In two days, as you know, it will be the Passover Festival, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.
Jesus has just finished a big speech about how the Jewish society and religion, and now he ends it with this announcement. The religious authorities were by this time certain that Jesus was dangerous. And perhaps delusional. So, having realized that they have a “situation” on their hands, they had to figure out what to do about it: “Then the chief priests and the elders met together in the palace of Caiaphas, the High Priest, and made plans to arrest Jesus secretly and put him to death. “We must not do it during the festival,” they said, “or the people will riot.” (Matthew 26:1-5).
Passover is a major Jewish springtime festival that commemorates the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery as described in Exodus Chapter 12. Moses was chosen by God to liberate the Hebrews from slavery, but the Egyptian king (or pharaoh) refused to do so despite a series of plagues that God imposed on Egypt. The tenth and final plague, the one that would change the king’s mind, was a terrible one. God caused all of the first born males – both human and animal – to be killed in a single evening by a terrible plague. God told the Hebrews that if they smeared the blood of a lamb on the doorposts of their homes, then the plague would “pass over” them. Sure enough, at midnight a plague rolled through right on cue:
At midnight the Lord killed all the first-born sons in Egypt, from the king’s son, who was heir to the throne, to the son of the prisoner in the dungeon; all the first-born of the animals were also killed. That night, the king, his officials, and all the other Egyptians were awakened. There was loud crying throughout Egypt, because there was not one home in which there was not a dead son. That same night the king sent for Moses and Aaron and said, “Get out, you and your Israelites! Leave my country; go and worship the Lord, as you asked. Take your sheep, goats, and cattle, and leave. Also pray for a blessing on me.” (Exodus 12:29-32).
After the Hebrews cleared out, the king changed his mind and sent his troops to pursue the fleeing slaves. It turned out to be a bad decision. Moses parted the Red Sea and led his people to safety on dry ground, but the pursuing troops and all of them were drowned when the sea closed back up on them. The Passover story is the defining moment in Jewish history when God delivered them from slavery to freedom.
Passover lasts eight days (seven days in Israel). On the first night there is always a seder, a special family meal that is filled with ritual. I was invited to my first seder about 25 years ago. I had a friend at work who was raised Christian but she married a Jew. Her husband was not particularly religious and did not attend religious services, but like most Jews he still cherished the Passover tradition of the seder. My friend knew I was always interested in anything spiritual so she invited us to join with her family for this special Jewish feast.
One of the important elements of the meal is unleavened bread (or bread with no yeast) made from matzah. Matzah is made from flour and water and can be prepared very quickly, so this was the bread that the Hebrews prepared and took with them when they fled Egypt. In addition to the matzah there is a seder plate with several symbolic foods. And wine. Lots of wine.
The words, songs, and instructions of the seder are written in a book called the haggadah. It’s like a Christian liturgy. There are many different versions of the haggadah just like there are many translations of the Bible, but all of them tell the story of the Exodus and explain some of the practices and symbols of the holiday. So here is what happens in a seder:
1. Sanctification – A blessing over wine in honor of the holiday. The wine is drunk, and a second cup is poured.
2. Washing – A washing of the hands without a blessing, in preparation for eating the Karpas.
3. Salt water – A vegetable (usually parsley) is dipped in salt water and eaten. The vegetable symbolizes the lowly origins of the Jewish people; the salt water symbolizes the tears shed as a result of slavery. Parsley is a good vegetable to use for this purpose, because when you shake off the salt water, it looks like tears.
4. Breaking of the bread – One of the three matzahs on the table is broken. Part is returned to the pile, the other part is set aside for the afikomen (see below).
5. The Story – A retelling of the story of the Exodus from Egypt and the first Passover. This begins with the youngest person asking The Four Questions, a set of questions about the proceedings designed to encourage participation in the seder. The maggid is designed to satisfy the needs of four different types of people: the wise one, who wants to know the technical details; the wicked one, who excludes himself (and learns the penalty for doing so); the simple one, who needs to know the basics; and the one who is unable to ask, who doesn’t even know enough to know what he needs to know. This is often sung. At the end of the maggid, a blessing is recited over the second cup of wine and it is drunk.
6. Washing – A second washing of the hands, this time with a blessing, in preparation for eating the matzah.
7. Blessing over Grain Products – The ha-motzi blessing, a generic blessing for bread or grain products used as a meal, is recited over the matzah.
8. Blessing over Matzah – A blessing specific to matzah is recited, and a bit of matzah is eaten.
9. Bitter Herbs (Maror) – A blessing is recited over a bitter vegetable (usually horseradish; sometimes romaine lettuce), and it is eaten. This symbolizes the bitterness of slavery. The maror is eaten with charoset, a mixture of apples, nuts, cinnamon and wine, which symbolizes the mortar used by the Jews in building during their slavery. (Note: this is very delicious!)
10. Lamb shank – More maror is eaten with some matzah and the paschal offering (lamb shank) in a sandwich. This is in remembrance of the lamb that was sacrificed so that its blood could be applied to the Hebrew doorposts so that the Egyptian plague would pass over their house.
11. Dinner – A festive meal is eaten. It usually begins with Gefilte fish and matzah ball soup. Roast chicken or turkey are common as a main course, as is beef brisket. (Note: we had brisket.) The meal also includes a roasted egg that is presented of the seder plate. The egg is a symbol of mourning (as eggs are the first thing served to mourners after a funeral), evoking the idea of mourning over the destruction of the Temple and the inability to offer any kind of sacrifices in honor of the Passover holiday. It is dipped in the salt water (tears).
12. The Afikomen – The piece of matzah set aside earlier is eaten as “dessert,” the last food of the meal. Different families have different traditions relating to the afikomen. Some have the children hide it, while the parents have to either find it or ransom it back. Others have the parents hide it. The idea is to keep the children awake and attentive throughout the pre-meal proceedings, waiting for this part.
13. Grace after Meals – The third cup of wine is poured, grace is recited. At the end, a blessing is said over the third cup of wine and it is drunk. The fourth cup is poured, including a cup set aside for the prophet Elijah, who is supposed to herald the Messiah, and is supposed to come on Passover to do this.
14. Praises – Several psalms are recited. A blessing is recited over the last cup of wine and it is drunk.
15. Closing – A simple statement that the seder has been completed, with a wish that next year the Messiah will come. This is followed by various hymns and stories.
It’s a wonderful tradition, so full of history and symbolism! The salty tears, the bitter herbs, the sweetness of the charoset, the richness of the lamb, the headiness of the wine, the breaking of the unleavened bread, the sorrow of the egg, the abundance of the feast. All of life – the joys, the sorrows, the fullness of life right there in the seder. There is absolutely nothing like it in Christianity.
Is it any wonder that this sacred, symbolic meal would be Jesus’ Last Supper? The seder celebrates the history of the Jews and their deliverance from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. Is it any wonder that Jesus would ask his disciples to remember him every time they break the bread and drink the wine? Jesus has devoted his life to delivering the Jews from the tyranny of enslavement by the religious institution of his day. He has done all he could do to show them the way to the new Promised Land called the Kingdom of God. Just like he took the Shema, the famous prayer repeated daily by the Jews and turned it into “The Great Commandment” (see Day 193), Jesus also takes this most holy of meals and uses it to make a powerful statement about the tragedy that is to come and the great future that he envisions. Like the Jews after the Nazi holocaust, he wants to make sure that the Jews never forget about what will happened to him as he becomes one of the many prophets who went before him and were persecuted or slain by the religious leaders for speaking God’s truth. He wants to make sure they never forget him. Like there was ever any chance of that happening.
What does this scripture say to you?