The mystery of our salvation begins by stepping into darkness and entropy
Liz Stuart, 14 April 2022
Exodus 12: 1–4, 11–14; 1 Corinthians 11: 23–26; John 13: 1–17, 31b–35
During Holy Week I often find myself looking up at the moon – the Passover moon – contemplating in awe the fact that the same moon shone down on Jesus in the last week of his life, and I wonder if it gave him consolation to look up at it or pain.
Tonight begins what the Church calls the Triduum: three days when we enter into the great mysteries of Christ’s death and resurrection. We are not just recalling historic events but mysteries that took place in history which are so great, so deep, stretching back and forth through time, that the only way to engage in them is to enter into them so that we allow ourselves to be taken by and with Jesus through the last days of his life, through death, into resurrection. You will notice that the services over the next few days do not really end. We come together and depart and then come together in one great participation in these most solemn and holy mysteries.
We are not just recalling historic events but mysteries which are so great, so deep, stretching back and forth through time, that the only way to engage in them is to enter into them.
Some well-meaning but, in my view, misguided Christians tonight gather and celebrate a Seder meal or a version of it – the meal our Jewish siblings celebrate at Passover. In fact, in Jesus’ day the Passover was not celebrated at home in the way that contemporary Jewish people celebrate it today, and I think it is unwise and unaware for Christians to seek to colonise and appropriate Jewish liturgy. It is not ours.
Passover in Jesus’ day was celebrated in the Temple at Jerusalem and the city population swelled from around 20–30,000 to six times that during the Passover, as pilgrims flocked to celebrate the Passover there. The steps of the Temple flowed with blood from the sacrifices of Passover lambs. Political tensions in this occupied land intensified as hundreds of thousands celebrated the liberation of the people of Israel from oppression.
The accounts of the Last Supper in our gospels do not draw on Passover imagery and, if they draw on any liturgical imagery at all, it is the liturgy of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, where blood was shed for the forgiveness of sins and sins laid upon a goat for the restoration of the right relationship between God and humanity. Passover imagery is used in abundance on Saturday in the great Easter Vigil to speak of Jesus’ ‘passover’ from death to life.
Egeria, a fourth-century Spanish nun, has left us a fascinating account of how Christians in Jerusalem commemorated Holy Week. The focus of Holy Thursday was not the room where the Last Supper was supposed to have taken place, but the place believed to be the Garden of Gethsemane; not on the Eucharist but the watch, on Jesus’ agony in the garden, his betrayal and his disciples’ inability to support him. Tonight, as we begin to watch, I will throw down coins to remember it was not just Judas who betrayed Jesus; we do so all the time.
Tonight is, I think, about two things: first and foremost, it is about entry into the mystery of our salvation, and that mystery begins by stepping into darkness and entropy. The Church celebrates the Eucharist tonight – Jesus’ presence among us in bread and wine – but does not do so again until Easter Sunday morning. God and Jesus begin to withdraw; presence gives way to absence; and all is bleak, empty and fearful. We begin to fall apart.
And second, in the face of this, we do as he did and we wash each other’s feet. In the face of entropy and death, betrayal and insufficient commitment, when confronted with absence, Jesus assumes the position of a slave and washes the feet of those who will betray him, either directly or through lack of courage or love. As things begin to fall apart, as he looks up at the Passover moon, he chooses not to focus on himself but on others. That is an extraordinary choice. We see people choosing to do likewise in Ukraine at the moment. In the middle of Russian bombardment in Irpin a woman presented passers-by with flowers ‘for international women’s day’. Others shuttle humans and animals from the midst of atrocity to safety across the border and then turn and go back for more. In the face of entropy, chaos, hopelessness and collapse, what we do reveals our soul. It shows who we are. This act shows Jesus as one who exists for others.
Tonight, he wants to wash our feet, his love enslaving him to our fractured, lukewarm and betraying souls. And he asks us to wash each other’s feet. He asks us to be enslaved by our love for each other even amid darkness, evil, pain and our end. He asks us to hold on to each other as we fall with him into death, into darkness and into absence, because he holds on to us and that, of course, is our hope.