Perhaps the most surprising feature of today’s worship is that we hear the Story about the institution of the Passover Seder from the Old Testament that normally we hear half a year away in Holy Week on Maundy Thursday. Isn’t it about time for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur? Why Passover now? The reason is that we are in the process of systematically reading through the books of Genesis and Exodus and it just happens to be the week when we come to the story about the Passover and the Crossing of the Sea. They are the combination of worship event and liberation event that are the foundation of Israel’s identity.
Let me assure you that what you see hanging in front of you this morning is indeed a cross, and that I have not forgotten that this is a church, not a synagogue. But what many folk here and in other churches might not realize is that more than a little of Christian identity is wrapped up in this story of Passover. The way we have the story is not necessarily the way things actually happened. For example, people are not accustomed to invent religious rituals while they are on the run trying to get out from under the thumb of oppression. Indeed, a part of the story has to do with one of the components of Passover, namely the Feast of Unleavened Bread. It makes sense that when people have less than a few hours to flee a war zone, in effect, they don't have time to wait around for loaves of bread to rise. But the Passover part—the killing and roasting of a whole lamb—is different. It takes awhile to roast a lamb, even if you prefer it rare. And the fact is that the instructions for roasting the paschal lamb are inserted into the story at a much later stage in its development. So there are these two things—unleavened bread and lamb—that form the basis of the Passover meal commemorating the way the angel of death passed over the homes of the Israelites while slaying the firstborn in all Egyptian families. All of this comes to have great meaning for Christians. The Passover has its Christian counterpart in the Holy Eucharist. Everything we are doing this morning has its roots in this old Exodus story.
The main point of connection between the two meals, Passover and Eucharist, is that both are tied to the seminal event of liberation. The Passover celebrates deliverance from Pharaoh. The Eucharist celebrates deliverance from death. The Passover is a festival about how Israelites were spared death. The Eucharist is a festival about how in Christ we are delivered from the death of sin and raised to newness of life. The Passover celebrates the passage of our forefathers and foremothers from the bondage of slavery through the sea into the ultimate freedom of the Promised Land. The Eucharist marks the passage of Jesus’ community from the bondage of sin and death through the water of baptism into the freedom of resurrection and ultimately to our Native Land where we are united with God through the power of Jesus Christ. The Passover leads to the covenant of God and God’s people first articulated in the Ten Commandments. The Eucharist celebrates the New Covenant of God and God’s people which is summed up in the New Commandment that Christ gives to his community: “Love one another as I have loved you.” The Passover meal celebrates the making of a nation. The Eucharist celebrates the opening up of that nation to include all nations, races, sexes who populate the New Israel, the Church. The modern Passover meal ends with the hope, “Next year in Jerusalem!” The Eucharist nourishes the vision of a New Jerusalem as a new age, a peaceable kingdom in which the lion lies down with the lamb, and the wolf and the bear eat straw like the ox, and the child and the adder are not enemies, and no one hurts or destroys anyone else on the holy mountain of God.
I am sometimes amazed at how many of us make so few connections between various stories and experiences within our faith tradition. And sometimes the connections we make are not at all what is intended. I remember one Easter many years ago when the State of Israel and the government of Anwar Sadat’s Egypt were struggling to reach what ultimately became the Camp David Accords, brokered by President Carter. That year at the Great Vigil of Easter, after we had sung the Song of Moses celebrating the Passover of Israel from Egypt and the drowning of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea, two parishioners jumped on me for keeping the old enmity between Israel and her neighbors going. I was stunned. I naively thought that people made distinctions between ancient Israel and modern Israel, between ancient Egypt and modern Egypt. So I imagine that there are some here today who can’t quite shake loose from awareness of the dynamics that embroil Israel and Palestinians in ongoing war. I am deeply concerned about the situation in the Middle East. I hope you are. It is complex and emotion-laden. Suffice it to say that the meaning of Passover does not neatly line up with support for the State of Israel in its present pursuits, nor is participating in the Eucharist simply a political affair. As far as I am concerned, the theology of Passover is as much about Palestinian, Ukrainian, Salvadoran, Chinese, Tibetan, and Greek liberation as it is about Israeli liberation. And the Eucharist is the meal of a community that is international, inter-racial, multi-ethnic, and egalitarian, not one that belongs only to a segment of the world.
The formative event for Christians is the resurrection of Christ. He is our Paschal, or Passover, Lamb. He is our Risen Bread, given for the life of the world. Eucharist, like Passover, is not just a commemoration of something that happened “way back when,” but a reality in which we are invited to participate. In every age, say some Passover Haggadahs or liturgies, there arises a new threat to freedom that must be dealt with as was Pharaoh. And in every age there are forces, within us and without, that militate against living the life of the resurrection. One of the most virulent enemies of the resurrection is the persistent notion that resurrection is about going to heaven when we die. It is not about that. It is about following Christ by sharing the radical vision of a new community that actually exists to embody and practice the sacrificial love of the crucified and risen Jesus. Loving one another as he loves us is what ultimately will be not just our own Passover experience, but the passing over from death to life of this world he died to save.
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2014