Getting Israel out of Egypt is half the battle; the other half is getting Egypt out of Israel. The Maundy Thursday readings, with their Passover setting, invite us to contemplate that.
Getting Israel out of Egypt: The first reading tells of the institution of the Passover, a feast the Jews have celebrated every year since that night in Egypt.
Each family was to select an unblemished lamb, the Passover lamb, and to kill it at twilight. Some of the blood went on the doorposts and the lintel of the house and the lamb was eaten, with the family prepared to leave at any moment. That very night God would pass through the land, and Pharaoh would finally let the people go.
Until Jesus’ arrival, no other night was of such importance in the world’s history, for it was one of the defining actions of the true God, announcing that God desires not the obedience of slaves, but rather of free sons and daughters. In our country, African American slaves heard in this story God’s passion for their own freedom.
And every year since the Exodus the Jews have continued to celebrate the Passover to remember their liberation and —often— to reaffirm their confidence in God’s power to free them again from new oppressors.
As the Gospels tell us, Jesus. the night before his death, celebrated the Passover with his disciples and reinterpreted its meaning. The meal had used bread and wine to celebrate the liberation from Egypt; Jesus reinterpreted the bread and wine in terms of his coming self-offering: this is my body; this is my blood.
Every Sunday when we celebrate the Eucharist, when we say “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us” we are remembering this definitive reinterpretation. And to say “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us” reminds us of how deeply God desires our liberty, and what God was willing to pay to achieve it. God desires that we be free from both our exterior and interior oppressors, free—in the language of our Gospel reading—to love.
Getting Egypt, that is, getting the enslaving seeking and maintenance of status, out of Israel turns out to be at least as hard. It’s the focus of our New Testament readings. In Luke’s account of the Last Supper even that night the disciples were arguing about who was the greatest. So Jesus tries to get at it by washing the disciples’ feet. It horrifies Peter, not so much (I think) that Jesus is washing his feet, as that Peter has already figured out where Jesus is going to take this: “if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”
Our Prayer Book encourages—but does not demand—a reenactment of the foot washing. These days it’s problematic; we’re not doing it tonight; perhaps you’ll do it next year. But the reenactment is less important than its point: a love that is oriented not by my comfort level or preferences, but by the needs of my brother or sister. Love oriented by my comfort level or preferences: that lets Egypt in through the back door. Love oriented by the needs of my brother or sister: that’s the liberty for which Moses struggled and Jesus died.
This business of washing each other’s feet—metaphorically speaking—shows up in that paragraph from Paul’s letter from which our reading was taken. The Lectionary assigns vv.23-26, in which Paul recounts Jesus’ institution of the Eucharist. But why recount it? For that we need the surrounding context. In those days—also at Corinth—we often celebrated the Eucharist as part of a dinner. But what happened, what scandalized Paul, was that each family ate and drank from their own basket. The rich, baskets to go from one of the upscale restaurants; the poor, whatever they could find at a local food pantry. Egypt has not only entered through the back door; Egypt is running the place! So Paul recounts the institution to remind them that the Eucharist is about a New Covenant, a life given for others, so that celebrating the Eucharist selfishly and as though it’s “business as usual” badly misses the point.
Notice how Paul unpacks this. “For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.” Notice: “the body” isn’t the Eucharistic bread; it’s the living Body of Christ composed of the brothers and sisters gathered around a common table but not —alas— around a common basket. “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner…” “In an unworthy manner” is not about whether I’ve properly confessed before Mass, or whether I have the right sacramental theology, but about whether I’m showing love to my Christian brothers and sisters.
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Washing each others’ feet, celebrating the Eucharist in a way that takes Jesus’ Body seriously: two first Century examples of where Jesus’ new commandment needs to kick in, given to us to get us wondering where that new commandment needs to kick in here and now.
Getting Israel out of Egypt: that’s God’s “yes” to our freedom, celebrated in the Passover and transposed—put on steroids—for all people in Jesus’ death as celebrated in the Holy Eucharist. Getting Egypt out of Israel, living freely: that turns out to be an ongoing project. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.” May some of Jesus’ passion for our freedom rub off on us.