It’s the first of four questions the youngest child asks at any Jewish Passover seder.1
Mah nishtana halaila hazeh mikol haleilot? How is this night different from all the rest?
Tonight, our Jewish brothers and sisters are celebrating the sixth night of this eight-day feast of Passover. The four questions provide the telling of the maggid (mah’-gid), the story of the Exodus from Egypt, beginning with how Adonai passed over their homes that were marked with the blood of the lamb, the start of a life that would be very different from what they had known in Egypt.
A question I’ve been pondering all of Lent has been “How will we be different as we pass through the pandemic?” A year ago at this time we had no idea that a year later we’d still be suffering the pandemic and the ravages of other viruses attacking us – racism, gun violence, and climate crisis to name a few. Last year, we couldn’t gather with others as we normally would, we couldn’t celebrate rituals as we normally do. A year later we rejoice that we can celebrate together again with some of our community, but we still cannot celebrate our rituals as we normally would. We are passing through the pandemic. How will we be different because of it?
Pandemic or not, on this night when we begin the Triduum of our Lord, we, too, can ask, Mah nishtanah ha-lailah hazeh mikol ha-leilot? How is this night different from all the rest? It’s context is familiar: We have a first reading from scripture, and then a second, and then the Gospel. We’ll soon hear the Eucharistic prayer and receive the Eucharist – for some among us, the first time in over a year receiving that most precious of gifts that we believe was traditionally instituted on this night. But how is this night different from all the rest?
“Fully aware that the Father had put everything into his power
and that he had come from God and was returning to God,
Jesus rose from supper and took off his outer garments.
He took a towel and tied it around his waist.
Then he poured water into a basin
and began to wash the disciples’ feet
and dry them with the towel around his waist.”
Mah nishtanah halailah hazeh mikol haleilot? This night is different because of the washing of feet. More precisely, this night is different because Jesus – the Master and teacher – washed the feet of his disciples. That wasn’t the way it was supposed to be done – as Peter clearly demonstrated, “Master, you will never wash my feet.” For Peter and most likely the other disciples, this action was below Jesus. The washing of feet was not a pleasant act to do. Even today we are not comfortable with others washing our feet, and our feet walk on cushions compared to the time of Jesus. Imagine what it must have been like where people walked everywhere in a desert climate wearing sandals. Their feet would have been filthy, calloused, and stinky. In ancient days, the host provided the water, and the guests washed their own feet, unless they were guests of a rich person, in which case the slaves would wash their feet. The washing of feet was looked upon as the lowliest of all services. It would appear, the owner of the house where the Last Supper was being celebrated was an ordinary person who provided the water with the intention that his or her guests would wash their own feet. But Jesus took on the role of the slave and performed this lowliest of tasks and washed the feet of his disciples and then, mind-blowingly, he instructed them to do the same.
“Do you realize what I have done for you?
You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am.
If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet,
you ought to wash one another’s feet.
As flabbergasted as they must have been with Jesus washing their feet, they must have been just as flummoxed by his directive. Remember, they were of the understanding the Jesus was the Messiah who would come and overpower the Romans and return Israel to their independence. They were thinking of all the glory that was to come, not of bending low in humility and washing feet.
Ma nishtanah halailah hazeh mikol haleilot? How was this night different from all the rest? Jesus was passing on to them that the way they were to be in the world had to be different. Instead of focusing on power and glory, they were to be intent about service. They didn’t understand it, but they were getting a dose of the vaccine that would heal the world.
“I have given you a model to follow,
so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”
What Jesus was modeling in the washing of feet for those early disciples and for us was how to heal the world with love, with simple, profound acts of care and compassion, mercy and forgiveness, understanding and kindness.
So how will we be different as we pass through the pandemic? By renewing the covenant of our baptism which beckons us to remove our garments of pretense, of control, of defense; by tying around our waists the towel of vulnerability, humility and service; by doing in memory of him what he has done for us – by holding the other tenderly – in our hands, in our arms, in our thoughts, in our prayers; by washing the hurting hearts, the broken bodies, the wounded souls of those we encounter with a listening ear, a welcome word, and a loving embrace. This is the daily Eucharist of our lives – giving our flesh and our blood, in memory of him, so that others might have life.
Mah nishtanah halailah hazeh mikol haleilot? How is this night different from all the rest? The question really is how will we be different from all the rest because of this night?