Sermon for Maundy Thursday
In the story of Our Lord’s passion in the Gospel of Mark, which we heard read on Sunday, there is a curious line which you may easily have missed. After the last supper was concluded and before Jesus goes to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane, the Gospels of Mark and Matthew tell us that he and his disciples sang a hymn. It is the only time in all of our scriptures that we are told that Our Lord sang. Now it is likely that there was a song that was a part of the Passover meal ritual. We don’t know exactly what happened at Passover meals in Jesus’s time, the modern Passover seder developed later, but we do know some of the things that were eaten, we know that there were some rituals with cups of wine, and it is very likely that a portion of the psalms would have been sung as well (remembering, of course, that the psalms were always written to be sung). So it is entirely possible that Jesus would have sung many times in his life, but this is the only time that we are told about it explicitly, at this meal.
Think about the timing here. Jesus knows that he is about to be betrayed. He knows that he is about to be arrested and tortured. He knows that his death is coming quickly, and yet here he is singing. He has predicted that he would die and rise again, but that hasn’t happened yet. That is a matter of faith at this point. What lies ahead for him is suffering and struggle, when he leaves the Passover celebration he is going to his agony in the garden, but still he finds the courage to sing. That’s a pretty remarkable thing if you stop and think about it. How many of us can claim to have such faith in God’s saving power that we would have the courage to sing as we approached death? How many of us can celebrate salvation before we witness it?
When we think of Passover or Our Lord’s Supper, we often think of them as something we do to remember God’s saving work and that is very true. God says to Moses: “This day shall be a day of remembrance for you.” Jesus says to his disciples: “Do this in remembrance of me.” Remembering is important, but think for a moment about that first Passover meal. When did the first Passover meal happen? On the night before the Children of Israel were freed from slavery. Moses and the Israelites were commanded to celebrate their salvation before they witnessed it. That first Passover wasn’t just a feast of thanksgiving, it was an act of faith; faith that God would fulfill his promises.
What about the Eucharist? For Christians the Eucharist, the Holy Thanksgiving, is the ultimate remembrance of Our Lord’s death and resurrection. Paul said that “as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” But when did the first Eucharist happen? During Our Lord’s last supper, the Passover meal that he was celebrating before his death and resurrection. That feast wasn’t just an act of remembrance; it was also an act of faith, a celebration of what God was about to do. Maybe that is why Jesus could walk away from it singing: the feast called him to look beyond the pain of the present moment, to remember how God had saved his people in the past and to trust that he would do so again.
Maundy Thursday is a rather odd service traditionally. We have just come through Lent and all that time we never sang the Gloria, the song of celebration that is usually at the beginning of mass. We don’t sing it in Advent and Lent, but here in the midst of Holy Week, the night before we remember Our Lord’s death, we do sing it. We not only sing it, we ring bells. The vestments tonight are white, a color that we reserve for great feasts of celebration. You would think that we would wait to wear white until Easter Sunday (I’m sure it would make the altar guild a lot happier), but we don’t. On this night before we remember our Lord’s passion, we feast and we sing and we celebrate, not just what God has done in the past but what he is about to do. We celebrate God’s salvation before we witness it.
That is what every Eucharist is in some sense about, not just giving thanks to God for what he has already done in Christ Jesus, but praising and thanking God for what he is about to do in us. We are here to thank God for mercies that we haven’t seen yet. We are here to celebrate an eternal life that we haven’t entered into yet. We are here to sing about a salvation that is to come. That is an act of faith. That is an act of courage. That is how our Lord spends his last night here on earth. What does Jesus say after supper in tonight’s gospel?: “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.” His last supper on earth was about giving glory to God, not just for what he did, but for what he was about to do, and one of the ways that God was glorified was in song.
You might wonder what exactly Our Lord was singing as he walked off to dark Gethsemane. Actually, we think we might know. There is a collection of six psalms that are grouped together and were sung on the major Jewish festivals from very ancient times. They form a prayer called Hallel, and they are sung even to this day. They are psalms 113 to 118. I’m sure that it is no accident that Psalm 116 is the psalm assigned for this feast tonight, and sung by our choir:
“What reward shall I give unto the Lord, for all the benefits that he hath done unto me?
I will receive the cup of salvation and call upon the name of the Lord.”
They are words our savior himself may have been singing on his last night. And what would have been his last song that he courageously sang as he walked into the garden to confront the agony of human sinfulness? Listen to the end of that song of prayer, Psalm 118:
1O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!
4Let those who fear the Lord say, “His steadfast love endures forever.”
5Out of my distress I called on the Lord; the Lord answered me and set me in a broad place.
6With the Lord on my side I do not fear. What can mortals do to me?
7The Lord is on my side to help me; I shall look in triumph on those who hate me.
8It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to put confidence in mortals.
9It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to put confidence in princes.
13I was pushed hard, so that I was falling, but the Lord helped me.
14The Lord is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.
15There are glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous: “The right hand of the Lord does valiantly;
16the right hand of the Lord is exalted; the right hand of the Lord does valiantly.”
17I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord.
19Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord.
20This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it.
21I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation.
22The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.
23This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.
24This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.
26Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. We bless you from the house of the Lord.
28You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God, I will extol you.
29O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.
And with those words, Our Lord leaves the feast and walks into the dark garden. May we, like Moses, feast on God’s promises before we taste his freedom. May we, like Christ, have the courage to sing praises to the Lord, even before we witness his salvation.