SERMON PREACHED BY THE REV’D SAMUEL L. WOOD AT THE CHURCH OF THE ADVENT,
MAUNDY THURSDAY, APRIL 21, 2011

“Why is this night different from all other nights?”  That question on the lips of faithful Jews the world over this past Tuesday when Passover began, is on ours tonight as we begin a unique liturgy we have been straining toward since Lent began.  It will soon become evident that this is not a typical mass at the Advent.  If you are here tonight for the first time, welcome!  We are glad you’re our guest, and I hope to give you a brief explanation for why this night is so important to us.  There is a Latin maxim – lex orandi, lex credendi – literally, “the law of praying, the law of believing,” and what that means is:  If you want to know what we believe at the Church of the Advent, watch how we pray and watch how we worship.[1]  As my first parish priest would say:  If you want to know what Christianity is all about, buckle your seatbelts and “get ready right now for the next three days.”[2] 

But even if you’ve been at the Advent for decades, think deeply about what happens tonight because liturgy properly understood and fully engaged transforms us into better Christians, better family members, better friends to the people in our lives.  As I’ve been saying for weeks now:  Lent is about transformation, and few events have the transformative potential of the Triduum Sacrum, the “holy three days” that mark the end of Lent and are part of the “paschal cycle.” One writer said: 

Individuals and communities who engage themselves wholeheartedly in living the entire paschal cycle – Lent, Triduum and Easter's Fifty Days – discover, not that they have taken hold of the Pasch [“the Passover”], but that the Pasch has seized them and changed them forever!  This is especially so of the Triduum which . . . is an intense immersion in the fundamental mystery of what it is to be Christian . . . .  Year after year, those who keep the [Paschal] Triduum hunger in fasting and rejoice in feasting, share in death and resurrected life, contemplate cross-unto-glory, tell and hear the great stories of salvation, emerge fresh-robed from the waters [of baptism] into light and fragrant anointing, sing songs of victory and taste of the wedding banquet of heaven and earth.[3]

Technically, the Paschal Triduum (“triduum” just means “three days”) – Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday – is a single three-day liturgy celebrating the mystery of the suffering, dying and rising of Jesus.  We do get to go home and sleep, but it really is one act over three days, beginning tonight.  So, as we begin, let’s ask what tonight is all about. 

We call this “Maundy Thursday” from the Latin mandatum, for “mandate” or “commandment,” and there are actually three commandments before us tonight:

(1) The first is in the reading from Exodus:  This is a day you are to commemorate; for the generations to come you shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord – a lasting ordinance.  (Exod. 12.14)  The day God commanded the Israelites to commemorate forever was Passover, and the Passover meal became the “ritual context”[4] for what Jesus, a faithful Jew, was doing in the upper room with his disciples.  The rich story of Israel’s deliverance, the killing of Egypt’s firstborn, the death of the lamb and the blood smeared on the posts of the door, the journey to freedom through the waters of the sea – Jesus gathered all that up and created a whole new dynamic, making, in effect, a new liturgy from it.

(2) The second commandment, in the New Testament lesson, is to make Holy Eucharist.  Paul writes that on this night, before Jesus was betrayed, he took bread and wine and said “this is my body and my blood; feed on this and remember me until I come again.”  Every time we go to mass, every time we celebrate the Eucharist, all of time is drawn up into one instant which looks in two directions – back to that night and the first Eucharist Jesus shared with his followers, and forward to the future messianic banquet at the end of the book of Revelation. 

(3) The third commandment is in John’s gospel where Jesus took off his garments, took up a basin and a towel, washed the feet of his disciples, then he said:  A new command I give you: Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  (John 13.34)  That new mandatum puts servant love at the very center of what being a Christian is: Loving people where they need it, on their terms, with no thought of a return on our investment, regardless of the cost to ourselves.  And the story is really a parable of Jesus’ whole life:  Jesus takes off the “garments” of divinity, and condescends to us, humbling himself to be a servant even unto death, all to wash us and make us new.  That is what this night is about. 

One last point:  In tonight’s liturgy much is common, but some things are unique, like the people coming from the congregation for the celebrant, standing in the place of Jesus, to wash their feet and give them a coin, a symbolic reversal of the payment of 30 pieces of silver for Judas to betray Jesus.  At my old parish in DC the Kiss of Peace was not exchanged because in the middle-eastern world a kiss means affection, reconciliation, friendship; but tonight a kiss becomes the signal of Judas’ betrayal. 

But the image of this mass that stays seared in my mind is at the end.  It’s the garden.  St. Matthew says that after supper, “when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives,” (Matt. 26.30), they walked through the Kidron Valley to the Garden of Gethsemane.  Tonight we will process to the Altar of Repose, walking with Jesus, present in the consecrated bread, to the chapel which becomes Gethsemane.  To end in a garden is profound symmetry because the sin and death began in a garden, in Eden; and the reversal of the problem of sin and death begins Gethsemane.  In Eden God told the first Adam “Obey me about the tree and you’ll live,” but Adam said “no.”  In Gethsemane God tells the second Adam “Obey me about the Tree and you’ll be crushed,” and Jesus said “yes.”[5]  Tonight in this garden Jesus begins the last battle with the serpent who tempted Eve and who in a few short hours will strike Jesus a killing blow.  Jesus’ agony in this garden was so intense his sweat even mixed with blood, which one theologian explains this way:

It is clear from all the accounts that Jesus’ experience of turmoil and anguish was both real and profound.  His sorrow was as great as a man could bear, his fear convulsive, his astonishment well-nigh paralysing.  He came within a hairsbreadth of break-down.  He faced the will of God as raw-holiness, the mysterium tremendum in its most acute form: and it terrified him . . . .  In Gethsemane the whole, terrible truth strikes home.  The hour of reckoning has come.  Now is the last moment to escape.  Beyond it there can be no turning back. 

When Moses saw the glory of God on Mount Sinai so terrifying was the sight that he trembled with fear.  But that was God in covenant: God in grace.  What Christ saw in Gethsemane was God with the sword raised (Zc. 13:7; Mt 26:31) . . . .  In a few short hours, he . . . would stand before that God answering for the sin of the world: indeed, identified with the sin of the world (2 Cor. 5:21).  He became, as Luther said, ‘the greatest sinner that ever was’ (cf. Gal. 3:13).  Consequently . . . ‘No one ever feared death so much as this man’ . . . because for him it was no sleep (1 Thes. 4:13), but the wages of sin: death with the sting; death unmodified and unmitigated; death as involving all that sin deserved . . . .  The wonder of the love of Christ for his people is not that for their sake he faced death without fear, but that for their sake he faced it, terrified.  Terrified by what he knew, and terrified by what he did not know, he took damnation lovingly.[6] 

And we leave him there in the garden, where he will be dragged away to be stripped, tried and executed.  That is why we strip the altars, and while the choir sings “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22) we wash the altar, a symbol of Jesus’ body, preparing it for burial.  Then the darkness settles in, and we keep watch.  That is why this night is different from all other nights -- because tonight, in Act One of the Triduum, the great reversal begins . . . in a garden. 

In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.


[1] Also, it is our praying and our worshipping that shapes our believing.  See Leonel L. Mitchell, Praying Shapes Believing: A Theological Commentary on the Book of Common Prayer (Harrisburg, Pa.: Morehouse, 1985): 1-3.

[2] This sermon is drawn from “The Paschal Triduum,” a Maundy Thursday sermon delivered by Fr. Jürgen Liias at Christ Church (Episcopal) of Hamilton & Wenham, Massachusetts, on 20 March 2008.  I am deeply grateful to Fr. Liias for giving me permission to use his sermon.

[3] From Sourcebook for the Triduum, quoted by Fr. Liias in his sermon and available for purchase online at http://www.deaconsil.com/catalog/product1034.html.

[4] Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament (New York: Doubleday, 1997): 145.

[5] Timothy Keller, King’s Cross: The Story of the World in the Life of Jesus (New York: Dutton, 2011): 11-13.

[6] Donald Macleod,  The Person of Christ (Contours of Christian Theology) (Intervarsity, 1998) : 174-75.