Commentary on Exodus 12:1-4 [5-10] 11-14
The church should reclaim the Passover.
We tend to relegate the Passover to Judaism, considering Lent to be its replacement for the church. The Old Testament is part of our scriptures, and Passover is part of our heritage. Reclaiming Passover might help us see our solidarity with Judaism, as well as teach us some things about our faith that we need to hear.
In reality, however, the church does not do a good enough job of recognizing Lent, so the possibility of reclaiming Passover is small.
Nevertheless, much meaning lies in this text from Exodus for Maundy Thursday. The whole book of Exodus has great value for the church, teaching us that our situation has much to do with being held in captivity. God’s grace is freeing as well as forgiving. With our many addictions, and with the economic, political and cultural forces that ceaselessly try to control us, we need to hear of a God whose will is for us to break free, so that we can become God’s treasured possession and a body of priests to the world (Exodus 19:5-6).
The Passover and subsequent exodus are, of course, two of the defining events of God’s relationship with the people in the Old Testament. The God of the Bible calls people to live in freedom. The instruction to eat the Passover meal with staff in hand and loins girded was a call to be ready to move toward freedom.
Both events were accomplished by God through violence and death. We can never fully explain why God’s grace was accomplished by violence, just as we cannot fully explain the cross with its violence.
We can affirm, however, that on Maundy Thursday, when we celebrate Jesus’ commandment to love one another, the cross and the Passover keep all of our talk of love from becoming sentimental. Something about sin is so tenacious that blood has been shed to free us from its clutches. Even if we can only begin to explain that violence and blood, its reality is a sobering thought.
Looking specifically at this text for worship, we see four themes emerge as edifying instruction for the church:
Any one of the themes, or a combination, would make for an effective sermon on Maundy Thursday, or any time during Lent.
The celebration of Passover marks the beginning of months for the community (Exodus 12:2). In other words, this event reorients the community’s understanding of time. The marking of time begins with acknowledgment of God’s claim on them.
Time is one of God’s gifts, but our relationship with time is ambiguous. Time can become an oppressor. Our time is limited, and we have choices to make about our use of time. Our attitude toward time and our stewardship of time are important for the church.
Do we set aside time to feed our faith? Do we use time productively? Do we recognize the wisdom of the church in setting aside the seasons of the year to highlight different aspects of our relationship to God? Do we let seasons such as Lent and Advent slip by us without gaining the blessings that proper use of them would bestow?
The Passover should be celebrated by the “whole congregation of Israel” (Exodus 12:3, 6). Celebration of Passover is part of God’s agenda to form the people of Israel as a community. Freedom from captivity is only the first step. Chapter 16 of Exodus starts the long process of forming Israel into a community of faith.
On a day in which the church hears Jesus’ new commandment that we should love one another, we can proclaim that our faith builds community and community enables us to build faith. Most people in a congregation will affirm that the sense of community has sustained them during various crises. The community should also feed the faith of the members, including a sense of accountability and even occasional confrontation. That is part of living in community.
The community exists also for ministry to the world. In community we have more resources for alleviating suffering and standing up against injustice than we do as individuals.
In celebrating Passover, families that could not participate with only their own resources were encouraged to join together to enable each other to worship rightly (Exodus 12:4). Through cooperation, no family was left out. The ability to worship did not depend on having resources.
We fulfill this understanding of Passover by such means as making our buildings and our worship accessible, by sharing our resources, and by patience with those who are struggling with their faith. We work to enable all people to worship.
The last verse of the passage helps us interpret the celebration itself. The community of Israel was in constant danger of forgetting its identity, its mission, its purpose. Celebrating Passover reminded Israel that God formed the people by the act of freeing them from captivity.
The church claims Passover, Lent, Maundy Thursday and the sacrament of communion as ways to remember its identity and mission. Without God, we would be slaves to sin. Without God, we would not be capable of loving each other. In a world that constantly wants to stamp us with its way of identifying us, scripture and our ceremonies remind us of who we really are and what our mission in the world is.