A Holy Thursday Reflection
Matthew 26:17 specifies that what we refer to as Holy Thursday was, for Israelites during the time of Christ, the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, a week long practice that took place within Passover (Exodus 12:18). During this week, all yeast bread needed to be banished from the home (Exodus 12:19). Following the instructions that the Lord gave the people of Israel when they were about to leave Egypt, the only bread to be used was “poor man’s bread,” a bread made in such haste that there was no time for it to ferment and rise. Unleavened bread has been used around the world and throughout history as a traveler’s bread, since it does not spoil quickly. This would also have come in handy for the Israelites as they left Egypt. Traditionally, Jewish matzah bread was the thickness of a finger and as round as a fist. That changed in the 19th century with the advent of modern bakeries, which gave us the square, thin matzoh we’re familiar with today.
So, on that day, the day when yeast bread was chased out of the home, Jesus and the Twelve needed to find a place for their Passover meal. As usual, Mark is the more elaborate storyteller, including details that Matthew doesn’t. Mark goes into how Jesus told the disciples to go into the city to look for a man with a pitcher of water, etc. (Mark 14:13-15). Matthew simply has Jesus telling them to go look for a certain man in a certain place. All of this sounds a little odd as if Jesus supernaturally knows someone will have a place for Him. What is happening is related to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 10:11-13,40-42 regarding finding people in His travels who are hospitable, who love God, who honor the Lord, and who are happy to offer what they have to help. Chances are extremely good that when Jesus was in Jerusalem one year, someone offered Him their upper room. “The next time you’re in the Holy City during Passover,” they might have said, “just let me know.”
In Matt. 26:19, we’re told that the disciples prepared the Passover meal, which involved roasting a whole lamb (Exodus 12:3-10), In the following verses, we have the Master joining them, and while they were eating, He predicts that one of the Twelve would betray Him. This caught the Twelve completely off guard. Jesus is insistent – one of the men at the table, one who dipped his bread into the same bowl (probably haroset, a relish/dip of fruit, nuts, and vinegar) as the Master, would betray Him. At this point, Judas knows that his plan to betray the Christ is no secret – at least to Jesus.
During Passover, there are four cups of wine. Traditionally, they represent the four salvation words of Exodus 6:6-8. “I will free you … I will redeem you … I will take you … I will bring you …” Under the Roman Empire of Jesus time, the four cups took on a new meaning – freedom from Israel’s exiles: “The Egyptian, Babylonian, and Greek exiles, and our current exile which we hope to be rid of very soon with the coming of Moshiach.” During one of these cups of wine, Jesus instituted the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper. I have to wonder if it was the fourth – the cup that celebrated final deliverance and the coming of the Messiah.
At the close of a Passover that was unlike any that the Twelve had ever experienced, Matthew tells us that they sang a hymn (Matt. 26:30). Traditionally, that would have been the last part of the Hallel, which consists of Psalms 113-118. “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. (Psalm 118:24)” And with those words in His mouth, Jesus walked out towards the Mount of Olives, His betrayal, and His arrest.