The Passover Puzzle

September 7, 2014   Exodus 12: 1-14

Rev. Catherine Purves


     Let’s imagine that you are being held captive, in fact, that you are enslaved.  The situation in which you find yourself is quite intolerable.  Your whole family, your extended family, and everyone you know is in the same predicament.  As a result, everyone is suffering, some are dying, and all are in imminent danger.  Escape is your only option.  Time is of the essence.  A leader has emerged who is willing to stand up to your captors and then lead you to freedom.  The sooner you get out of there the better, because things are getting worse every day.  You, and everyone else, just need to get going.  But before you make your daring escape, you stop and write down, in painstaking detail, precisely what you will do on your last day of captivity and how you will commemorate this important salvation event for years to come.  What’s wrong with that picture?

     Well, it’s odd isn’t it?  You’re putting the cart before the horse.  Before there is anything to remember and to celebrate, you’re carefully recording how you will do it, how you will turn it into a holy day and incorporate it into your community’s worship.  Would you really take a time-out in the midst of your persecution in order to do that before you escaped?  Wouldn’t it make more sense to hightail it out of there, and then worry about passing on the tradition afterward… assuming there was an afterward?

     This is just one piece of the Passover puzzle, but it is an intriguing one.  And this is one of the many pieces that have a direct counterpart in Jesus’ celebration of the Last Supper.  Jesus was not getting ready to escape, though; he was about to be caught.  His life was reaching its climax.  In a matter of hours he would be betrayed, tried, tortured, condemned, and crucified.  Judas was on his way out the door.  Nothing would stop the chain of events that would lead directly to the cross.  But before the new Passover that Jesus would accomplish could change everything, he stopped and outlined in careful detail exactly how his disciples would remember and celebrate his death and resurrection in worship for all future generations.  The bread and the blood were again going to be essential, and Jesus himself would be the lamb.  But what they were celebrating at the Last Supper hadn’t happened yet!

     Why did it matter so much how these crucial saving events would be remembered and repeated in worship?  Or maybe that’s the wrong question to ask.  Maybe we should rather be observing that, according to the Bible record, these saving events themselves were accomplished in the context of worship.  The Israelites worshiped their way out of Egypt.  Jesus and his disciples prayed their way through Holy Week.  The worship couldn’t be an afterthought, because it was the essence of the two Passover events. 

     Yes, I did say two Passover events, because as we consider the Passover that preceded Israel’s escape from Egypt and the Passover that turned into the Last Supper, we will find that these two events are virtually two sides of the same coin.  Both of these complex saving events are like puzzles, but they share many of the same puzzle pieces.

     We have already seen that unleavened bread and wine, blood and the lamb are puzzle pieces that Passover and the Lord’s Supper hold in common.  And both saving events were accomplished in the context of worship.  The command to commemorate each divine act of salvation in a sacramental form of worship was also present each time, even before the saving event took place.  But now we also need to puzzle out how this divine directive would shape and transform the future reenactments of both of these meals in a very special way.  That’s what would make them sacramental.

     My daughter, Laura, and I are both watching a new T.V. series that is based on a novel that we each enjoyed.  She’s on the west coast so I get to watch every episode three hours before she does.  I’m in bed by the time she is sitting glued to the screen, so we have to wait until the next day to compare notes on what we liked and what diverged too much from the book.  Anyway, time is also at the center of this T.V. drama, because the heroine is somehow magically transported back in time and she finds herself in 18th century Scotland just before the English massacre of the Scots clans at Culloden in 1746. 

     Andrew has been watching this new program with me, but I think he’s just interested in the scenery.  After the last two episodes he complained that nothing much happened.  Literally, I suppose, that was true, but it was all about being there and what that was like for a 20th century woman.  Being transported back in time and being folded into history, finding yourself in the middle of it as an observer and a participant.  It’s nothing like reading a history book or watching a movie or trying to remember an event long past.  Claire, the heroine of the drama, was really there, seeing it from the inside; she was part of the history as it was taking place.

     If we think of the celebration of the Passover that was to become, by divine decree, “a perpetual ordinance”  “throughout your generations,” or if we consider our own celebration of the Lord’s Supper, you might think that nothing much is happening.  Bread is broken, juice is poured, words are spoken, the event is remembered, prayers are offered, and the food is shared.  But what is really happening is that we are being transported back into the original saving event.  The bread and the cup become for us the body and blood of Christ.  We find ourselves at the table with the original disciples, and Jesus is speaking to us.  The story, the event itself, surrounds us and we are part of it.  This is so very much more than simple remembering. 

     In the same way, the directions for the future celebration of the Passover continue into the 13th chapter of Genesis, and at verse 14 it says, “When in the future your child asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall answer ‘By strength of hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery.”  These are still the words that are said when the Passover is celebrated in the 21st century:  “the Lord brought us out of Egypt,” and suddenly they are there, experiencing God’s salvation of Israel again as their salvation.

     Before we enter into our own sacramental celebration of our salvation in Jesus Christ, let’s just take another look at the actual physical elements that these two world-changing meals have in common.  We have the unleavened bread – no time to wait for the bread to rise, salvation was imminent.  We have wine and blood which represent life.  We have the sacrificed lamb whose life is instrumental in the salvation that is to come.  It’s not too hard to put this two-sided puzzle of Passover and the Lord’s Supper together when we recognize these common elements. 

     But central to each of these two saving events is the fact that it is God who acts in and through these elements.  The Israelites didn’t really escape.  They didn’t escape, they were freed from slavery and led out of Egypt by God.  In the same way, the disciples didn’t save themselves by being good disciples, the favored few who shared the Passover with Jesus.  Christ lived and died for all, and through his sacrificial death, it was again God who gave life to all.  By God’s grace they were saved.  As we commemorate those original saving events, God is still the actor in the drama.  Only God can set us free.  Only God can forgive sins.  That fact has not changed. 

     But still, nothing much appears to be happening – just a tiny piece of bread, a small cup of juice, some words, a few prayers.  It’s something of a puzzle.  Why should this act of remembering in worship be so powerful?  It’s because through it we suddenly find ourselves in the presence of the Savior.  We are at his table, with disciples through the ages.  We are drawn into his sacrifice, and the cross and the empty tomb are suddenly vividly real, part of our present experience.  We are folded into the saving event by which God changed all of history. 

     This is what it means to call the Lord’s Supper a sacrament.  When we see that through the sacrament we are transported into God’s history, past, present, and future, then what was a puzzle that we couldn’t quite figure out becomes a mystery which compels us to worship.  Come, then, put the puzzle pieces together and partake of a mystery.  Taste and see that the Lord is good.  Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us.  Therefore, let us keep the feast.  Alleluia!