Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

The Past Becomes Present: The Ritual of Passover

September 7, 2008

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Commentary on Exodus 12:1-14

The Past Becomes Present: The Ritual of Passover

In preparation for preaching on this Sunday’s text, it would be helpful to read the larger context of chapters 11-13 in Exodus. Notice how the chapters bounce back and forth between recounting the story of a past event, on the one hand, and providing a set of instructions for an ongoing annual ritual, on the other. Narrative and ritual interpret one another; you cannot understand one without the other.

The central purpose of the Passover ritual meal is in many ways the central purpose of all ritual and worship in the biblical tradition. The Passover involves the ritualized proclamation and passing on of the past core stories and traditions to a new set of eyes, ears and mouths, whether a new generation of children (Exodus 12:26), or the alien or stranger in your midst (Exodus 12:48). The ritualized meal and the words surrounding it witness to the living God in such a way that a new generation comes to “own” those central stories and traditions as their own, thereby coming to know God more truly and love God more deeply. In the rich context of a community of faith and all its practices, “their” story becomes “our” story. “Their” God becomes “our” God. Who are we? Tell a story and eat a meal!

This past story of being freed from slavery to a powerful empire becomes an enduring paradigm, a template that Israel can lay alongside its experience in any generation and find parallels, analogues and meanings. Through the Passover ritual, liberation from contemporary Pharaohs and Egypt become actualized over and over again each year in a new “present” through a ritual meal. Passover becomes “a day of remembrance…throughout your generations” (Exodus 12:14). In traditional Jewish celebrations, the Passover meal features children asking questions of their parents about the meaning of the meal and its many foods, each with their own significance and relationship to the biblical story of the tenth plague and Israel’s deliverance. The primary audience is children.

Passover and the Lord’s Supper
The Passover meal in Exodus 12:1-14 continues to this day as a central festival for the Jewish tradition. The meal, however, also has meaning for Christians as background and resource for the Christian ritual meal of Holy Communion. Many of Passover’s elements and themes clearly carry over into the Lord’s Supper. The Synoptic Gospels all testify that Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper as part of his Jewish celebration of the Passover meal “on the night in which he was betrayed” (Matthew 26:17-29; Mark 14:12-25; Luke 22:7-23) with his Jewish disciples. Jesus provided guidance and instruction to “do” this ritual “in remembrance of me.” All of the Gospels place a narrative or story immediately after the account of Jesus instructing his followers in ritual practice which is intended for ongoing future observance. That narrative is the defining Christian story of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Just as the Passover story defined the core meanings of the ritual meal of Passover, so the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection defines the core meanings of the Lord’s Supper. Ritual and narrative work together as mutually interpretive.

Many other elements in the complex set of images and themes attached to Passover spill over and inform the complex meanings and images of Holy Communion. They include:

  • Remembrance and actualization
  • Past becoming present
  • Deliverance from bondage and death
  • Association with the death of the firstborn son
  • The lamb that was sacrificed
  • Darkness and night
  • The blood that protects from death
  • The wine of the Passover meal
  • The unleavened bread

All of these elements bind Passover with the Lord’s Supper in a rich matrix of ritual and meaning.

A Moral Challenge: The Death of the Firstborn of Egypt
In preaching this Passover text, one issue must be faced squarely. The death of all the firstborn of Egypt, both animal and human (Exodus 12:29), is a dreadful and troubling event. What kind of God is this that allows the death of innocent life? We should not minimize its horror, but a few comments are in order to help understand this event within its ancient biblical context. First, although God has employed the arms, hands and staffs of Moses and Aaron throughout the other plagues, it is God alone who carries out the slaying of the Egyptian firstborn (11:4; 12:23). The tenth plague is not a model for human imitation or a pretext for humans to take up arms in the name of God.

Secondly, the narrative insists that much of the moral responsibility leading up to this tragic point lies with Pharaoh and the Egyptians. The previous nine plagues (Exodus 7-10) were warnings and glimpses of the great tragedies that would unfold. The story reminds us of the particular responsibility of human leaders and politicians who lead a nation or group down paths that bring such tragic consequences. Just as Pharaoh had tried to take away God’s firstborn son, Israel, poetic justice led to Pharaoh and Egypt losing their firstborn sons (4:22-23).

Thirdly, the narrative affirms that all firstborn among the Israelites belong to God (13:2, 13). And if God is the God of all the earth (19:5-6), then God may also have the right to claim back for Godself any firstborn among any nation, as God does with Egypt in the tenth plague. In the Israelite understanding, God’s claim on the firstborn served as a sign that the whole of humanity (indeed the whole earth) belongs to God.

Finally, the book of Exodus proclaims that God is ultimately and primarily “gracious and merciful” and “forgiving” (Exodus 34:6-7). Even so, God also can reach the point of “visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children” (Exodus 34:7). There are consequences to sustained rebellion and disobedience against God and God’s purposes for the world, consequences that inevitably spill over to future generations. Egypt’s centuries-long oppression of Israelite slaves (Genesis 15:13; Exodus 12:40) and Pharaoh’s stubborn refusal to heed God’s repeated warnings through the many plagues and ecological disasters that Egypt endured taxed even the patience of God. In the end, God reclaimed Egypt’s firstborn back to Godself in a final blow that broke the will of Pharaoh and allowed the Israelites to be set free. Israel’s history testifies often that God’s people were not immune from similar judgments from God. God’s judgment on Egypt remains an object lesson for those who claim to be God’s people as much as for the Pharaohs of the world.