with the weight of the cross. Yes, it’s an object lesson, Jesus in teaching mode, Jesus setting us an example and telling us so explicitly: ‘as I have washed your feet, so you also ought to wash one another’s feet’. It’s where we get the name of tonight’s service from: Maundy Thursday, the Latin word ‘mandatum’ which means to be mandated or mandatory. More than that, though, it is what St Paul calls ‘kenosis’, the emptying or cancelling oneself out, of the one who ‘though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave ... and being found in human form he humbled himself’.
Funnily enough, this is not a very popular notion with God’s people. After 2,000 years, we still don’t get this one, and maybe my experience with the shoe-shine man tells you why. Not so much, I think, because we don’t like the idea of being served, of having somebody around to do the menial stuff. Secretly, most of us probably rather like that idea. But because we observe correctly how personal it is, how inappropriate it feels, having somebody’s face inches away from your ingrown toenails or your cracked heels, having somebody touching you in a way that suggests your flawed and unlovely humanity is just exactly what they love about you. It indicts and challenges our lovelessness, it exposes not our feet but the withered and self-preoccupied state of our souls. It informs us - not just that we should be serving one another or better yet, living with compassion towards those in desperate need of it - because actually we already know this - it informs us that the unholy mixture of pride and self-loathing that makes the experience of having our feet handled and washed by Jesus so confronting is exactly what he is asking us to empty ourselves of.
Jesus’ act of kenotic or self-cancelling love is the vital move in the opposite direction from all that we thought we knew, the opposite of the Exodus flight to freedom. Not the Passover but an invitation to the humility and self-knowledge of servitude, an invitation to die with him in order that we might live with him, a baptism of the least attractive end of us, a watery anointing of the feet that, God willing, will take us as far as we need to go to lose ourselves.