The Passover Mystery: a memorial day for our freedom

The following reflection is based on a sermon delivered at Open Door Fellowship of East Harlem on July 15th, 2012.  The Passover Mystery: a memorial day for our freedom

 Exodus 12: 1-14, 29-32

             At the beginning of where we pick up the story, we can already get the sense that something special is about to take place. The Israelites, at this point, are still slaves. Nine terrible plagues have not softened Pharaoh’s heart. But it’s as if the Lord is already trying to prepare his people for life “on the outside,” life beyond Egypt. Before they can leave, before they can transition out of slavery, the Lord wants to reorient the hearts of the Israelites…and so he reorients their calendars and sense of time. He redefines what time means for them. While they are still in Egypt, under a Pharaoh who would not permit them to go into the wilderness to worship, God is introducing a new rhythm into their life. The text says, “This will be the beginning of months for you.” In giving the Israelites a new sense of time, a new calendar, the Lord is giving them a new identity.

Why did God decide to do things this way? If he could have flicked the Pharaoh like a fly and let his people leave, why did he wait? Before Israel’s liberation, why did God give careful instructions about this elaborate ritual observance? In humility, I will offer two reasons.

God wanted to communicate with Israel in a tangible way. He understood that we are sacramental creatures. What is a sacrament? A sacrament is a symbol that points beyond itself and is a means of grace. As humans, we need tangible, physical expressions in order to understand and remember. We easily forget things. Why do we celebrate birthdays and anniversaries? Why do we take ordinary things and sometimes make them “special”? What makes eating out at that place different on this occasion? We do such things—I want to propose—because birthdays and anniversaries are sacramental in a way. They ground us and help us to remember. They help express our love. Imagine if someone said to his or her spouse, “Honey, I don’t need to celebrate our anniversary because I love you everyday. Everyday is our day.” We know that don’t work. And so God, understanding how humans work, gave Israel a tangible way to understand and remember their deliverance. The blood of the lamb over the doorposts was a vivid portrayal of God’s mercy upon them. Eating the bitter herbs, they would remember their bitter slavery in Egypt. They were to eat the Passover feast quickly because God was preparing them to leave Egypt behind. The Lord instituted the Passover, this “memorial day”, so that the Israelites would never forget that he delivered them with a mighty hand.

Even more importantly, the Passover was instituted because it was to foreshadow and prefigure things to come. Since the beginning of the Christian faith, Christians have believed that the Passover points to Christ. God required the blood of a spotless, year-old lamb. The blood of Christ came from someone who was sinless and cut down in his prime. The blood of the lamb covered the Israelites’ doorposts…the blood of the cross covers us. The lamb’s bones were not to be broken. The gospel of John says that none of Christ’s bones were broken during the crucifixion. On the night before their liberation, while they are still slaves, God gives Israel a feast that celebrates their freedom. On the night before his crucifixion, Jesus gives his disciples a feast. The last parallel I will note here is Pharaoh’s final words to Moses after the death of the firstborn. Pharaoh says to Moses, “Take your flocks and your herds, as you have said, and be gone, and bless me also!” These words, from Pharaoh’s lips, can’t be heard without a sense of irony…because if we read ahead, we know that he would harden his heart yet again. But in Pharaoh, we hear the echoes of another paranoid king: Herod. He too was into the business of slaughtering little children. And he would utter similarly hollow words when he told the three wise men, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

So what does the Passover, an ancient Jewish ritual observance, have to do with us? What does the liberation of these enslaved Israelites have to do with our freedom? One of the mysteries of the Passover is that it is a story, not just about Israel’s deliverance, but about our deliverance as well. Through Christ, the Passover speaks to us. But how can this be? Not too long ago, on 4th of July, many of us celebrated America’s independence. And yet, some of us don’t have long roots here. Some of us weren’t even born here. Some of us have a complicated relationship with this history. It’s interesting to think about how far removed we are from the American Revolution and about how exactly it relates to us. Chris Rock made an intriguing remark on Twitter on 4th of July. I won’t repeat it here, but he was essentially wondering if Independence Day really applied to all people. Now, I don’t want to debate the validity of Independence Day. I simply want to use this as an illustration. I’ve brought this up to say this: if we—in spite of everything—still celebrate America’s independence, if we can still see ourselves as participating in this independence—grateful for the liberties and opportunities that have flowed from it to us—then how much more can we celebrate and participate in Israel’s deliverance if God has grafted us in? How much more can their “memorial day” be ours as well? Knowing this, we can read the Passover story with a new set of eyes, seeing the outline of our freedom.

The Passover story is about freedom, but what kind of freedom? In our contemporary culture, freedom is often understood as the ability to do what you want. But in the Exodus story, freedom is presented as the ability to worship God. Moses and Aaron repeatedly confront Pharaoh with God’s request to let his people go so that they may worship him in the wilderness. This understanding of freedom may be hard for us to swallow. Deep down, we may continue to feel and think that freedom is doing what we please. But think about the freedom of someone suffering from addiction…from drugs, pornography etc. They are free to do what they want, to do as they please, but they are destroying themselves. Freedom is not doing whatever we want; freedom is desiring what is good. Pharaoh put himself in the place of God, but God frees us to not be our own gods.

As we read this story, with a new pair of eyes, we come to see that Pharaoh symbolizes the slavery that exists in society and within our souls. God overthrew Pharaoh and freed the Israelites with the blood of lambs. How much more can God do for us through the precious blood of Christ? If Christ is for us, who can be against us?

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.