29 March 2018
Revd Jonathan Cain
1 Cor. 11: 23-26; John 13: 1-17, 31b-35
This evening we actively remember the events of the evening before Jesus’ death on the cross. Simon will wash feet, as Jesus washed his disciples feet. We will share the Eucharist of the Last Supper. We will strip the church of its decoration, listen, and watch, and wait before the body and blood of Christ in the form of the Blessed Sacrament. And as we watch we recall a tortured night in a garden in Gethsemane. This is a pattern of ritual that I guess many of us are familiar with, something that has been handed on to us; part of the active remembering of all that God in Christ has done for us.
The extract from John’s gospel account begins with a reference to the festival of the Passover, a festival that is still kept by Jewish families around the world; many Christian communities will also share a Passover or Seder meal tonight. Much of the ritual of a Passover meal is designed to fulfil the biblical obligation to tell the story of the faith to one’s children, and so the meal is punctuated by Four Questions, traditionally asked by the youngest person at the table. The questions are designed to pique a child’s curiosity about what is happening, and all begin with the phrase “Why is this night different from all other nights?” Through the successive questions the young enquirer then asks about different aspects of the meal: unleavened bread, bitter herbs, dipping vegetables and eating posture (it is traditional to eat the Passover meal reclining).
The answers to the Four Questions are linked to the four promises of redemption that we read in the Book of Exodus:
“Say therefore to the Israelites, “I am the Lord, and I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians and deliver you from slavery to them. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgement. I will take you as my people, and I will be your God. You shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has freed you from the burdens of the Egyptians.”
The ritual of the Passover meal is an active remembering of all that God has done for his people; it is also about faith transmission designed over time to develop a sense of wonder and gratitude in young and old alike.
The Church of England guidance on Celebrating the Eucharist with Children includes two alternative Eucharistic prayers, the second of which appears to have borrowed directly from the Jewish Passover custom, because it is punctuated by three questions. Firstly, when the Priest says “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God” to which we all reply “It is right to give thanks and praise”, we are invited to ask “Why is it right to give thanks and praise?” Later in the prayer, the second question is, “Why do we share this bread and this wine?” And the final question, which is inserted near to the end of the prayer is, “How do we follow Jesus Christ?”
In the prayer the answer to each question, which I would suggest is helpful for young and old alike, is, “Listen, and we will hear? as different parts of the Eucharistic Prayer offer a response.
The Jewish obligation to pass on the faith from generation to generation is set out in Deuteronomy. “Hear, O Israel:” Moses says. “Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away.”
The same obligation applies to us as Christians. In the great commission at the end of Matthew’s gospel account, Jesus commands his disciples to go and make disciples of all nations. In the extract from Paul’s letter to Corinth he is clear that what has been received, is handed on and proclaimed. Three verbs: receive, hand on, proclaim. Easy to say, not perhaps so easy to do. Sometimes it feels impossible to receive, with a sense of wonder and gratitude all that God has done for us. Handing on what we have received, with gentleness and not coercion is difficult, and requires patience and humility. Proclaiming the Lord’s death until he comes is perhaps easier to do in here than it is out there. Where to start?
I wonder, as we participate in our active remembering this Holy Week, whether we might start by reflecting on those questions:
- “Why is this night different from all other nights?”
- “Why is it right to give thanks and praise?”
- “Why do we share this bread and this wine?”
- “How do we follow Jesus Christ?”