Maundy Thursday

Posted Wed, 03/31/2021 - 10:41 by Katharine

For Maundy Thursday Professor John Barton reflects on Pesach and Holy Week coinciding this year:

The fact that Passover and Holy Week coincide his year invites a reflection on how these two celebrations are related.  The jury is still out on whether the Last Supper, which Christians commemorate on the Thursday before Easter (Maundy or Holy Thursday) was or wasn’t a Passover meal—and we don’t know exactly what form that would then have taken anyway.  But there is no doubt that early Christians thought it was.  They soon started to interpret the salvation they believed Jesus had brought by using paschal imagery, seeing him as corresponding in some way to the Passover lamb.  They also understood his death and resurrection as an ‘exodus’ from the (symbolic) ‘Egypt’ of sin and death. Eventually this spelled a rift with Judaism, which continued to celebrate the exodus not as a symbol but as a historical memory of liberation from political oppression, and a new life expressed through justice and righteousness. 

Christian liturgy in traditional churches (Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican) generally includes a celebration on the night between the Saturday of Holy Week and Easter Day, known as the Easter (or Paschal) Vigil.  A large candle is lit in the darkened church, and there are a number of readings from the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, together with a ‘proclamation’, solemnly sung, about the resurrection of Jesus. It is this, rather than the Maundy Thursday observances, that for Christians today corresponds, if anything does, to the Passover Seder.  In language strikingly similar to that of the Passover haggadah there is a passage in which each sentence begins ‘This is the night’. (The text is easily accessible online—just Google ‘Exsultet’.)  It includes the affirmation that

This is the night when first you saved our fathers: you freed the people of Israel from their slavery and led them dry-shod through the sea. 

This is the night when the pillar of fire destroyed the darkness of sin.

Some might argue that the whole celebration is a kind of ‘cultural appropriation’ of Jewish traditions and Jewish history, not so far removed from the highly objectionable (even if well-intentioned) practice of some Christians of celebrating their own ‘seder’. But seen charitably the Easter Vigil can affirm Christians’ sense of solidarity with Judaism, expressing the belief that through Jesus God has mysteriously extended the covenant to include even Gentiles in his good purposes.  It does celebrate the ‘salvation’ brought about by Jesus by using the language of the exodus, but it does not speak as though the actual exodus didn’t matter or was not significant.  For Christians it is a symbol, but it is not only a symbol.  In Christian  ‘liberation theology’ it became a reminder that God wills freedom for all his creatures, and that, as the haggadah recalls, ‘even if we were all wise, all intelligent, all aged, and all knowledgeable in the Torah, still the command would be upon us to tell of the coming out of Egypt; and the more one tells of the coming out of Egypt, the more admirable it is.’


John Barton is Emeritus Oriel & Laing Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture, University of Oxford, and a Senior Research Fellow of Campion Hall, Oxford.  He is an Anglican priest.  His most recent book is A History of the Bible: The Book and its Faiths (Penguin/Allen Lane, 2019).