The three days celebrating the end of Jesus’ life on earth and his resurrection on Easter are presented as one continuous story. For those who do not find it possible to attend all services, reading and reflecting at home is a way to live with this season which is at the heart of our Catholic faith, the fulfilment of Christ’s life and the climax of our liturgical year.
Holy Thursday/Maundy Thursday. The ‘Last Supper’ and the Gift of the Eucharist
Exodus 12:1-8, 11-14
This is the Old Testament background in for the feast of the Passover. Although presented as instructions given in Egypt, it was probably written as ‘liturgical directions’ for the celebration of the Passover feast once the people were settled in Israel. Two originally separate feasts were joined and celebrated as the great liberation from servitude. Both names are used in the gospel: ‘Feast of the Unleavened Bread’ (agricultural in origin) and ‘Passover’, the meal with a sacrificial lamb representing deliverance of the last plague when the Israelites were spared the death of the first born son by the blood of the sacrificed animal. It was a common belief of that time that blood sacrifices had the effect of saving human lives and this was part of the religious background of the Hebrews. For Christians, all this would be changed, as they came to see how Jesus’ own self-offering of his life made real what had been symbolized in the older rites – reconciliation with God. The bread and the blood would be transformed into the real nourishment of spiritual life.
Psalm 115:12-13, 15-18
This psalm has both the ‘cup of salvation’ which we see as the Eucharist cup, and the precious value of the death of a holy one. We can see Jesus’ death as the ultimate ‘sacrifice of thanksgiving’.
I Corinthians 11:23-26
Although the first three gospels give an account of the Eucharist at the Last Supper, the reading chosen for this night is from St Paul. He adds to the words of Jesus, what may be his own conclusion: our taking part in the Eucharist is to ‘proclaim’ the saving death of Jesus, as showing our acceptance of Jesus’ and the gift of his life.
John does not tell us of the Last Supper Eucharist and so we are asked to look at the significance of the incident, only in John, of the foot-washing. John has earlier in the gospel, however, made clear the reality of the sacrament in a long ‘discourse’ in chapter 6. His community would know that the Eucharist had been given at the meal, but writing at a later time, he sees their need for another teaching, one that has meaning for us as well.
Jesus waits till the ending of the meal, rather than the usual time of arrival when the feet were dirty, and that in itself signals that what he is going to do is symbolic. Feet get soiled walking on dusty roads, and so it was a custom of a host to offer a foot washing to the guests. This was a task performed by a slave/servant, probably one of the least important of the household. This explains Peter’s protest: he does not think it right for Jesus to do for his disciples a task so lowly.
Jesus afterward tells them that, while they are right to call him ‘Lord and Master’, he has shown something about the kind of Lord he is, and this they are to take as a model for their own leadership. Compare his words elsewhere: ‘I came not to be served, but to serve and give my life for all.’ While the church has seen Jesus’ command to celebrate the Eucharist is to be repeated over and over, this is the only day of the year in which foot-washing is re-enacted. ‘Wash one another’s feet’ is after a symbolic way of saying ‘do whatever services our fellow humans have need of’. While service is something to be especially observed by those in positions of authority and power, it is also something for all in whatever ways our ownlives offer. Catherine Doherty says, ‘Christians are people of the towel and the water.’
Good Friday – the Passion and Death of Jesus
This is the ‘Song of the Suffering Servant’, the most profound expression in the Old Testament of the meaning and value of the suffering of the innocent and of those who are persecuted for their dedication to God’s service. The opening words ‘be lifted up’ are used in the Gospel of John for Jesus on the cross. Echoes of this passage are found in various parts of the gospels. I find it a moving passage that calls more for meditation than comment.
Psalm 30: 2, 6, 12-13, 15-17, 25
There is also in this psalm as it were, ‘pre-echoes’ of the Passion, and the words, ‘Into your hands I commend my spirit’ are quoted by Jesus at his death in Luke’s gospel.
Letter to the Hebrews 4:14-16, 5:7-9
The writer of this Letter sees Jesus’ death as making him the High Priest of the new covenant, an advocate that knows the depth of human temptation and suffering and so always ready to help us. We are reminded that it was through Christ’s death that our salvation comes.
Commentaries on John’s Passion account take pages of notes and background, space here for only a few points that may be puzzling. As an overview, John has chosen to stress not so much the weakness which was spoken of in the Letter to the Hebrews, but to show Jesus’ total command of the entire event, even at the moment of his death. In contrast to Mark’s emphasis of Jesus humanity in suffering, John stresses his divine nature. Both are part of the mystery of who Christ was – and is.
While relating the history and the tradition of the Passion, John has also used techniques familiar throughout the gospel to bring out the theological understanding of the events. He dramatizes scenes, as the dialogue with Pilate to make even clearer what kind of King Jesus is, and how he reaches his kingship through suffering and death. The use of misunderstanding, as so often in John allows clarification; and the use of irony and allusions to the Old Testament are other John techniques all present in the account. One scene that many think written by John is during the arrest of Jesus in the garden, when he is told they seek Jesus the Nazarene. In the Greek text his response is simply ‘I am,’ and although this could mean (as translated) ‘I am he’, it also echoes the divine name of the Old Testament, where God says, ‘I AM.’ Jesus previously used this divine title for himself in John 8:58. The soldiers fall to the ground like the awe of those who have witnessed the presence of God. They can only arrest Jesus after he has made his control of events clear.
‘The disciple whom Jesus loved’ (the ‘Beloved Disciple’) is a figure only in John, and he is never given a name. There is unending speculation on who he was, but still no agreed identification. He may have been both a real person, was a symbolic role or both. One can see it as meaning the ideal disciple; John sees the failings of the actual disciples (showing Peter’s misunderstandings and his denial of being a disciple during the trial scenes) and wants to indicate what true discipleship would be. In John, the beloved disciple is given the care of Jesus’ mother (who is also never given a personal name in this gospel) and she is to be mother of the disciple. The Church has long seen this passage as making Mary the mother of all Christians, which fits the symbolism frequent in John.
The incident of the soldier piercing the side of Jesus is only in John and it obviously was intended to have deeper meaning than just proving his death, but the significance has been debated. John may have intended it to have multiple resonances. Blood and water representing the sacraments of the Eucharist and baptism is one possibility. John gives us one quotation that links to the Passover (‘not a bone shall be broken’) and in his timing of the Passion, Jesus’ death occurs at the hour of sacrifice of the Passover lambs in the temple.
To Joseph of Arimathea at the burial, John adds the presence of Nicodemus; both were secret disciples. Nicodemus figures in chapter 3 in the discussion of baptism, and this subtly links Jesus’ death with the life given to the disciples. All the gospels have a pause over the next day after Jesus is left in the tomb.
The rest of the liturgy draws us into the deeper meanings of Jesus’ death, and based on the saving power of the cross, we next formally pray for all humanity. Then we are offered a chance to respond symbolically by ‘venerating the cross’. The service ends quietly with a communion bread which was consecrated the night before, and perhaps leaves us rather like the devastated original disciples, saddened by the details of the suffering and death – however we know that the resurrection followed, an event that changed human history.
The Easter Vigil
The liturgy of the vigil night goes back to the early church, and expresses the eagerness of Christians to start celebrating Easter as soon as possible. It was the traditional time for admitting ‘catechumens’ (new members) into the church and this practice has been revived in modern times.
Many of the ceremonies specifically recall events in the Old Testament which are seen as foretelling all that Jesus was and came to do. They begin with the new fire, and the lighting of the Paschal candle, with the theme of Christ the Light of the World. Then come readings; there are eight in the liturgy instead of the usual two but we will be hearing three at our parish Vigil.
This is the opening of the Bible, going back to the moment before there was anything of the world and the universe but only the presence of God. The dramatic words, ‘Let there be light!’ are a tie to the ceremonies of fire and candle just preceding the reading. It also fits with the idea of the early Church that baptism (to be celebrated later in this liturgy) is ‘enlightenment’. This selection is a majestic meditation on the relation of God to all creation, and of the perfection God desired to bring forth. (To take it as meant as a scientific description would miss the historical background with its contrast to pagan myths.) There is no death in this ideal – even the animals are vegetarians! This account of perfection is followed in the rest of the Old Testament by ‘what went wrong’ and what God will do to make it right again.
Christians will also see a ‘new creation’ coming through Jesus, and on our part received in baptism. We rise from being creatures among animals to becoming those who share the divine life of Christ.
Exodus 14:15 – 15:1
Here a lively account, dramatically staged, of God’s rescue of the people from Egyptian oppression. This ties the theme of salvation, and of the Passover, to our Easter celebration. And it is a reminder which fits the Easter season: that when things seem most desperate, God is still there to save.
Ezekiel gives an angry description of ‘what went wrong’ with God’s creation and previous offers of salvation –people turning away from love to sinfulness. This leads to a new promise of salvation, which begins with the symbol of cleansing water and so is most appropriate for this night of blessing of water and the rite of baptism. And for all of us, the gift of a ‘new spirit’ and a loving heart is promised.
After the Old Testaments readings, we have a selection from the New which links the baptisms that sometimes take place in the Vigil – also a celebration of our past baptisms – with the death and resurrection of Jesus. It ends with the triumphal joy of our share in the new life of Christ.
Luke’s account of the empty tomb on Easter morning is short, though he will add more later. In all four gospels, it is faithful women disciples who go to the tomb. These women watched the burial, so there could be no mistake about the right tomb. They are perplexed to find it empty, somehow they had really taken in the predictions of Jesus that his death would be followed in three days by resurrection. They have to be reminded by two heavenly messengers – Luke calls them ‘men’ but their radiant clothing shows they are not earthly beings, although otherwise appeared as humans. The women fall to the ground in the fear that always strikes those who see such appearances from heaven.
Mary Magdalene is a witness in all four gospels, but Joanna only appears in Luke, earlier called ‘the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward’. Other women named ‘Mary’ are variously identified, but as there are also several ‘James’, it is hard from this distance to be sure ‘who is who’. Mark says there were ‘many’ women, and Luke would agree while naming only a few.
While there was general disbelief among the male disciples, some manuscripts add the words our liturgy concludes with: that Peter ran to the tomb and found only the linen burial cloths and ‘wondered’. Later Luke (24:34) will add ‘Jesus appeared to Simon’, but he leaves that moment a private one. He also describes Jesus appearing to two disciples on the road to Emmaus (24:15-35) which is read in other years. It is a good one to meditate on during this season, as Jesus was revealed in the ‘words’ and ‘the breaking of the bread’.