Paying attention to the old Testament and the Passover.
by Steve Wright
Exodus 12: 1-14 & Last Supper Matthew 26:17-30
When I was a child, there were not many church festivals at the small church we attended. In fact there were only one unfailingly observed: the Sunday School Anniversary. I loved it; together with Christmas, which was mainly a family festival, and the Sunday School picnic, these events punctuated with special joy and colour the common, uneventful, routines of life of the church in that era.
THE PASSOVER FESTIVAL
The Jewish thing was much more varied and colourful. The Jewish festivals were big events, lasting a number of days. It is good to keep reminding ourselves that Jesus was a Jew, a Semite. He was not the tall, blue-eyed, blond haired (sometimes red-haired) young European as depicted in paintings. He was a man of theMiddle East, much more like an Arab of today. Dark eyed, dark haired, swarthy complexion, average height, speaking Aramaic.
Jesus loved his people; he absorbed their history, their religion and Scriptures, their culture and the great sacred festivals that punctuated each year. Jesus was a Jew through and through. His parents took him along with them toJerusalemfor the Festival of the Passover. No doubt the pilgrim journey by foot up to Mt Zion, along with relatives and neighbours, was a major source of excitement.
For over three thousand years, Jewish people have continuously celebrated that special meal called the Feast of the Passover. The festival is held in the first month of their year. It is a highlight for the young and for the old of every family. Jesus grew up observing the feast and holding it as very precious.
The Passover Feast had it roots in the rescue of the Hebrew people from slavery inEgyptunder the leadership of Moses. It dramatically recalled the event of their escape, when the eldest son in every Egyptian house perished but every Jewish house (with the blood of the lamb sprinkled on the door posts) was spared. Passover was a celebration of God as Saviour. At each Passover the story of that deliverance from slavery is read aloud. Special foods are eaten (like the roast lamb, the unleavened bread, and the bitter herbs) to recall the memory of the salvation event.
As Moses had commanded: “This Passover day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast honouring the Lord; throughout the coming generations shall observe it as an ordinance forever.”
LEARNING FROM THE PASSOVER
In the week during which Jesus was executed, we are told that he “longed to eat the Passover” In the new international version “eagerly desired” (Luke 22:15) with his disciples. He wanted to do this very special Jewish thing. Note that word “longed”. He yearned with all his heart to just once more celebrate God as Saviour before his own horrific suffering and death. That particular Passover meal was arranged secretly in an upper room. It was that final meal with his friends that has become the model for what we Christians have named the “Lord’s Supper.”
The Passover was a household meal. Not a mass celebration at synagogue or temple, but a family meal. It was not presided over by the priestly officials but by the senior member of the household. Even the youngest child participated in the ritual of the meal. While it is true that other activities which lasted a week were carried on at theTemple, the actual centrepiece, that table spread with symbolic food, the Passover Feast, was set in households.
We cannot emphasise too often that Christianity started as a Jewish reform movement. Our roots are fundamentally in the Jewish religion as reflected in the Old Testament. It would not be unfair to call us a Jewish sect; a sect that outgrew the body from which we sprang.
During the history of Christianity, there have been attempts to eliminate the Old Testament. This happened in the early centuries with scholars like Marcion. In our era I have heard people argue the same case. Moreover, many who are not bold enough to argue the case, in fact clandestinely espouse the same attitude by neglecting the Old Testament and concentrating on the New Testament.
The Christian Scriptures should not be understood apart from the Hebrew Scriptures. The teaching of Jesus, and of the apostles, only makes sense in light of the story of the Jewish people. It is the same God with whom we are dealing. It is the same Creator and Saviour and the same Holy Spirit who is at work. The God who called the Jews to be a servant people, calls the Christian community to be a servant people as well.
It was a Jew whose love made new disciples. It was a Jew who taught us a loftier way to live. It was a Jew who gave us an appreciation of God’s amazing grace. It was a Jew who died on the cross for us. It was a Jew who was raised from the dead and opened the minds of disciples to understand the Scriptures. It was a Jew who asked us to go into all the world, applying the practice of baptism to the people of all nations.
And, many would claim that it was a Jewish Passover meal which became transformed into the new feast of salvation. That which we call the Lord’s Supper, or the Holy Communion, or the Eucharist, is rooted in a Jewish Festival in which the glorious deliverance of God’s people from slavery was celebrated.
The old Saviour was God working through a Jew called Moses. The new Saviour is God working through a Jew called Jesus. The first act of salvation was applied to rescue a particular people. The second act of salvation was to rescue a whole world. It is the same Saviour.
The heart of the Jewish faith is closer to us than any other religion on earth. Our nature and destiny is best understood when we joyfully recognise our true roots. The heart of the Jewish thing has become our thing.
Why am I hammering away at this point?
We live at a time when within our Christian congregations Biblical literacy is at a low ebb, and what there is tends to circulate around the Gospel stories alone. The Old Testament is widely neglected. This limits our understanding of Christ.
Confining oneself to the New Testament leads to a spiritual malnutrition. It neglects a depth which goes way back through long centuries of Jewish experience. On one hand we cannot appreciate the prophetic continuity in Jesus’ teaching, and on the other hand we cannot grasp his radical novelty. The people who wrote the books of the New Testament were Jews writing about a unique Jew. Their language is loaded with nuances which only those familiar with the Old Testament can appreciate.
A couple of examples:
1. The word Christ (Messiah) is meaningless outside the Hebrew context. You may be aware it refers to the symbolic (maybe sacramental) anointing with oil of a person chosen by God to a special service and responsibility. Most often in the OT it was applied to the anointing of a king.
Take the word Christ out of the Hebrew context and you end up with a word that sounds like a mere first or second name, coupled with the name Jesus. For instance, your first and second names may be Cindy Jane or William John, Thomas Edward or Linda Louise. So the first and second names of Mary’s son are often thought to be Jesus Christ. That misses the whole depth of meaning of Messiah, which is a hallowed Jewish title, not a personal name.
2. Then there is the phrase “son of God.” That also is an Old Testament expression, usually applied to an anointed leader who was faithfully fulfilling the task God had given him. A righteous king was a true son of God.
Which was very different from the Roman understanding. For them it referred to the exercise of absolute power, as a right given from the gods. The Emperor was called divine, or “the son of God”. The oath of allegiance given to the Emperor was “My Lord and my God.” Absolute power not righteousness was the issue.
Greeks heard the phrase in yet another way. For them it went into the region of philosophy. It was a metaphysical statement about the essential essence of a person. (No wonder some of the early Greek Christians tied themselves up in knots trying to accurately define the essential essence of this Jesus, “Son of God.”)
But for the early Jewish Christians the phrase “son of God” was neither about absolute power nor philosophical definitions. Is was a affirmation of faith in a leader who was righteously fulfilling the mission that God had given him, and whose words and deeds were being owned and blessed by God.
Summing up therefore, words like “Messiah” and “Son of God” can only be understood and applied to new times, when we are tutored by the Old Testament. It is folly to either openly or surreptitiously, cut ourselves off from the rich Hebrew heritage. Please treasure and read your OT! There will be many lessons to be learnt from closer fellowship with our Jewish sisters and brothers which will throw added light on our Christ and enrich our own faith.
WHAT HAVE WE LOST?
Let me now take you back to the Feast of the Passover. I said it was an annual celebration of God as the Saviour of the Hebrew people. I homed in on the fact that it was a household event, celebrated by laity not priests. Jesus secretly gathered his friends in an Upper Room to share with them this meal of salvation before he went to his death. The Christian Eucharist, or Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, seems to have its roots in that last Passover meal.
I think something special was lost when the young Christian congregations outgrew house churches and started hiring halls and, later, built large edifices for worship. Then the sense of an intimate household celebration belonging entirely to the people, was diminished.
As time went by, a priestly group came into being to protect the sacrament from the kind of abuses that Paul had to deal with atCorinth. In later times this priestly cast removed the sacrament further from the hands of the laity, installing fences to keep the common people away from the table. Frequently the people were encouraged to form solemn queues to receive the bread and wine, or sit regimented in pews (looking at the back of the heads of those in front) while they were served, far removed from the common table. Much of the intimate, household mood stemming from the Passover meal, was lost.
For me the most meaningful times of Holy Communion have been those occasions when a small congregation form a circle around the Table. It is when we can look on each others faces, and know ourselves as the household of Christ; when there is an intimacy with one another, that the profound grace of the Sacrament most deeply stirs my being.
I do not believe that it takes an ordained minister to create the validity of the Body and Blood of the Lord’s Supper. Christ is the host in his own right, not the ordained pastor. I affirm the recent practice in the Uniting Church denomination where in certain situations lay folk, after some added training, are able to preside at the Holy Table . I clearly remember the who ha of the process when we got Frank (a lay preacher) approval to perform communion at the Bushland Chapel. I think the tradition we have here of being able to share tea, coffee and a snack after a service continues to remind us of the more formal communion.
I firmly believe that the Eucharist, like the Passover Feast before it, fundamentally belongs to the ordinary people of God. I encourage you all to own it and rejoice in it.
Let me summaries what I have attempted to say which has arisen from the story of Moses and the origins of the Passover feast.
Our roots are in the religion of the Jews. Our Lord and his disciples were Jews.
The Old Testament is essential if we are to understand the New Testament. We cannot begin to understand the person of Jesus Christ without it. We need to read it.
It is well and truly time to put aside the Christian arrogance that too often neglects the Jewish things. It is time for some humility. The more we learn about the Jewish things, the better Christians we can become.
Just as the Passover Meal was a celebration of God as Saviour, so our Lord’s Supper is a celebration of God as Saviour.
The Lord Supper, emanating from the Passover Meal, belongs to the ordinary people of God, and needs to be owned by them, not the officials.
I hope this inspires you to clarify your own view that communion should not be the exclusive field of the clergy but of leadership that has faith.