Thursday, April 5, 2012

A New Perspective on the New Passover

(Bleiglasfenster in der Kirche Notre-Dame de Clignancourt im 18. arrondissement von Paris, Darstellung: Lamm Gottes/Agnus Dei, by G. Friehalter)
Since the time of Moses, the Passover feast has been observed to commemorate the liberation of Israel from captivity in Egypt. Passover for 2012 begins Friday, April 6th.  The first Passover is described in Exodus 12:   

Tell the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each man is to take a lamb for his family, one for each household. . . . Take care of them until the fourteenth day of the month, when all the members of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight. Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the doorframes of the houses where they eat the lambs. That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast. . . . This is how you are to eat it: with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste; it is the LORD’s Passover.

On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn of both people and animals, and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the LORD. The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are, and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt. This is a day you are to commemorate; for the generations to come you shall celebrate it as a festival to the LORD—a lasting ordinance. . . . All the Israelites did just what the LORD had commanded Moses and Aaron. And on that very day the LORD brought the Israelites out of Egypt by their divisions.
When John saw Jesus, he prophesied that Jesus would be the new Passover lamb: “The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)  The Last Supper was, in fact, a Passover Seder.  The symbolism was not lost upon those present at that table when Jesus took the unleavened bread and broke it, saying, “This is my body, broken for you . . . .” 

Much has been written about Jesus as the Passover Lamb.  One interesting perspective is that of theologian and blogger Ted Grimsrud.  He writes:
To have sin taken away or to have sin cleansed,. . . is about breaking [the] power of sin over us and freeing us to accept and live in light of the persistent and ever-present mercy of God. Going back to the story of the ancient Hebrews. The first act was always one of God’s mercy (calling Abraham and Sarah, the exodus, the gifts of Torah and the Land, restoring hope after Babylon’s destruction of Judah). Nothing needed to happen to God to enable God to offer that mercy. But the people needed to be freed from their sinful misplaced trust in things other than God.

I am assuming that John’s Gospel means to tell essentially the same story as the other gospels, but with somewhat different language, emphasizing somewhat different stories, and highlighting somewhat different emphases. Still, I read the “takes way sin” as saying that through his ministry Jesus revealed the true character of God (to use John’s imagery, brought unconquerable light into the darkness) in a way that for those who responded with faith, the power of sin would be broken (taken away).

The reference to Jesus’ blood in 1 John (an image used elsewhere in the New Testament as well) has been misunderstood as an allusion to Jesus’ death as a sacrifice by later Christian theology. Unfortunately, the Bible does not clearly explain what it means by “blood” in this kind of context. We are told in Leviticus, though, that “in the blood is life” (17:11, 14—and note that the blood offering referred to here is labeled a “ransom” [that is, a liberating]). In light of that allusion, perhaps we should more accurately think of the New Testament references to Jesus’ blood as allusions to his life. So, Jesus “cleanses us from all sin” (that is, frees us from bondage to sin) by his faithful life that did, inevitably in the world he lived in, culminate in his crucifixion. But it’s the life that frees, not the death.
There are some who urge a literal interpretation of the Bible.  My view is that metaphor is a key way in which meaning is revealed to us.  There is much to be gained by dwelling on the many metaphors associated with Jesus as Passover Lamb, especially in matters of liberation from bondage and the light Jesus shines on our own journey to liberation.

Just as the Jews were liberated from bondage in Egypt, people who follow Jesus are also liberated from bondage.  What kind of bondage are we liberated from, and what redemptive act is it, exactly, that liberates us?  These are both questions we can dwell further upon. 

I agree wholly with Grimsrud, and will perhaps assert it in a different way, that God’s redemption is not the result of some legalistic tit-for-tat.  “You put lamb’s blood on the door frame and this will provide magical protection.”  No!  If it seems magical to us, it is only because we do not understand God’s ways.  But God is not bound by any incantation or magic that we may devise in our one-sided little covenants.  God is God, and beyond our understanding.   Jesus as the Shepherd and the Gate, as alluded in my blog post a few days ago, is also a mystery.  How does Jesus, as the shepherd, as the gate, as the lamb of God, provide the path to liberation?  The unfathomable mystery sparkles like a drop of dew in the sunlight, inviting our mind and our eye to behold its beauty. 

There are many explanations, many facets to the mystery.  I will suggest just one. 

Re-reading Exodus 12, I am struck by this sentence:  “All the Israelites did just what the LORD had commanded Moses and Aaron.”   Blind faith.  Perhaps it didn’t matter what, exactly the Israelites were asked to do.  God could have chosen to tell them to do anything.  Draw a line in the sand and jump over it three times.  The key thing, perhaps, is that they did it.  Whatever they were asked.  In this particular case, the Passover meal had special significance.  The Israelites were about to be sent on a long and arduous journey, leaving behind anything they couldn’t carry.  They needed a full meal for the journey, and they needed to be dressed and ready to go, and they also needed to be reminded why they were leaving.  The Passover meal served this purpose, and the marking of the threshold of the door showed the family in that home was ready.  Ready to act in faith.

May you have a blessed Passover.  May we always remember God's steadfastness to liberate us from bondage, and may we, on our end, always be ready, willing, and able to do whatever the Lord may require of us.

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