Tuesday, September 12, 2017

In Remembrance

“This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the Lord.”
Exodus 12:14

The Exodus story is one of the Bible’s most vivid and dramatic narratives.  The wickedness of Pharaoh, the steadfast courage of Moses, the horrors of the plagues, the spectacle of the the Red Sea’s high waves, frozen in place—they almost seem, to us to demand a screenplay.  There have been plenty of Exodus movies, from Cecil DeMille’s great 1956 epic The Ten Commandments, to the animated Prince of Egypt, a favorite in our household.  Earlier this week, I asked my sons if they knew about the ten plagues, and was very impressed when they could reel off all ten of them.  “Did you cover that in Sunday School?” I asked.  “No dad,” came the response—"it’s in the movie.”

I didn’t ask them if they had been reading about the Exodus directly from the Bible. But if they had tried, they would have found a story paced quite differently from any film I’ve seen.[1]  It’s not that the filmmakers need to invent lots of episodes.  All the powerful stuff comes right off the pages.  It’s that they usually leave out much of what the Book of Exodus actually says. 

Because Exodus isn’t just a sequence of dramatic events.  Those events are interspersed with texts like the one just read to you, expansive and detailed rules for ritual and moral life—granular stuff, as people say these days.  There are details about when to begin the feast of unleavened bread, how to choose the sacrificial victim and how to cook him after the offering has been made, where to place his blood and how to dress for the meal.

A few minutes of this kind of content, and the camera would be panning elsewhere and the audience reaching to see if any popcorn is left in the tub.  Today’s lesson from Exodus 12 is the Book of Common Prayer’s traditional Old Testament reading for Morning Prayer on Easter Day.  A sarcastic English liturgist wrote of this: “it must be a little baffling for those pillars of the Establishment who manifest their zeal for Church and State by attending on a few great occasions each year to find that the lesson…gives instructions as to how to slaughter a lamb and serve it up.[2]

As drama, the Passover instructions—and our lesson contains less than half of them—are pretty slow going.  For as directions for the carrying out of an activity, across thousands of years they are remarkably clear, clear enough that Jews still read them out the fourteenth day after the first new moon in the springtime, and keep the memorial day commanded by God to their ancestors.

The presence of the instructions says something important about the wider story in which they are situated.  God intends that we remember His great acts in a particular way.  You can’t really get at what this story means by only reading its episodes or watching a film about them.  You must enact it in your own time, thanking God anew for His mercy, eating a meal that again binds God and His people in sacred communion, asking again His deliverance from sin and protection from death. 

The Haggadah, the traditional text read by Jews at the Passover meal explains it this way:
“In every generation, each person should feel as if he himself had gone forth from Egypt, as it is written ‘And you shall explain to your child on that day, it is because of what the Lord did for me when I, myself, went forth from Egypt.’ Not only our ancestors alone did the Holy One redeem, but us as well with them.[3]

This is what our Lesson means when it speaks of the Passover as a remembrance or a memorial.  The God who brought Israel out of Egypt has promised to continually save and renew His people.  Of course, we recall His great deeds of old so they we will not forget them.  But even more, we recall them before God’s presence as an expression of our faith that He will act anew. 

The Passover sacrifice and meal look back, to be sure, but they also lean forward.  They look ahead to a redemption even more complete.  A lamb offered in thanksgiving and hope—a young male, unblemished.  His blood saves from death, and his flesh is offered as food for God’s beloved people. For us, this Lamb points ahead to the one who was proclaimed “the Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world.[4]”  Christ our Passover Lamb has been sacrificed for us,” Saint Paul writes, “let us keep the feast.[5]

The Last Supper that Jesus kept with His disciples was, of course, a Passover meal.  The Gospel writers carefully record the special foods at the table, the ceremonial cups of wine that marked the different stages of the feast.  But then, He set aside the expected words and actions.  He took the bread in His hands and blessed and broke it.  “This is my body,” He said to them.  God is doing a new thing.  The body of the Lamb saved your ancestors from death, freed a people from slavery.  But now, Jesus says, “I will offer My Body for you.  My blood will be shed to seal a new and lasting covenant.”  It is to be a sacrifice of thanksgiving complete and perfect, not for one nation but for the whole world. 

“Do this,” He commands them, “in remembrance of me.[6]”  That’s old language of the Passover rite, do this to make the memorial before God of what I am doing for you.  Do this to declare your faith in me and your gratitude for what I am doing for you.  And when you do, He promises, I will be with you in the sacred bread and wine.  You will feed on the flesh of the Lamb that saves you, as your ancestors did in Egypt.  From My Body, crucified and raised in power, grace will flow anew.  The Redeemer’s work is not complete until He has fed His people with His own flesh.  As it was then, so it is always.

Christ does not abolish the Passover, He fulfills it, crowns it with glory.  The ancient mystery remains, yet now all is filled with power and life.  The very oldest Christian sermon we have, after the writings of the New Testament, is the Paschal Homily of Melito of Sardis.  This is how Bishop Melito describes it:
Understand this, O beloved: The mystery of the passover is new and old, eternal and temporal, corruptible and incorruptible, mortal and immortal in this fashion:
It is old insofar as it concerns the law, but new insofar as it concerns the gospel; temporal insofar as it concerns the type, eternal because of grace; corruptible because of the sacrifice of the sheep, incorruptible because of the life of the Lord; mortal because of his burial in the earth, immortal because of his resurrection from the dead.[7]

We too must keep the Passover.  We remember God’s mighty deeds, but we also praise Him and offer our sacrifice, the bread and wine of the Holy Eucharist.  We know that He who saved of old saves us still.  I myself went forth from Egypt, indeed.  I myself came with Him through the Cross and the empty tomb.  I myself will feast with Him at the joyous banquet that has no end.

[1] c.f.  Hoezee, Scott.  “Exodus 12:1-14, Comments and Observations.”  Center for Excellence in Preaching http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-18a/?type=old_testament_lectionary.
[2] Greenacre, Roger.  The Sacrament of Easter.  London: The Faith Press, 1965, 19.
[3] qtd. in Greenacre, Roger and Jeremy Haselock.  The Sacrament of Easter.  Grand Rapids: Eeerdmans, 1995, 30.
[4] John 1:29.
[5] I Corinthians 5:7.
[6] Luke 22:19.
[7] qtd. in Greenacre, Roger and Jeremy Haselock.  The Sacrament of Easter.  Grand Rapids: Eeerdmans, 1995, 20.

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