The Maundy Thursday service in my Anglican tradition is a busy one, doing a lot of the heavy lifting of Holy Week. In it we remember the Passover, the Last Supper, and Jesus’ ‘new commandment’ to love one another. And then, after all that, we read Psalm 22 and the story of Jesus’ agony and arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane as the altar is stripped bare. With all this in mind, it’s a bit funny that as I’m thinking of today’s commemorations, it’s another piece of Scripture entirely that’s coming to mind. It’s a scene from Matthew 20, where the mother of James and John, clearly not having a clue about what Jesus is all about, comes up to Jesus and tries to get them positions of power in Jesus’ kingdom. He responds to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” It turns into a discussion on the meaning of greatness in God’s Kingdom, which Jesus ends by saying:
You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many (Matthew 20.25-28).
In today’s Gospel reading, we see Jesus act out this teaching in a tangible way, spending some of his last moments with his disciples by undertaking one of the most menial tasks of a slave, washing the feet of his guests.
But still, that question from Jesus haunts me: Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?
The stories circling Maundy Thursday have a lot to say about cups. We have the institution of the Passover, which is traditionally celebrated by sharing four cups of wine; the institution of the Holy Eucharist, with its ‘cup of the new covenant in [Jesus’] blood’; and we have Jesus praying in the Garden,“If it be your will, take this cup away from me — but not my will but yours be done.” All of these are worth some thought today.
In the traditional Passover meal, which is a commemoration of God’s miraculous intervention that freed the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, a cup is shared four times around the table, one for each of the expressions of God’s deliverance mentioned in Exodus 6.6-7: “I will bring you out,” “I will deliver you,” “I will redeem you,” and “I will take you as my own.” These cups recall God’s saving acts, but also the cost of those acts in the death (’the blood’) of those Egyptians caught up in Pharaoh’s sins. The cup of salvation is also in a sense the ‘cup of wrath’, a common biblical expression for a time when violence is ‘poured out’ in the world. There is joy in the Passover, but it is not without sorrow or cost. (There’s a line in the Talmud that speaks of this; when the angels start to sing Miriam’s Song, which celebrates the Egyptians’ deaths, God rebukes them, saying “The works of my hands are downing in the sea and you are singing the Song?” (Megilla 10b))
This double meaning is present in the Eucharistic cup as well. For it is the “cup of the new covenant” but that covenant is “in my blood’.” Again there is salvation, but it is not with cost. Just as the Passover represented both judgment and salvation, so too does the cross, for the cross is the judgment of the world. That judgment still involves those four wonderful movements of salvation — “I will bring you out,” “I will deliver you,” I will redeem you,” and “I will take you as my own” — but there is a steep cost once again. But rather than the cost being the ‘collateral damage’ of the Egyptian losses during the Exodus, now, it is God who absorbs the world’s violence. It is God upon whom the cup of wrath is poured. This is the cup that Jesus prays to be taken from him in the Garden later that evening.
“Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?”
We must be careful how we answer.
The way of Christ’s self-emptying humility, the way we are called to embody in our own lives and communities (Philippians 2.5ff), always runs counter to the way of this world. It therefore always attracts the wrath of the world that will lash out against what God is doing. There will always be Pharaohs, who would rather jeopardize their own people than be confronted by their own sin or risk their privilege. There will always be Babylons and Romes, whose lust for domination drives them to devour the world and its peoples. There will always be Nazis, who traffic in grudges, lies, and scapegoating, and do everything in their power to let their wrath loose upon the world. There will always be Soviet Unions, people so blinded by Ideology they cannot abide difference or shades of grey.
In response to this cup of wrath in the world, God offers us a new commandment:
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13.32-35)
And so, God’s cup of salvation remains for us: The cup of self-giving love, in our own service and in the Eucharist.
How shall I repay the Lord for all the good things he has done for me?
I will lift up the cup of salvation and call upon the name of the Lord.
I will fulfil my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people.
Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his servants.
O Lord, I am your servant; I am your servant and the child of your handmaid; you have freed me from my bonds.
I will offer you the sacrifice of thanksgiving and call upon the name of the Lord.
I will fulfil my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people,
In the courts of the Lord’s house, in the midst of you, O Jerusalem. Hallelujah! (Psalm 116.10-17)