The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Thursday, April 14, 2022

Maundy Musings


Today is Maundy Thursday, the first day of the Great Paschal Triduum.    The name Maundy refers to the ritual footwashing that traditionally takes place on this day.   St. John, who provides the longest account of the evening remembered today of any of the Evangelists, even though he begins his account after the Last Supper, highlighted in all the other Gospels, has ended, tells us that after the Last Supper, Jesus washed His disciples’ feet, then told them:


Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well: for so I am.  If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet.   For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you. (Jn. 13:13-15)


Later in the same chapter St. John records Jesus giving the New Commandment: “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another”.   The Latin word for commandment is mandatum, the source of the word “mandate” that public health officers have made so odious by their abuse of such over the last two years.   It is also the source of the word Maundy as the word for ritual foot-washing.   


Footwashing was not the only ritual instituted by Jesus that evening.   The other Evangelists all record the institution of the Eucharist which took place immediately prior to this during the Last Supper.   As St. John begins his account of this evening at the end of the Last Supper he does not record the institution, although earlier in his Gospel as part of his account of the Feeding of the Five Thousand – the only miracle other than the Resurrection found in all four Gospels - he recorded Jesus’ discourse about Himself as the Bread of Life in which the meaning of the Eucharist is expounded at length.  


That St. John begins his account of this evening after the Last Supper, so emphasized in the other Gospels, has ended is not surprising.   Eusebius of Caeserea, the Church’s Herodotus, in his Ecclesiastical History records an account by Clement of Alexandria of how copies of the other three Gospels had come into St. John’s hands and he, having proclaimed them faithful and true, wrote his own Gospel with an eye to including material that they had left out.   (Book III, chapter 24).   The Patristic writers specify that St. John included the events that took place between Jesus’ baptism and John the Baptist’s imprisonment – this covers all of the first three chapters of his Gospel and at least part of the fourth.   Other material that St. John includes that the other Evangelists omit are Jesus’ words and deeds in Jerusalem on His visits there prior to the Triumphal Entry, and His lengthy private discourses.   The latter is what we find in his account of the evening of the Last Supper.   After the account of Jesus’ washing the disciples’ feet, commanding them to do likewise, and the subsequent account of Judas’ departure, the New Commandment comes at the beginning of a lengthy discourse that extends through to the end of the seventeenth chapter.   It is generally called the Upper Room Discourse although Jesus and the disciples begin moving from the Upper Room to the Garden of Gethsemane at the end of the fourteenth chapter.   In this discourse Jesus speaks of His coming departure back to the Father, comforts His disciples with the assurance that He will return to take them to the place He is preparing for them in His Father’s house, promises that when He returns to the Father He will send another Comforter, the Holy Spirit, to them, commands them to abide in Him (“I am the true vine”) and expands on the New Commandment.   He warns them of the persecution they will face in the world for His sake, but assures them that He has overcome the world.   He concludes the discourse with a prayer in which He asks the Father to glorify the Son, to keep His disciples from the evil in the world, and that they might be one as the Father and Son are one.


One interesting difference between St. John’s account of this evening and those of the other Evangelists cannot be explained by the Fourth Evangelist’s consciously choosing material that had not already been covered.   This is the difference which F. F. Bruce called “the thorniest problem in the New Testament”, namely that St. John seems to date the events of this evening one day earlier than the other Evangelists do.   In the Synoptic Gospels, the Last Supper seems to be the Passover Seder.   In St. John’s Gospel, however, Jesus’ accusers when they bring Jesus from Caiaphas to Pilate, refrain from entering the Roman judgment hall themselves “lest they should be defiled; but that they might eat the Passover.” (18:28).   There is a theological implication to St. John’s timing.   At the beginning of his Gospel he tells of how John the Baptist pointed Jesus out to his followers saying “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world”. (1:29)   By St. John’s dating Jesus’ death on the Cross would have taken place at precisely the moment on the Ides of Nisan when the Passover lamb was slain.


The other Evangelists, however, seem to be quite clear on the Last Supper having been the Passover.   St. Mark, for example, begins his account of the Last Supper by saying “And the first day of unleavened bread, when they killed the Passover, his disciples said unto him, Where wilt thou that we go and prepare that thou mayest eat the Passover” (14:12) and a few verses later says “And his disciples went forth, and came into the city, and found as he had said unto them: and they made ready the Passover”.   St. Luke tells us that at the Supper Jesus said “With desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer” (22:15) and includes details (e.g. “the cup after supper”, 22:20) that belong specifically to a Passover Seder.


So how do we account for this?   Let us begin by taking the liberal explanation, the kind that the Jesus Seminar and similar types, would suggest, i.e., that one or more of the Gospels is unreliable, off the table.   This leaves us with a number of possibilities. 


One of these is that either the Synoptic Evangelists or St. John do not actual say what they appear to be saying at first glance.   It is not difficult to make the case that St. John does not actually date the death of Jesus to the slaying of the Paschal lamb as he appears to do.    Passover begins on the Ides of Nisan but it lasts a week.   Therefore, St. John in 18:28 could have been talking about a meal later in the week of Passover than the initial Seder.    


Another possibility is that Jesus arranged to eat the Passover a day early.   “The day of unleavened bread” that the other Evangelists talk about could possibly refer to the day before Passover when the bedikat chametz, the thorough going over of the home to find and eliminate any leaven, took place, and “when the Passover must be killed” could possibly refer to the time of day rather than the specific date.   While this is a far less plausible explanation of the words of the Synoptic Evangelists than the explanation in the previous paragraph is of St. John’s, it arguably finds support within the Synoptic Gospels themselves in that these record that the chief priests who conspired to take Jesus “by craft, and put him to death” had said “Not on the feast day, lest there be an uproar of the people” (Mk. 14:1-2).  The chief priests would have had to sign off on any request to have an early Passover and this would have provided them with a reason to do so.   If they allowed Jesus to have an early Passover, that would have gotten Him away from the crowd, enabling Judas to bring their posse to arrest Him, all before the Passover actually began.   As it stands, the words of the conspirators just quoted are difficult to reconcile with their actions if the Last Supper took place on the actual Passover as SS Matthew, Mark, and Luke seem to indicate, because that would mean they did precisely what they had agreed not to do. 


Interestingly enough, another explanation could be that both the Synoptic Evangelists and St. John mean exactly what they appear to mean and that both are right because there was more than one Ides of Nisan.  Even though that explanation sounds at first like it might come from a movie by Harold Ramis featuring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell we know that at least one sect of Second Temple Judaism, the Essenes, the ascetic mystic sect that left behind the famous scrolls of the Qumran Cave, followed a different calendar from that of other Jews.   They used what they called a Jubilee Calendar, a solar-based pentecontad calendar that placed the Passover on the same day of the week every year.   By the ordinary Jewish lunar calendar, in which each month begins with the new moon, the Passover falls on different days of the week depending upon the year.    While Jesus was not likely to have used the Essenes’ calendar – and it would have put the Passover on a date that fits none of the Gospels if He had - the point is that there were differences among first century Jews about these matters.   The beginning of the month was set by the Sanhedrin which ruled on the basis of witnesses attesting to having seen the new moon.   Discrepancies were not unknown. Rosh Hashanah 22b in the Talmud discusses an incident in which the Boethusians – a sect similar if not identical to the Sadducees – bribed a couple of witnesses to falsify their testimony about the new moon.   Although the Talmud depicts the scheme as failing and the Sanhedrin becoming stricter as to whose testimony they would accept – Rabbi Isaac Lichtenstein, a Messianic Rabbi (1) of the nineteenth century, argued in his New Testament Commentary that the Sadducees had pulled this same stunt the year of the Crucifixion in order to get their way in their famous controversy with the Pharisees over the timing of the Feast of Weeks which would have had the effect of moving Passover by a day as well.   The Pharisees would not have taken this well and with their large popular following would have been able to get away with keeping the Passover the day before where it would have been without the shenanigans.  Since He was to die the next day on the official Passover, Lichtenstein reasoned, Jesus celebrated the Passover with His disciples on the day the Pharisees kept it that year.


While this third explanation involves more conjecture than the other two, it is hardly baseless conjecture.   Jesus Christ is the “Lamb of God, which taketh away the sins of the world” as John the Baptist said, and our Passover sacrificed for us as St. Paul wrote (1 Cor. 5:7), making it appropriate that His death occur when St. John implies it did at the time of the slaying of the Paschal lamb.   Through this Sacrifice He established the long promised New Covenant as He announced in advance at the Last Supper, as He instituted the Sacrament of the Eucharist, making it appropriate that this take place at the Passover of the Old Covenant, as the Synoptic Gospels say.   The third explanation, which allows for both, seems the best to me.


Have a blessed Maundy Thursday.

(1) That is a Rabbi who believed in Jesus as Messiah.

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