The blood shall be a sign for you, upon the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. … This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the Lord. —Exodus 12:13–14 (RSV)
A friend of mine in seminary spent his weekends as a Revolutionary War re-enactor. He would travel to battlefields and dress in 18th-century Colonial American garb, pour black powder into his muzzle-loader, and put on a show for the tourists, schoolchildren, and history buffs who gathered for a healthy dose of patriotic Americana. His costumes and equipment could easily be adapted for use at pioneer days or other living-history events.
Tonight Episcopalians, Anglicans, Catholics, and liturgical Christians around the globe will gather in their Maundy Thursday services to hear and remember. We will hear the stories of the Passover and the Gospel reading that tells us of Jesus celebrating his last Passover, which both St. Luke and St. Paul see clearly as both his Last Passover and the first Eucharist. From there we will proceed to reading and remembering the other events of Jesus’ final Thursday: washing the disciples’ feet, and his betrayal in the Garden.
We will participate in three forms of remembrance, three liturgical acts in which we remember the events of this night 2,000 years ago. We will wash feet, celebrate a meal, and, finally, strip the altar and disperse in silence, only to regather at a vigil of prayer throughout the night stretching through to Good Friday, recalling our Lord’s night of prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. Tonight we gather to hear and remember. We gather because there is something in this remembrance we long for.
But what sort of remembrance are we doing? In what way is this night, to use the words of God to Moses and the people of Israel, a “memorial” (Exod. 12:14)? Is it like my friend in seminary, a re-enactment of living history, or is it something else? What kind of remembrance are we doing?
What is a “memorial”?
A few years back, on a trip to visit my sister and her husband in Washington, D.C., my wife Catherine and I took a walk with them from the Capitol down the mall, past the Washington Memorial, toward the Lincoln Memorial. There, in the middle of an otherwise nondescript grassy field that emerges from a thin grove of trees, we came upon the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Even if you’ve never visited it, the photo above gives some idea of the basic structure: a long, reflective, black stone wall, V-shaped, like an open book with the names of each of the dead etched upon its face in chronological order. I remember visiting a traveling version of the wall during my childhood, and being struck by the sheer number of names: 58,000 dead, lined up in an order that belies the chaos each name represents for the families there to find their loved ones and for the many veterans, like my stepfather, there looking for the names of their friends, many in tears.
But to visit the memorial in Washington is to encounter an entirely different experience. The memorial does not rise from the ground. The sidewalk sinks below the surface of the grass — gently at first, as empty black stone follows you down. A few steps in, there at your ankle are two names, then a few more, then more and more as you walk deeper down, under the surface of the grass now rising to meet you. Soon the individual names are lost in a sea of the departed. After a few more steps you are waist-deep in names of the dead, and before long you have sunk so low that they rise above your head. You are now six feet under ground, overwhelmed by the flood of soldiers who gave their lives.
The architect Maya Lin described her design this way: “I wanted to describe a journey … a journey that would make you experience death and where you’d have to be an observer, where you could never really fully be with the dead.”
It deals with what it means to be connected to time. In other words, to encounter this memorial is in some way to encounter the American experience of the Vietnam War in a unique way. For me, having been born five years after the end of the war, this collective American experience of the war is in some ways before my time.
Coming to the memorial, in the half hour I was there, I experienced something of what it might have been like to be an American during those years from 1959 to 1975. There I was, in 2013, never leaving myself or my sense of place, yet I was brought into the past, and the past was brought to me, memorialized from an experience I did not have in my memory.
I had seen documentaries of the war, and watched films like Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, and Apocalypse Now, but this was nothing like my experience of those films. And it is nothing like reliving the war in memory or dream, as one who experienced it firsthand, haunted by the past.
When my friend re-enacted battles from the Revolutionary War, visitors could come and watch and take photos as the re-enactors played history out as it happened. The movements, sounds, and the smell of gunpowder are brought back from the past, as though the distance between then and now were somehow erased. The difference is that everyone present knows: This is not real. They buy their peanuts, eat their picnics, and snap their photos with smiles on their faces.
The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, “This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the Lord.”
The Passover happened in a night: The lambs were slaughtered, the blood covered the door posts, the angel passed by, and the Israelites walked out of Egypt. But just before that night, there was a feast, a meal, the ceremony prescribed for generations to come: a memorial. It looked forward to what was to come, and it was there before the deliverance to give context to God’s acts in the days to come.
For thousands of years after, Jews who have never stepped foot in Egypt have asked, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” In the Passover meal, God’s Word, the memorial ceremony he prescribes, and the deliverance he accomplishes are one. As they say in the Seder: “For it was not alone our forefathers whom the Holy One, blessed be He, redeemed; He redeemed us too, with them.” By eating this meal, the observant Jew walks into the memorial of deliverance, and the past is brought to the present, the present is folded into the past, and a future deliverance is anticipated: “Next year in Jerusalem!” Time folds into itself. The feast and the deliverance are inseparable.
Luke’s Gospel alone highlights the Passover significance of the Last Supper. Before the Eucharistic bread and wine, Jesus raises the first cup of the Passover: “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you I shall not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God” (Luke 22:15–16). In a few words, Jesus, the Passover lamb to be slain, brings the Exodus forward, and the Cross, the empty tomb, and the New Jerusalem come backward in time to the table in the bread and wine: “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19).
Tonight, we do not come to remember as in history or art. This is not Apocalypse Now for the Christian faithful. And we do not come as re-enactors, playing a role simply to remind us of something significant, long past, that we would do well to remember anew. To “do this in remembrance of me” is to step into the memorial — into the experience of our Lord’s Last Supper that transcends history, memory, and time. But more than that, even, in these liturgical acts, by the power of the Holy Spirit, this remembrance is more than mere remembering; we participate, and the Holy Spirit makes present to us those events which happened before we were ever born.
Our Savior’s words speak to the eternality of this saving act: “This is my body which is given for you” (Luke 22:19). He speaks in the present tense about a future act. His flesh, which had yet to be torn by whips or nailed to the Cross, was broken already in the bread around that table, and they ate, betraying Judas with doubting Thomas and denying Peter. “This cup which is poured out for you” was not poured out. They drank it down. Yet, before a drop of his blood fell on Golgotha’s dirt, this cup “is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20).
And this is not just for the disciples. This is why St. Paul reminds his hearers years later that to desecrate the eucharistic bread and wine is somehow to profane “the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Cor.11:27)
Tonight, it is not the disciples, Peter, James, John, and the rest, whose feet will be cleaned with water. It is our own feet — the feet of disciples we know. They are of us. They are us. Tonight we will not watch a bearded man in Jesus costume act out our Lord’s arrest. But in churches all over the world, as the altar is stripped we will know that he is in our midst. And in our hearts we will behold his beating, in some indescribable way more real than if we had been there to witness it.
And so tonight, this very night, we gather around the table with Jesus, and with Moses and the Israelites, and we taste not just the bread and the wine, but we receive the one who was broken for us, whose words in the Eucharist remain in the present tense, “This is my body. This is the new covenant in my blood. Do this in remembrance of me.”
And this is good news, because we who have betrayed him, we who bring our sorrows, our sadness and our suffering to him, need more than a reminder of someone who served, and sorrowed, and suffered 2000 years ago. We need him today. We long to find him present in our suffering, suffering with us. We need to be served by the one who gave more than a meal. We need Jesus to give himself to us. We don’t hunger and thirst for a wafer and a sip of wine, our souls cry out for deliverance, for exodus.
We the doubting, denying disciples, whose last denials are yet to come, still come tonight longing to eat and drink at his table in his kingdom, and to “proclaim the Lord’s death” for our souls “until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26).
“Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us. Therefore, let us keep the feast.”
Other posts by Paul Wheatley are here. The featured image of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was supplied by the author.
This essay has been adapted from sermons given at Church of the Incarnation, Dallas, Maundy Thursday 2014, and St. Augustine’s, Oak Cliff, Maundy Thursday 2015.