Holy Thursday and Passover 2020 in The Age of COVID – 19
This is Holy Thursday in the era of COVID-19. We celebrate the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, recalling Jesus’ final celebration of Passover with his friends. We commemorate the death of Jesus as the true Lamb of God, and, with the Eucharist, partake of unleavened bread and wine in remembrance of the sacrifice of Jesus.
In observing his last Passover with his disciples, Jesus explained that the symbols of bread and wine represent his body and blood, offered by him for the forgiveness (or passing over) of our sins.
In the Eucharist, we give thanks for God’s deliverance and remember how Jesus brought about the new exodus with his death and resurrection.
The Jewish people throughout the world have started their Passover celebrations, thus making this a significant time for both Jews and Christians. Of course, the reality is that this year’s commemorations will be and will feel unlike any that we have experienced before.
Several years ago, I walked the famous Camino de Santiago de Compostela across the north of Spain. After a full day of being confined by hiking boots and having tired feet, I got into the habit of soaking and massaging my feet. That was practical, even necessary, if my feet were going to take me over the next day’s route.
That’s why the washing of feet made sense in Jesus’ time. It was practical. He and his disciples would have followed the tradition of washing one’s feet at the end of the day. The water removed the day’s dirt and soothed sore feet. A host was expected to provide such cleansing for guests. The actual task usually fell to a servant. But Jesus broke with tradition by washing his disciples’ feet at the Last Supper. Here was a host becoming the servant.
The foot washing is detailed in today’s Gospel from John 13. Those who preside at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper re-enact this each year. Many people regard foot washing as sacramental, in that it is an outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual divine grace. We are turning a relatively ordinary activity into something that opens us to a deeper reality in life, namely, the power of service.
After Jesus washes the feet of his disciples, he says, If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Of course, the point isn’t about washing the feet of one another. It’s about service.
Service takes many forms. It means being present to another in such a way that I anticipate their needs. It means being available for the help that is needed in any setting in which I find myself. It’s about not being afraid or reluctant to do something, even if it’s somebody else’s job, such as cleaning up a mess.
Holy Thursday is a celebration of service, service to one another that sometimes takes humble forms.
It doesn’t take much imagination to make a connection between this notion of service and the selfless actions that we see from so many frontline workers throughout the globe at this time. Those serving us could be in hospitals or in their response to 911 calls. Some are in nursing homes or supermarkets.
The Jewish people have begun Passover. They celebrate their liberation by God from slavery in Egypt and their freedom as a nation under the leadership of Moses. Passover is one of the most widely observed Jewish holidays. It starts with the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Nisan and lasts for seven days for most Jews.
This typically occurs in March or April of the Gregorian calendar. Passover is a spring festival. The 15th day of Nisan begins on the night of a full moon after the northern vernal equinox.
In the Book of Exodus we read that God helped the Israelites escape from slavery by inflicting ten plagues upon the ancient Egyptians before the Pharaoh would release his Israelite slaves. The tenth and worst of the plagues was the death of the first-born child of the Egyptian families. The Israelites were instructed to mark the doorposts of their homes with the blood of a slaughtered spring lamb. Upon seeing this, the spirit of the Lord knew to pass over the first-born in these homes (Exodus 12).
When the Pharaoh freed the Israelites, they left in such a hurry that they could not wait for the bread dough to rise. Thus, matzo (flat unleavened bread) is eaten during Passover and is a symbol of the Passover holiday. Matzo is made solely from flour and water. It also has the advantage of preserving well and being good for long journeys.
Some scholars refer to matzo as Lechem Oni (bread of poverty), a symbol that reminds Jews what it is like to be a poor slave. It promotes humility, helps people further appreciate the gift of freedom, and avoids the inflated ego symbolized by more luxurious leavened bread.
The ritual that most people associate with Passover is the Seder, a special dinner held on the first night of Passover. Seder is the Hebrew word for order. The meal follows a specific and formalized order. Every element is filled with symbolism. It includes the relating of the story of the Exodus. Children have an important role in the Passover Seder.
Traditionally the youngest child asks questions about the Seder, serving as a prompt for the gathering to discuss the significance of the symbols in the meal. The questioning opens with, Why is this night different from all other nights?
At this time in human history, many of us are asking, Why is this time different from all other times in my life? Let’s pray today for the Jewish people, the first to hear the word of God. And let’s pray in union with Christians celebrating Holy Thursday.