THE CHRISTIAN SEDER When our Lord invited His disciples to go up to Jerusalem with Him, this was no unusual journey. This trip was an annual pilgrimage, in which devout Israelites arranged to spend the Passover in the holy city near the Temple. There they could obtain a lamb slaughtered in the Temple itself for their Seder, the Passover meal. Jesus, we must never forget, was a devout Jew who faithfully practiced every ritual set forth in the Law of the Old Testament. This included supremely the annual observance of the Passover. To understand this evening's liturgy we must have some information about the Passover ritual.
Passover was the annual commemoration of the Event of the Exodus, when God had rescued and set free His chosen people, the twelve tribes of Israel, from slavery in Egypt. The word Passover itself refers to one detail of that ancient miracle of liberation, when the angel of death, sent by God to smite the firstborn sons of the Egyptians, passed over the homes of God's covenant people the Israelites, provided that their homes were marked with the blood of the lamb which had been sacrificed. Before they departed in haste from Egypt, the Israelites had a final meal there consisting of the sacrificed lamb, along with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. These three items became the basic menu, used in the time of Jesus and even today among observant Jews.
As we find the account of the Seder celebrated by Our Lord and His disciples in tonight's Epistle, it may seem odd that there is no mention at all of any lamb. Probably this is a deliberate omission. Jesus Himself is now the lamb! Where His blood is present, the angel of death (his name is Satan) is driven away forever. The unleavened bread is no longer just memorial bread. Henceforth Jesus makes it His flesh, our food of eternal life. Finally, we celebrate not just manumission from earthly slavery, but God's redemption of us from sin, death and hell. The tyranny of a human Pharaoh can be replaced all too quickly by other earthly tyrannies. But as Jesus says, “If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed” (John 8:36).
As we eat the unleavened bread of our Passover meal, we recall that Sin is our Pharaoh, Jesus is our Paschal Lamb, in Baptism we have crossed the Red Sea, His Holy Supper is God's manna in our wilderness, and Heaven is our promised land.
The special liturgy for this day is one of the great treasures of Christian spirituality. As a sign of unusual mourning and penitence, both today and tomorrow the Church refrains from celebrating the Holy Eucharist and still in most places does not administer Holy Communion to the faithful. In effect, we place ourselves under a sentence of excommunication as we remember the crime of our Saviour's death. Today's liturgy is merely a "liturgy of the Word," which Anglicans of another generation called the Ante-communion.
Two further features of the Good Friday liturgy are the Solemn Collects and the Reproaches which are chanted or read during the Veneration of the Cross. Both of these have archaic qualities which recall the earliest centuries of Christian history. In the "Solemn Collects" we remember that in His very death our Lord was officiating as our Great High Priest . His first "word from the cross" was a prayer of intercession, "Father forgive them." So His Church, keeping vigil with Him on Calvary, intercedes for all her children and likewise for the whole world.
The nine prayers of intercession are comprehensive, beginning with the bishops and hierarchy of the Church, proceeding with "all estates of men in thy holy Church," continuing on with various special needs, and concluding with separate prayers for the Jews and for the heathen. Each intercession has a special bidding, "Let us pray for..." One phrase runs through and unites them: "the Lord our God." Here we have an echo of the covenant formula which unlocks the entire Bible, "I will be your God, and ye shall be my people, and I will dwell with you."
The covenant of grace, first intimated in the Garden of Eden in God's curse of the serpent and later inaugurated with Abraham, comes into sharp focus today. When was that promise ever so rejected, or ever so confirmed, as it was at the death of the Messiah? When the Word of God was made flesh and dwelt among us in Jesus Christ, human wickedness (the depravity of all mankind) reached its lowest and vilest point in His murder. But never has the covenant promise been so ratified as it was when He prayed "My God, my God." We might lose our way in the rest of that word of dereliction, "why hast thou forsaken me," if we forget that He was pleading the covenant promise, "I will be your God." Never was God so perfectly "our God" as when He put forth His only-begotten Son to be the propitiation for our sins. The covenant language in the Solemn Collects should remind us that like our dying Saviour we are pleading the promises of the Covenant sealed in His Blood.
In the Reproaches, we have a meditation on a passage from the prophet Micah. Here are the original words (Micah 6:3--5).
O my people, what have I done to you?
How have I wearied you?
For I brought you up from the land of Egypt
And redeemed you from the house of slavery,
and I sent before you Moses, Aaron and Miriam.
O my people, remember what Balak, king of Moab devised,
and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal,
That you may know the saving acts of the LORD.
This address of the LORD to Israel was part of a covenant lawsuit, in which He had called on his unfaithful and idolatrous people to to give an account of their breach-of-contract with the God who had redeemed them. Their situation is untenable, they have no defense in the LORD's courtroom, they have invoked His curses, their doom is certain.
Micah's description of the covenant lawsuit of God against His people is recalled on Good Friday because on Calvary this untenable situation was resolved, when Jesus Christ took upon Himself our guilt and our doom, by enduring the curse which we have justly provoked. It is of some interest that Micah describes this lawsuit as taking place "before the mountains." He may have foreseen Jesus' walk up Calvary's hill to answer for us. Surely it was there that the greatest "saving act" of the Lord took place.
It is truly sad this this magnificent bit of liturgical poetry (brilliantly set to music) is so little known. This is owing to the frivolous notion that the Old Testament allusions are somehow anti-Semitic and offensive to the Jewish people. We must be quick to say that the address "O my people" in the Church's liturgy is not directed toward the idolatrous Israelites of Micah's day, nor to the Sanhedrin which sent Jesus to Pilate, and certainly not to the Jewish people of later centuries. The Reproaches are addressed, specifically and painfully, to ourselves, the Christian community of here and now. Because of the "new covenant" which our Saviour announced in the Upper Room (really the ancient covenant of grace re-established and made new), we are God's covenant people. And we too are faithless, idolatrous, guilty covenant-breakers. I am not convinced that it was sensitivity for Jewish feelings that has placed the Reproaches in our liturgical attic. Each time I read them I feel bound to respond, "Holy God, holy and mighty, holy and immortal, have mercy" not upon them, but "upon us." The Holy Spirit still speaks in Micah's words, but now those words confront 21st century Christians.
Mercifully, the Reproaches do not end with the covenant lawsuit in which we are convicted. The conclusion is, "We venerate the Cross, O Lord, and praise and glorify thy holy Resurrection, for by virtue of the Cross joy hath come to the whole world."