Suzanne Bossert

Holy Thursday

Maundy Thursday fires the imagination. Like the stain that remains after the dyeing of Easter eggs, the iconic Last Supper is steeped in red—the color of wine, roses, anger, and passion. Christ’s last supper is a candle-lit Valentine of a night, a dangerous tango set against the drumbeat of Jerusalem’s crowded streets...

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The Westminster John Knox Press Essays

From the “Connections,” “Feasting on the Word,” and “Feasting on the Gospel” book collections, (2012-2018)                              

Maundy Thursday fires the imagination. Like the stain that remains after the dyeing of Easter eggs, the iconic Last Supper is steeped in red—the color of wine, roses, anger, and passion. Christ’s last supper is a candle-lit Valentine of a night, a dangerous tango set against the drumbeat of Jerusalem’s crowded streets, rumbling with the urgency of the Passover festival.  For Jesus’ beloved, it was an evening of fevered emotion and star-crossed longing.  In the room where they reclined together, the room they would always remember, Jesus raised the Passover cup, and talked of new blood being poured out. Then Jesus knelt before them with a pail of water. “You must love one another,” Jesus commanded (maundy, to mandate), as he tenderly dried the dirty water from their feet. In this one startling turn, an unexpected door scraped open, revealing an exodus re-interpreted by Jesus that made sense only in a broken-hearted future.

 The motif of re-interpretation might surface as a tension for some ecumenical-minded congregations today, as such a seminal Jewish text—the Passover story of Exodus 12—is appropriated for Christian Holy Week. It may be comforting to note that the priestly writers of Exodus themselves likely reinterpreted the Passover festival–commemorating the people’s deliverance out of Egypt–from an ancient spring festival that celebrated the moving of flocks to new pastures.[1]  The nomadic flavor of Passover, with its undertow of movement and the image of a Good Shepherd moving sheep into a new vista, offers us a revitalizing energy. The patina of thousands of years of ritual and the re-telling of the old, old story can lull believers into regarding Holy Week with passive awe, as an iconic work of art, instead of the electric, world-turning force that it was.

Without a doubt, today’s lection of Exodus 12 plunges us into wakefulness. Embedded in a plethora of details about how to celebrate the festival, we find some of the most fierce and primal language of our scriptural cannon. What are we to make of the angel of the Lord, murdering scores of innocent children and animals in cold blood, all to win a kingly duel with Pharaoh? The picture of Hebrew families smearing lamb blood thickly across their lintels as a cue for God’s Destroyer to “pass over” their loved ones is hard to embrace. Were the Israelites excited by God’s show of might, or were they horrified by the means to the end? The salvific triumph of this story seems to be drowned out by the inescapable sound of weeping Egyptian parents. 

 A Jewish friend, a cantor in the reformed tradition, remarked recently that this painful conundrum is an age-old Jewish quandary: “One sensitive Midrash (the Jewish interpretive storytelling tradition) turns another similar problem—the drowning of Pharaoh’s army—into a teaching moment. In the midrash, as the waters crush the Egyptian soldiers at the parting of the Red Sea, the angels in heaven begin singing and dancing, rejoicing in the destruction of Israel’s tormentors. God chastises them, silencing them, saying, ‘Are you to sing while my children are destroyed?’  Even the evildoers of Egypt were human, and God will not tolerate the celebration of human suffering, no matter how debased or deserving the sufferers. For this reason, at our Passover seders, we remove one drop of wine from our glass as we name the ten plagues, reducing our joy in acknowledgement that our freedom was won at the cost of great suffering of others.”

It was a costly liberation that freed the Israelites from the chains of Egyptian oppression, and on this Maundy Thursday, we are reminded of the terrible price Jesus paid for our own deliverance as well. But even so, the violent imagery of atonement theology is hard for many congregations to enter. It is therefore all too tempting to tone down the blood, to reduce the Easter story to the existential level, presenting Jesus as a wise teacher who became so politically subversive that he was silenced quickly amid a raucous crowd that jammed the city for the holiday. That story, we can buy into.

But our Exodus lectionary passage forces us to a deeper read, as we acknowledge the particularly Jewish history and context of Jesus. Passover was the way Jesus understood his earthly fate, laced through with echoes of Abraham and Isaac, as he willingly allowed himself to be bound to a cross-shaped altar with God’s own hand upon the killing knife. This time, unlike Isaac, no substitute ram appeared in the thicket. The Son was not spared. God, in the role of Abraham, was not spared either. A parent’s worst nightmare fell without reprieve, just as it had upon the Egyptians in that long Passover night.

The Passover framework reminds us that what is at stake at Easter is not just a beautiful liturgy or a time of joy, but the very crux of life and death itself. Liberation is the point. Christ wants to roll away the stone upon our chests.  What is suffocating and killing us? What imprisons us?  What do we need to be freed from? Maybe it is the death grip of a culture that perpetuates at every turn a soul-destroying acquisitiveness? Maybe it is the habits of mind that chain us to distractions and hungers that keep our souls bowed to the ground?  

 What would it mean for each of us to comprehend that we are trapped without a hope in Egypt, toiling in bitter service with no escape?  My cantor friend says that the Hebrew word for Egypt is Mitzrayim, based on a root akin to the word tzar, which means “a narrow place.” In our narrow places, what would it be like to witness again the signs and wonders of Yahweh, working dazzling power while Pharaoh’s magicians flounder?  What would it mean for us to finally understand that God’s longing for us is so great that God will do anything, going out beyond the limits of human imagination, out to the place of Abraham’s homemade altar, to wrest us away from the suffocation of our slavery? 

________

[1] Judith E. Sanderson, “Exodus,” in The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 98. 

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