Exodus 12:1-8, 11-14
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
Holy Thursday, in times past, has been referred to as Maundy Thursday. Why "Maundy"? Maundy is an anglicized version of the Latin "mandatum", which means "command". And this is closely allied with the Lord’s remark: "I give you a new commandment: love one another" (Jn 13.35). So today, Maundy or Command Thursday, is love day.
The church spells this out for us in the Eucharistic liturgy today, with its selection of historical words and actions. She presents us one of the most significant events in the history of the Jewish people: the Exodus. This was the Hebrew flight to freedom, after having been slaves in Egypt for the better part of four centuries, but now we find them poised, under the leadership of Moses, to escape this land and make their way to freedom in a new place. This was not to occur by dint of amassing arms and weapons, but by gathering choice lambs from their flocks, and slaughtering them as part of a (paschal) meal, daubing their blood on doorway lintels, to escape the passage of the avenging angel. This was a love feast, one of fellowship among them as each family looked to its neighbor to make sure everyone was able to partake of this last meal in bondage. This all took place under strict orders, minutely detailing a command performance.
The church then jumps many centuries, to select a reading from the time of Paul the apostle, instructing the Christian community in Corinth about details of another meal (the first eucharist), carefully orchestrated to present the memory of what Christ Jesus did the night before He died: arranging a love feast of fellowship among those closest to Him, whose center-piece was bread and wine. Like the Exodus meal, this too was eaten within hours of another journey to freedom, leading to the Garden of Olives, to mock trials before a procurator and high priests, and through the streets of Jerusalem to Calvary, where, as we proclaim at eucharist: "Lord, by your cross and resurrection you have set us free."
To accentuate the love dimension of this last evening on earth, the church then presents us John’s memory of Jesus going to His knees before each of His disciples to wash them. The import of this deed was not lost on Peter, who quickly saw the significance of what Jesus was about. It is in the combination of these biblical memories about the foot-washing, the last supper and the paschal meal in Egypt, that the church formulates the theme of fellowship on the journey to freedom, as an enriching revelation of God. For God is a fellowship of Persons calling us to the sense of freedom that is at the heart of the Paschal mystery.
Fr. Sebastian MacDonald, C.P. is a member of the Passionist formation community at Catholic Theological Union, Chicago.