A hymn for meditation on Maundy Thursday

After the meal in the Upper Room Jesus and disciples “sang a hymn and went out to the Mount of Olives” (Mark 14.26 GNB). What hymn was this? The clue is given in the REB’s translation which speaks of them “singing the Passover hymn”. Yet even the REB is not quite accurate: for Jesus and his disciples probably sang four different hymns.

The evidence for this is not found in Mark 14.26 where the Greek verb (humnesantes) could equally be translated “having sung hymns” or “having sung a hymn”, but rather in Mark 14.14 which makes it clear that Jesus and his disciples had been celebrating the Passover.

From Jewish sources we know that the Passover Meal took the following shape.

  • It was preceded by the telling of the Passover story (the ‘haggadah’) – in today’s terms ‘the sermon’), which was followed by the singing of two ‘Hallel’ (praise) hymns: Psalms 113 & 114.
  • A grace was then spoken over the unleavened loaf of bread (“Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, who bringest forth fruit from the earth. Blessed art thou who hast sanctified us with thy commandment, and enjoined us to eat unleavened cakes”), which was thereupon broken and distributed.
  • Then came the meal itself, consisting of the roasted Passover Lamb, the unleavened bread and bitter herbs.
  • After the meal another formal grace was spoken over the so-called ‘cup of blessing’ (“Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who has created the fruit of the vine”), and this cup was then passed around.
  • Finally three more ‘Hallel’ psalms were sung: Psalms 115, 116, 117 and 118. These were the hymns which Jesus and his disciples sang as they made their way to the Mount of Olives. Their singing would have been antiphonal: the leader – presumably Jesus – would have recited the text, with the others responding by singing ‘Hallelujah’ after each half-verse.

The longest of these ‘hymns’ was Psalm 118. In the lectionary Psalm 118 is appointed to be read on Easter Day, and as such it becomes a great Psalm of triumph. But the Psalm takes on a totally different character when read in the context of Maundy Thursday. Jesus no doubt would have identified with the Psalmist when he declared “In my distress I called to the Lord” (v5 GNB).

Like the Psalmist, Jesus was very conscious of “many enemies” (v10 GNB), swarming around him “like bees” (v12) as they plotted against him. But, like the Psalmist, Jesus knew that he was not on his own: “The Lord is with me, I will not be afraid” (v6 GNB). As he sang that hymn, Jesus dared to believe that God would be there to help him.

I was fiercely attacked and was being defeated, but the Lord helped me. The Lord makes me powerful and strong; he has saved me (vv13-14 GNB).

That night for Jesus the past tense of the Psalm became prophetic of the future. People may do their worst, but the Lord would help him and save him. Jesus wasn’t being naïve. He knew that death lay ahead of him, but he knew that death would not have the last word. So with the Psalmist he affirmed: “I shall not die; instead I will live” (v17 GNB). Jesus did die, but death could not hold him in its grip.

Almost certainly Jesus had made this Psalm his own long before Maundy Thursday. It is significant that after he told the parable of the tenants in the vineyard who put to death the Owner’s son, he went on to quote from Psalm 118: “The stone which the builders rejected as worthless turned out to be the most important of all” (v22 GNB). Although the people of his day failed to recognize him for who he was, with the Psalmist he believed that a day would come when everybody would see that his role had been crucial to the purposes of God.

So with his disciples Jesus sang: “This is the day of the Lord’s victory” (v24 GNB), or in the more traditional words of the NRSV: “This is the day that the Lord has made”. Actually REB gets to the heart of the Psalmist’s meaning when it translates the Hebrew with: “This is the day on which the Lord has acted”. The God of the Bible is the God who acts. There in the darkness of Good Friday God was at much at work as in the light of Easter Day, for there on the Cross God acted to deal with the powers of sin and guilt. So as Jesus came to the end of the hymn, he could repeat the words with which the Psalm had begun: “Give thanks to the Lord, because he is good, and his love is eternal” (vv1,29 GNB).

Here then is a Psalm to ponder in the light of the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, as well as of Easter Day. But it is also a Psalm to ponder in the light our own circumstances. There are times when we too have to walk in the dark and we feel that everything is against us. But the God who stood by his Son is the God who stands by his people. In times of testing we too can affirm that “his love is eternal” (vv1,29). With the Psalmist we too can dare to sing: “You are my God, and I give you thanks” (v28 GNB).

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