29 March, AD 2018
St Michael’s Church, O’Fallon, IL
Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 116:1, 10-17; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31b-35
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
✠ ✠ ✠
Of all the things Jesus said and did that are recorded in the gospels, not all of them are recorded in all four gospels, as you most likely know. Lots of things appear in more than one, like the birth of Jesus, which is recorded in Matthew and Luke, and his baptism as told by Matthew, Mark and Luke. And although it’s strongly hinted at by St John, the actual baptism is not actually recorded there. John the Evangelist records the words of John the Baptist, who said, “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him” (1.32), which we know from the other three gospels, happened at Jesus’ baptism. But out of all the many events that are recorded in the gospels, only two appear in all four. They are the feeding of the 5,000 and his passion and resurrection. And these two are very intimately bound together.
If you’re into fancy terminology, this evening begins the Paschal Triduum, the three days of the Christian Passover, which ends on Sunday evening with the appearance of the risen Lord to his Apostles. When we hear the word ‘Passover’ we think of Moses and the Israelites on their last night in Egypt. As we read in the first lesson tonight, that’s when, in obedience to God’s command, the enslaved Israelites smeared their doorposts with the blood of lambs, and ate the roasted meat while the Lord killed the firstborn of all the children and livestock of the Egyptians, and of those Israelites who refused to bloody their doors and eat the lamb. “It is the Lord’s Passover,” God tells Moses and Aaron, because on that night he passed over the land of Egypt and spared the lives of all those who did what they were supposed to do. And in the ensuing days he delivered the survivors and their families to freedom through the Red Sea, and drowned the Egyptians who were chasing after them in order to re-enslave them. We read that lesson about God instituting the feast of the Passover on Maundy Thursday because this is the day when his Son instituted the feast of the Holy Eucharist, and he did it right at the end of the Passover meal that he and his disciples shared on the eve of his suffering and death.
Passover and the Red Sea crossing are the images that the Church has most often used to describe what Jesus has done for us in the Paschal Triduum. One of the great Easter hymns, written by St John of Damascus in the eighth century, begins this way:
Come, ye faithful, raise the strain
Of triumphant gladness;
God hath brought his Israel
Into joy from sadness;
Loosed from Pharaoh’s bitter yoke
Jacob’s sons and daughters
Led them with unmoistened foot
Through the Red Sea waters.
Hymnal 1982 #199-200
That hymn is all about the resurrection of Jesus, even though the first verse talks about the liberation of the Israel. Now you may be tempted to think that that’s a neat image which the Church has appropriated because Christians are able to draw parallels between what God did through Moses and what Christ has done in Holy Week and Easter. You may think that, but you’d have it exactly backwards. In our sacramental theology class Sunday morning we talked about types, antitypes and archetypes. A type is something that foreshadows, points forward, to something greater. It’s an image of something that is yet to come.
Ever since that first sin of Adam and Eve, God had been laying the groundwork for Easter. In all those great acts he performed he not only delivered his people from their immediate predicament, but also foreshadowed the events of Holy Week and Easter. They point to Jesus and what he did, just as a shadow causes us to look up at the thing that makes the shadow. It’s all anticipatory. In all those Old Testament events, God is saying to Israel, If you think this is something, just wait for the real thing. And because of these things that you’ve experienced, you’ll be able to recognize the really big thing I’m going to do, not just for you, my chosen people, but for the whole world.
Fr Geoffrey Kirk says, “The story is brought to its conclusion and we are set free from the images to apprehend the reality, only when Jesus Christ clothes himself in all the images of Jewish history and messianic prophecy and lives them out.” I love that image– Jesus clothes/wraps himself in all those Old Testament images and lives them out, he fulfils them, in his own life and ministry. “He crucifies the images,” Fr Kirk says, “as he himself is crucified. The mystery is this: that the crucified reality is better than the figures of prophecy” (“The Irrelevance Argument,” New Directions, March 2008). “He crucifies the images…” He draws our attention from the groundwork to the finished work, from the image, the type, to the real thing. In the last hymn the Church always sings on Maundy Thursday it says, “types and shadows have their ending, for the newer rite is here” (Hymnal 1982 #330). The image gave way to the reality that night when after supper Jesus blessed the bread and the cup, declaring that the New Covenant is about to be sealed by his blood on the cross. The Passover is a type; the reality is everything that happened from Maundy Thursday through Easter Sunday.
One of the appointed readings in Holy Week is from the letter to the Hebrews, which describes how all the law and the prophets point to Jesus. It speaks of how just as the first covenant was sealed in blood– the blood of the sacrifice is flung on the people as a symbolic washing of their sins and some of the flesh is eaten while the rest is burnt on the altar as an offering to God– so the new covenant is sealed with the blood of Jesus, which the people drink, and his flesh which has been offered on the altar of the cross is given for us to eat. “The crucified reality is better than the figures of prophecy.” The crucified reality is the perfection, the completion of all that went before it. It is the thing for which God has been preparing the world ever since the first sin of our first ancestors.
So what’s the Feeding of the 5,000 got to do with all that? Well, those 5,000 were Jews who knew their history. They knew the story of the Passover, of how their ancestors were spared the destruction of the unbelievers by smearing their doorposts with blood and eating the lamb whose blood was smeared. They had all celebrated the Passover every year of their lives, and recalled those saving events, just as God commanded in tonight’s first lesson. So they understood that it was precisely because their ancestors believed God and obeyed his commands that they were delivered that night. And they knew the story of how those same believing, obedient ancestors passed through the Red Sea water to freedom from slavery while their unbelieving pursuers died in that same water. And they knew the story of how, by a miracle, God caused manna and quail to fall from the sky to feed their ancestors in the desert after they passed through the water. So when Jesus, after having miraculously fed those 5,000 with five loaves of bread and two fish, and connecting it with the quail and manna, then says that he himself is the true bread that came down from heaven, and that whoever eats his flesh and drinks his blood will have eternal life, he has put one more piece in the puzzle which, along with all those events and images from the time of Adam and Eve right up until that moment form a nearly-complete picture of the work he was about to finish on the cross.
Then on this night, Maundy Thursday, he blesses the bread and the cup and says, “Eat this… this is my body… Drink this, all of you, for this is my blood, shed for the forgiveness of sins.” Then the disciples remember, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” How could they not remember, having been prompted by so bold a statement as “This is my body… this is my blood”? It wouldn’t be for another fifty-three days, when the Holy Spirit was to settle on them that they’d be given a clear understanding of all these things. Then they would be able to see that, of course!, everything from Genesis 3 to Maundy Thursday night is a lead-up to Good Friday when the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world was sacrificed on the cross.
And now our eating his flesh and drinking his blood is better than smearing the blood of an animal on our doorposts and eating its meat, because this is the perfect sacrifice, the one that is sufficient for all sins, for all people, for all time. Thursday night he showed us how he intended to feed us from the sacrifice that he offered on Friday. And he told us to do it in memory of Friday– even before Friday came; and he told us that by doing it our sins would be forgiven and we’d be nourished for life in his everlasting kingdom. “This is the bread that came down from heaven,” he says, “not like the bread our ancestors ate [in the desert] and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.”
We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you,
because by your holy +cross you have redeemed the world.
Ian C. Wetmore+