The business of this night and of the next three days is liturgy. Normally we commemorate historical events in our liturgical celebrations. The events we commemorate tonight are liturgies: they are the rituals of the Passover, of the Lord's Supper, and of the foot washing. The historical events we commemorate are the institutions of liturgies. When the Jews gather to remember the Passover, they celebrate a liturgy that reenacts the original liturgy. When Christians gather to celebrate the Lord's Supper, we do so to celebrate a liturgy that reenacts the original liturgy. When we stoop down to wash feet, we reenact a ritual of hospitality that Jesus performed on his disciples.
The saving events we commemorate are liturgical events. God saved the Israelites when they put blood on their houses and ate the lamb and matzoh and bitter herbs. Jesus gave himself in a special way to the disciples through the bread and cup of the last supper. He demonstrated his commandment of love by washing their feet.
More than is usually the case, what we do tonight is nothing less than a repetition of the original event. "Not our fathers only did the Holy One, blessed be He, deliver, but us also He delivered with them," says the leader of the Seder. "Take and eat, this is my body given for you. Take and drink, this cup is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins." "I give you a new commandment, that you should love one another as I have loved you." We show that love by performing Jesus' deed of humble service.
This three day liturgy of the Passion enacts the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. In tonight's liturgy we hear Jesus' own interpretation of his death, especially in the event from which the day receives its name: the Mandate, the new commandment.
Before the hour of his glory, the hour of his departure out of this world and his return to the Father, Jesus gathered with his disciples to say farewell and give them his final teaching. He acted out that teaching by laying aside his garments and girding himself as a servant and, as their Teacher, Lord, and Master, washes the disciples' feet.
Peter, ever-solicitous of messianic proprieties, objects to the breach of etiquette. Jesus has just revalued what it means to be Teacher, Lord, and Master in the light of the cross. His death means that he is the servant of God who redeems through voluntary suffering. If Peter will not accept this washing, he has no part in the One he regards as Teacher, Lord, and Master.
He must have a part in Jesus. He must go through this kind of washing before coming to the Table where Jesus offers his own body and blood to strengthen those who will live out his new commandment to love one another as he has loved us. Jesus' death means that he shares the blessings of an atoning sacrifice with his followers. Each time we eat the bread and drink from the cup we remember Jesus's death until he comes again.
We entered Lent's voluntary famine so that our Lenten discipline might lead us to this moment: this moment of life redeemed by the blood of the lamb. We fasted not only from food, but also from the words of forgiveness. We heard assurances of God's will to pardon, but not a pronouncement of forgiveness.
Now that Lent is at an end and we stand at the threshold of the central mystery of our faith, we examine ourselves one last time and gather up all of our penitence in one last confession of sin, so that we may hear the pronouncement of forgiveness, certified by the laying on of hands.
We have many hours of darkness and terror to go through: the terror of betrayal, of a trial whose verdict is death, of excruciating torture and execution, of a lifeless body being sealed in a stone-cold tomb. These three days will come to a climax as we wait in the darkness of the tomb for the glorious light of the resurrection, and the certification that all of God's enemies-sin, death, and the power of the devil-have been defeated.
It is appropriate that we bring our own terrors and sufferings to this commemoration of the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ. These experiences in life can be devastating and they can keep us from God. But all that keeps us from God has been defeated by the cross of Christ. It was all defeated when Jesus came to the hour of his glory on the cross and said, "It is finished."
Because of faith in that outcome and the blessing we receive from it, we risk living through the terror of these days, the terror of a Passover by which God rescues his people from sin and death and leads us from bondage to freedom. The hour has come to begin the business of this night and of these three days. Amen.