A few years ago, one of my Jewish students invited me to her house to share her family’s Passover celebration. The evening was a true blessing. Several generations of family and friends sat around the dinner table to keep a tradition that dated back thousands of years. A perpetual ordinance. (Exodus 12) Traditional Passover food graced the table and she was kind to respect my no alcohol Baptist commitment. They drank wine. I drank fruit juice.
The evening was a delightful combination of seriousness and fun. We discussed such concepts as the spiritual import of darkness and light, bondage and liberation. Together we contemplated the meaning of justice. We played a game that required one to say a long list of God’s blessings in a single breath. One of the children rapped a rap appropriate to the occasion. We opened the door for Elijah to come. The occasion celebrated the past, affirmed the present and looked forward with hope toward a messianic future.
On the drive home, I thought about the Exodus story within the context of a theology of liberation that is the bedrock of my own African-American Christian faith. The biblical story of God’s liberation of the Children of Israel rings through so many songs, sermons and prophetic calls for social justice within my own tradition that I felt a unity of religious purpose with the Jewish tradition celebrated that night.
At the same time, my post-colonial mind questioned the morality of a monster God who would kill the first born child of any nation, just to make a point about God’s own power. No parent, not even an unjust pharaoh, deserves such anguish. While the Exodus story of the various plagues, including the slaughter of the first born is stuff of myth and legend, it is questionable whether it is historical fact. So, we can read this story as allegory and contemplate the questions: Is this monstrous god a reflection of human imagination at a particular historical moment? Is the story as allegory, a way of speaking abstract truths in terms that are comprehensible to human understanding? Is the story open to interpretation and reinterpretation according to the moral evolution of humankind? How does this story of the liberatory power of God liberate us from human bondage in all its various forms?
For me, the meaning of Passover is the occasion where Rabbi Jesus issues a new commandment: to love one another. He said: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (Read the Gospel of John chapters 12-17)
Christian tradition teaches that the Passover meal is the occasion where Jesus institutes the Lord’s Supper. It is the meal intended to commemorate the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus. Womanist theology sees this occasion as a time to remember the life of Jesus, the salvific power of his teaching and healing, of his compassion and forgiveness. It is a time to remember that Jesus came to end the cult of blood sacrifice, that he ought to have been the last blood-shed sacrifice.
Further, I say that Jesus added another dimension to Passover, the dimension of the elements of bread and wine as symbols of peace. Jesus is considered a high priest after the order of Melchizedek. (Hebrew 6:20) Melchizedek, a priest of the Most High God, offered hospitality to Abram with bread and wine. (Genesis 14: 18) It was a kind of blessing. We think of the bread and wine as symbols of the body and blood of Jesus. However, we can also think of these elements as symbols of sustenance and joy, the bread that sustains life and the wine that brings the joy that makes life worth living.
Jesus, the incarnation of Divine Love, came to show us how to live lives of love that reveal the Most High God, Divine Love, to the world. Such love makes righteousness, justice and peace possible on the earth.
So, the meaning of Passover for this Christian is the Maundy Thursday mandate to love an extreme, complete, uninvited, unrequited radical love. And through such love to be a revelation of and a praise to the glory of God.
Valerie Elverton Dixon