Christian worship is Passover

September 25th, 2018

Christian worship is fundamentally our responsive immersion in Jesus Christ’s dying, burial and rising. In worship we praise and thank our Lord for this work, and respond to his grace by uniting ourselves to him. That’s to say, we spiritually imitate and take part in Jesus’ dying, burial and rising, and in this way the Spirit who unites us to Jesus re-forms us in his likeness.

Of course, the significance of Jesus Christ’s dying, burial and rising cannot be understood rightly apart from the Exodus. Hence my claim that Christian worship is, fundamentally, Passover. I’m going to unpack this biblically and theologically, since understanding it helps us invite others to participate in the Passover in the ways we plan and lead worship.

The late, great Lutheran theologian and ecumenist Robert Jenson liked to answer the question “Who is God?” like this: “God is the one who raised Jesus from the dead, having first raised Israel out of Egypt.” Notice the utter parallelism in Jenson’s formulation between Jesus’ rising and Israel’s rising. This is a parallel that appears throughout the centuries in Christian preaching and liturgy; the genius of Jenson’s locution is to put the wisdom of the tradition so lucidly and concisely.

One should say just a little bit more: God’s liberation of Israel by the hand of Moses is itself a sign or symbol pointing to the plenary human and cosmic liberation achieved in Jesus Christ. That’s to say, whereas God constitutes Israel as God's free covenant people by raising Israel from out of slavery in Egypt, so God liberates humanity and the cosmos from the ultimate slavery — slavery to sin and death — in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. (See Romans 5-8.) To see the continuity of God’s work across history is to grasp the continuity between what God does in the Exodus — itself fundamental for Jewish identity — and what God does in Jesus Christ.

But how does this insight lead to the claim that all Christian worship is Passover? Like this. In unpacking this, I’m drawing on the book of Exodus in light of the New Testament, and thinking in relation to the thought of figures like Hugh of St. Victor (12th century) and Bonaventure (13th century).

Biblically, the word Passover has multiple referents. I’ll run through four. The fundamental and most literal meaning is on the surface of the text, while the next three all build from that first meaning in the thought-world of the Bible.

The first meaning of Passover deals with the account in Exodus 12 in which the LORD, operating through the Angel of Death, passes over the houses of the Israelites in view of the blood of the lamb which they’ve put on their doorposts. Christians interpret this allegorically in relation to Christ in a variety of ways which I won’t go into here.

The second meaning of Passover in the biblical thought-world is the passage or passing of the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt through the waters of the Red Sea. This meaning is intimated in the first, since both meanings are taken up and held together in the Feast of Passover itself: it is to be eaten “with your belt fastened, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. And you shall eat it in haste. It is the LORD’s Passover” (Ex. 12:11). The feast of Passover itself has an inner dynamism toward the Israelites’ passing out of Egypt. Yet seeing this meaning clearly is helped by the third meaning.

The third meaning of Passover is Jesus Christ’s own Passover. Jesus Christ’s Passover is his dying, burial and rising. This third meaning also holds the first two meanings together and unties them Christologically and soteriologically. In dying, Jesus passes through the “waters” of sin and death and is victorious over these in his resurrection. In this one act of the “paschal mystery,” Jesus manifests and enacts God’s merciful overlooking (or “passing over”) of our sins (and so reveals the infinity of divine goodness and love), and also is himself the sign and enactment of our liberation from slavery to death.

The fourth meaning of Passover is that Christian worship is Passover. This meaning follows from the third meaning, and from the biblical claims that we’re united to Christ’s dying and rising in Christian spirituality (Philippians 3:10-11) and that we participate in the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist (1 Cor. 10:16).

Let me just unfold this insight in relation to the structure of Christian worship. Christian liturgical worship, normatively speaking, is Word and Table. In each of these moments of worship we share in Christ’s Passover.

First, the service of the Word. In this part of the Sunday liturgy, we pray to God and praise God on the basis of what God has done in history in Jesus Christ. This work manifests God’s identity and character and also saves us. Moreover, as the Scriptures are read and proclaimed, we proclaim and and give thanks for what God has done. That’s all to say, the service of the Word is our interacting with God on the basis of Jesus Christ’s own Passover.

Second, the service of the Table. In this part of the Sunday liturgy we enact and sacramentally enter into Jesus Christ’s own Passover through the Passover meal he shared with his disciples before going to the cross. Jesus, notice, enacted the Passover meal with his disciples — with himself at the center of it. It’s rather shocking and marvelous, if we stop to notice, that he reinterprets the Passover feast such that it’s really all about him and his death and resurrection. That Passover is what we’re doing, and what we’re taking part in, every time we partake of the Eucharist or Holy Communion. We’re receiving and sharing in Christ’s body and blood: we’re even, as members of Christ, mystically becoming Christ via his body and blood, such that we’re living into the fact that, in Christ our Head, we’ve already passed, in and with Christ, into the eternity of the divine life.

There’s lots more deep theology we could go into here, but let’s get practical. That Christian worship is Passover should change not only the intentionality with which we participate in worship ourselves, but also how we lead others in worship/liturgy. It should help us remember that, at each moment in which we’re leading others in worship, we’re offering them a pure invitation to participate in God’s liberating action in history. In Jesus Christ a human nature has really passed into the eternity of the Triune life; and so when we take part in Word and Table we’re really passing into that eternal divine life in and with Christ. Jesus Christ’s Passover is the Passover of spatiotemporality itself into God. That’s what we’re entering into when we pass into a state or attitude of worship. We’re passing, in Christ, into God.

Our invitations, in short, should be joyful. We should invite others into worship at each juncture of the service with the joyful and exuberant reverence, even solemnity, of those who are inviting others into a gift and a reality that is always better than we can comprehend. Our bearing and body language shouldn’t communicate that we’re masters of that reality or that we comprehend it fully. We don’t. Si comprehendis non est Deus, Augustine helpfully reminds us. (“If you comprehend it, it’s not God.”) Rather, we’ve humbly been invited and given entrance into an earth-shattering, mind-blowing mystery ourselves. And we get to invite others to enter into that same unfathomable gift, that same mind-blowing mystery. What a privilege — and what a joy.

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