Thursday, 5 April 2012
Maundy Thursday, Shaftesbury
There are a great many things in the Scriptures that seem obscure to us but would have had a meaning for the people who heard Jesus speak and watched what He did. The washing of feet at the Last Supper is one such action, as are the words that surround it. I want to explain a few things using a commentary from the well respected convert from Judaism and New Testament scholar Alfred Edersheim who notes certain connections between what Jesus did and said and the Temple priesthood of Jews –references that must have been obvious to His hearers. The basic point is that would seem to follow from his commentary (though Edersheim doesn’t make the point himself) is that this ritual would have been yet another indication that Jesus was instituting a new priesthood to replace the old priesthood of the Old Temple, and consecrating His apostles as the new priests of the new covenant, to offer the Eucharist.
In the Old Covenant, at the time of Christ, there were a great many priests who were called upon to take their turn to offer the sacrifices at the altar of the Temple in Jerusalem. At one stage of this process of being chosen they would have waited during the night, asleep, but needing to be ready when they received their nighttime summons. The rabbis thus used words very similar to those of our Lord when He said, “Blessed are those servants whom the master will find on the alert when he comes; ... Whether he comes in the second watch, or even in the third”(Lk 12:37-38).
The priests would already be fully bathed before they lay waiting, bathed in special large bath-rooms for the priests of the Temple, as had previously been constructed by King Solomon for the first temple (2 Chron 4:6). As a consequence, if they were called they did not then need to wash their whole bodies but only their hands and their feet. Alfred Edersheim thus says, “It was, no doubt, to this that our Lord referred in His reply to Peter”: “No one who has taken a bath needs washing, he is clean all over”(Jn 13:10) (Alfred Edersheim, The Temple: Its ministry and services as they were at the time of Jesus Christ, Updated edition (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Pub 1994), p.113, or viewable online at p.78 PDF version http://www.ccel.org/ccel/edersheim/temple.html)
There are also other texts that link the washing of the feet as a distinctive act that the priests and levities had to perform before the offering of sacrifice (c.f. Ex 30:19; 30:21; 40:31)
What this means is that we have another detail pointing to how Christ was establishing a new covenant, with a new sacrifice, and new priesthood, establishing it in Himself, with his Apostles and their successors to act as His ministers of the New Covenant.
The Old Covenant of bull’s blood and goats blood, as the letter to the Hebrews put it, was “useless to take away sin” (Heb 10:4). The New Covenant offers something better by means of a new sacrifice, and the consummation of that sacrifice comes with the consuming of it. It was offered once of Calvary, that sacrifice is re-presented again on the altar, and we ratify our incorporation into it every time we receive the Eucharist.
That sacrifice, being more than that of bulls or goats but the very “Lamb of God”, Christ Jesus, was something else too: it was an act of service from the Lord to us. For “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many”(Mt 20:28). This service was also reflected in the act of foot-washing, to be inherently connected with His new priesthood. The Old Covenant priests washed both hands and feet, but Jesus specifically chose to focus on the feet –making the act of service more clear.
So, in summary, what do we recall tonight in the washing of feet?
The rubrics of the liturgy of this night tells us that it focuses on three things: the gift of the Eucharist, the gift of the priesthood to the Church, and the symbolism of the washing of the feet.
If Edersheim’s interpretation of the allusions to the Old Temple priesthood and footwashing is correct, then it would seem to follow that all of these 3 did not merely happen at the same event but happened together because the Lord had a meaning connecting them all:
He used a ritual of the old priesthood to make a connection to the new priesthood He was establishing. He did this while establishing the Eucharist that was to be the commemoration and sharing in the sacrifice that takes our sins away. And He did this in an act of service because He came to serve.