The way to a nation's heart

August 1st, 2017

Exodus 12:1-14

Holidays are like every other day, only more so. People travel everyday; they just travel more for holidays. People have reunions every day, get together with family and friends; they just plan it better, go to the extra trouble, do it more at holidays. People buy and give presents everyday; they just do it more expensively and with greater intensity at holidays. People receive gifts every day; they just do it with more expectation at holidays. People eat every day; they just do it more at holidays. People tell stories every day; they just tell more of them at holidays.

There is something about eating together—something about the gathering and preparing, the seeing and sharing, something about the bounty of the table that makes us pause, reflect, remember, and tell. Special occasions call for special food and special folk, friends and kin; special occasions with special food and folk call for those special stories that make the circle whole, even when there are holes. There is a kind of unbroken circle in even the most broken of families—if we are able to gather the folk, break the bread, and tell the stories.

The text before us, Exodus 12, concerns food, memory, and celebration. It reflects not a perennial human strategy so much as an annual Jewish (and then Christian) strategy of gathering certain people, eating certain foods, remembering certain stories. We are called to remember not generally but particularly, in this time and in this way—and it is a strange text, really, full of strange menus and confusing mandates. It is, nevertheless, a text we can get our teeth into because it concerns a party, a celebration supper, a special meal with special stories. That is something we understand.

The text is about Passover, what comprised it, who was to eat it, how and when, and what was to be said along the way. The Passover was, and is, the central celebration of the Hebrew faith, and it gives us the basic shape and outlines of our own central celebrations of Good Friday and Easter. In fact, some scholars believe that Jesus and his disciples shared the Passover as their final meal together (with certain various reinterpretations by Jesus). Anytime we partake of the Eucharist, we too recall Passover. Yet, this text has its own discreet history and purpose—to remind Jews of every generation, and those who are heirs by faith, of God’s regard for the plight of his people and also of God’s mighty work to rescue and reconstitute the people. This story is at the heart of Jewish identity: the way to that heart is through the stomach.

If the Jewish Passover recounted God’s deliverance of God’s enslaved children—how with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm God acted to liberate his poor, enslaved children—both Jews and Christians believe that work is not yet done. Still God works to deliver the oppressed, those suffering in exile or servitude or sin. So the Passover meal and the Passover story commemorate not just what God did, but what God is doing yet in the world, and the means by which God does it.

But why eat to mark the time? We might answer, theologically, that as a people we taste and see that God is good. Whether we are commemorating the first Passover, or the Last Supper, whether we are anticipating our family’s circle being unbroken or the Great Feast the prophets saw, when all the world’s families will be one around the great mountain table where God will prepare a meal for all his children, we set the table and eat. But that only begs the question.

That humans have to eat as celebration is in fact a kind of confession— a confession of need. In the strength of high celebration we are, fundamentally, confessing our weakness each to the other, and all of us to God. In the presence we are demonstrating our need of food to survive, our need of others to share, our need of stories to make meaning of the seemingly disconnected episodes of our lives. The food is impermanent, the company less so—although it is not without frailty—but the stories last, tell us who we are and where we come from, tell us what we are doing and where we are heading. Some stories have the power to move us and our meal from the plain of mere celebration to a grander height, to commemoration— which means, “remembering together.” We remember together with the past, and together with the future, and together in the memory and presence of those who one way or the other are blessed and named and summoned by the stories.

For the Passover commemoration, every part of the meal is prescribed. The time is prescribed—on the anniversary, more or less, of the original event. The guests are prescribed—families, sometimes unto themselves, sometimes with neighbors. The menu is prescribed—a lamb roasted whole, and yeastless bread, lots of horseradish and sweet fruit, too, and all of it to be eaten and nothing left till morning, or if it is, then the remainder is burned.

The stories are prescribed—this is the heart of it. The faces around the table and the food on the plate all in service of the story, to help us see that God is good by tasting: the lamb, slain, so the blood could save us; the bread, flat, to remind us that salvation comes in a moment; the herbs, bitter, to bring forth our tears at the weeping of those who are oppressed; the sweet fruit, dipped in saltwater, to remind us that life’s goodness is ever marinated in grief.

Eat quickly, but reflect slowly; hurry, but slow down, to recall the acts of God, the power of the Lord, the salvation that is ours by grace. This is who we are—the needy community blessed by a giving God. Eat and never forget.

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