Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Pesach - Passover



I have not met a nice Jewish girl who I am trying to impress or anything like that, so don’t worry (or get too excited), but this goy is going to write yet another blog on a Jewish theme. You see, hot on the heels of Purim, comes the Jewish celebration of Pesach (Passover.) There is a close link for Christians to this particular celebration.

Passover celebrates the liberation of the Children of Israel (as they were known at that time) from slavery in Egypt. The tenth plague was more than the tenth plague, but the beginning of the release of the Children of Israel from Egypt. It was, as far as I can see, the only plague where God told the Children of Israel to be prepared. They were to take a year old sheep without blemish, slaughter it, and paint the blood onto the doorposts and the lintels of the door, so that when the angel of Death passed over the land of Egypt he would not touch the firstborn sons of the houses that had the blood on the doorposts.

While the Egyptians were still mourning their terrible loss, the Children of Israel picked up their belongings and took the gap, heading for the border - well, not really the border. In those days there were no customs and excise, or immigration officers waiting to stamp the passports. If there were, it is doubtful that Rameses would have sanctioned the issuance of such passports to the “workforce.” After almost 400 years in Egypt they didn’t really know the way back to Canaan. God appeared to them as a pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night. Now when you look at a map of Egypt, you note that there is a little isthmus (a small piece of land that links two larger landmasses) at the top, by which presumably, Joseph, and later his brothers and his father came into the land. This is not where the clouds lead the Children of Israel. Instead, they were lead to the edge of the Yam Suph (Red Sea). Somewhere in the region of two million Israelites were milling around. (In the Bible we are told there were about 600,000 men. The women and children were not counted, so we can guess there were about two million Israelites in all.) The average Israelite, at this point was feeling rather confused and somewhat anxious as they became aware that they were being pursued by the Egyptian army. People really got uptight with Moses and were calling into question his sanity. “Were there not enough graves in Egypt that you have brought us into the desert to die?"

Moses spoke to God, God spoke to Moses and then Moses addressed the people – “Fear not, The Egyptians you see today, you will not see again. Stand and see what God will do. The Lord will fight for you, you need only to be silent.”

On God’s command, Moses held out his staff over the waters as a tour guide might hold out his umbrella indicating to his party the general direction in which they must move. And, in a sense, that was what he was doing. As he pointed his staff, there was an unbelievable gale, and the waters of Red Sea divided and formed two walls of water, between which there was a corridor of dry land. The children of Israel passed through and every one of them made it to the other side, but when the Egyptian troops started pursuing them along the same corridor, God let the walls of water collapse and the Egyptian troops were all drowned.

Subsequent to this the celebration of Pesach was instituted as an annual commemoration and celebration of those events. Please note that this celebration wasn’t some Israelites idea for a reason for a party, it was COMMANDED by the Lord. God organized the whole thing, and for a very important reason. The whole Pesach Seder (Order of events at a Passover meal), is designed to teach the children about what God had done. I note, as an educator, that God employs the techniques of repetition, modeling and involvement. Firstly repetition, every year of a child’s life, he/she hears how God saved His children from the slavery of Egypt and how He meted out justice to the Egyptians, particularly the Pharaoh, for their cruelty. The modeling – each element and food item included in the Passover meal has specific relevance and symbolism and these symbols are explained to the children each time. I shall not describe now the whole meal, as frankly I don’t know as much as I would like to about that, but suffice it to say there is significance. The involvement of the children in the seder is an integral part of the celebration. Though one could say it’s scripted, it is the responsibility of a child to ask “Why is this night different from all the others?” giving the father the chance to tell the family the marvelous story of the Exodus. From this too I learn the significant role of FATHERS in the spiritual nurture of their children. I am not suggesting that only fathers should take this responsibility, but I do feel that in many cases fathers are missing out on this aspect altogether. What message does this send to children (particularly boys) about the things of God?

Roughly 1400 years later, in Jerusalem, Jesus was gathered together with his disciples in an upper room, and they were celebrating the Passover. At some point during the meal, Jesus got up, picked up the bowl for the washing of the guests’ feet, and he started washing the disciples’ feet. This caused some confusion, and Peter objected. This was not what Jesus, His master should have been doing, he thought, but Jesus insisted. He then made His point. He told them, “If I, Your Lord and Master wash your feet, you should also wash the feet of your brothers and sisters.”

During the meal, Jesus took a piece of the unleavened bread, (Matzos) and having given thanks for it, He broke it and said, “Eat this, all of you, for this is my body, broken for you. Do this, as often as you eat it, in rememberance of me.” Later, He took the cup, and after having given thanks for it, he said, “Drink this, all of you, for this is my blood in the New Covenant, given for you. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” Thus was the beginning of the Christian Communion Service. Very simple – involves two elements – Bread representing Jesus' body, and Wine, representing Jesus’ blood. These things remind us that Jesus gave himself for our Salvation. His death on the cross that would take place before the end of that day (remember the Jewish day ran, as it does now. from Sunset, to sunset)

After what has become known as The Last Supper, Jesus was betrayed by Judas with a kiss, arrested, tried not once but at least four times (two illegal trials before Jewish leaders, one before Herod Antipas, and one before Pontius Pilate), given over to be lashed with a cat-o-nine-tails, and then ultimately crucified on a wooden cross between two criminals. But that was not the end of the story. After Jesus had died, the Roman officer presiding over the crucifixion pierced his side to ensure that he was dead; his body was removed and placed into a borrowed tomb. On the third day, a group of women went down to where he was buried to perform the normal rites relating to death. But instead of finding His body, they found an open tomb, and an angel appeared, who said to them “Why do you look for the Living amongst the Dead, He is not here, He is alive”. And so the events of the resurrection unfolded until all of the disciples and many others saw Jesus alive again. Christians commemorate this day on what is called Easter Sunday. That, like Pesach, is an annual celebration of our liberation, by means of Jesus and His Resurrection. But most Christians celebrate Communion a lot more frequently than just once a year.

I think it is safe to say, that for the Jew, Pesach is the “high holy day” of their year; the most important event on their annual calendar. In the same way, for Christians, Resurrection Day, (or if you like, Easter) is the most important event on our calendar. It is not important that we become hung up on ritual and rigmoral, but just as it is important for Jewish children to understand why “this night is different to all the other nights of the year”, so it is very important that Christian children understand that the holiday is not about the “Easter Bunny and Easter eggs” but what the day is really all about.

I had wanted to explore a question that was provoked from an article I read this morning about how, regardless of the current circumstances Jewish people are experiencing, every year, they celebrate Pesach. As we know, and as I alluded to in my last blog, Jewish people have been subjected to awful cruelties and difficulties over the centuries, like the exiles in Babylon and Assyria, the attempt at their annihilation during the Third Reich, to name just a few, but like Hannah in the concentration camp, they celebrated Pesach regardless. (I refer you to my previous blog “Genocide” for this story.)

Some might wonder why God had to COMMAND the celebration. Why make it a matter of law. Surely the jubilant Israelites having seen God move so mightily would want, of their own accord to celebrate this wonderful day, and tell the future generations too. Well, considering that they wondered in the wilderness for 40 years after that, I wonder if they would have still been celebrating by the time they got to Canaan? And then when other difficulties, occurred, it may have been quite easy for the Jewish leaders to declare, “In view of our current circumstances, this year there will be no Passover.” Once you let it slide once, it is easier to let it slide again. Once we miss church one Sunday, it is easier to give it a miss the next time, and so on. Many people have not left the Church, but have simply drifted off. But God COMMANDED that every year on the specific date, Pesach should be celebrated. No riders, no conditions. And so, thankfully, even today, the Passover is celebrated. In the same way, Jesus COMMANDED us to remember Him in the Bread and the wine. It is not an optional extra. It is integral to being a Christian. Just as children participate in the Pesach, I believe that Children should be allowed to participate in the Communion Service. The custom in my church is that a couple will lead the service in the Lord’s Table, and quite a number of those couples are parents, and they will involve their children, in the distribution of the elements (the bread and the wine.) I remember watching with wonderment as one little boy carried out his duty of carrying the basket with pieces of bread to the people with an earnestness and seriousness that made me humble. I have found that when we give children a responsibility, and they understand that this is a very important thing that you have asked them to do, they more often than not rise to the occasion, and bless us with the way they put so much effort into that responsibility.

How and why?

How could they say we are free, when they were in the midst of such terrible circumstances? This reminds me of the psalm that inspired the Boney M song, “By the rivers of Babylon” – The psalm is Psalm 137. “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”

Sometimes it is hard to sing when everything around us seems disastrous, but instead of becoming despondent, it is in times like these that Jews need to remember Jerusalem and remember that they have been liberated. Christian need to remember the Resurrection. Regardless of the prevailing circumstances, there is no opt out on Pesach. Christians, even in the midst of persecution and difficulty, we must continue to remember that Jesus IS alive, and we ARE saved.

This is cause for rejoicing. Habakkuk 3:17 – 19 says:

“Though the fig tree does not blossom, and there is no fruit on the vines, the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord. God the Lord is my strength. He makes my feet like the deer’s. He makes me tread on my high places.”

When we look around and see things falling apart, we can still rejoice, because our security is not in the circumstances but in our relationship with the Lord. We know that the Lord will see us through and that ultimately we will spend all eternity with him. As we look back at our liberation, the death and resurrection of Jesus, and look forward to the consummation of that liberation when Jesus returns. Just as, having passed through the Red Sea, the Israelites looked back and saw the waters cover over and destroy their enemies, so we, when Jesus comes back, will see how God will deal with those who refused to bow the knee to Jesus.

If you’re feeling down today, start singing, and rejoicing and celebrating your victory. It’s not a case of wishful thinking, and it is not a case of “being positive”, but having faith in our God to accomplish that which we are not capable of. Another verse that springs to mind, and I will end off with this, was written by Jesus half-brother, James, in his letter to the church in Chapter 1, verses 2 . “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of many kinds”

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