We Would Still be Slaves

My family is privileged to be Jewish, and when I was growing up we celebrated Passover every year on the day before Easter.  My father would lead the service, pausing often to explain how different parts of the Exodus story or of the Passover seder were prefigurements of Christ.  We would spend Holy Week cooking all the ceremonial foods, feast on Saturday, clean up, and go straight to the Easter Vigil, where the readings from Exodus and the description of Jesus as the Paschal Lamb confirmed the direct connection between Passover and Easter.
My father discovered more and more Eucharistic symbols in the Passover ceremony each year: the stripes and piercings on the unleavened matzo (the scourging and piercing of Jesus’ pure body);
the action of wiping blood on the lintel and doorposts (which makes the sign of the cross); the angel of death (the death that entered the world through original sin) who is escaped through the blood of the spotless lamb (the sacrifice of the innocent Jesus on the cross); the redemption from slavery (the slavery of sin and death); and the middle of three matzos (the second person of the Trinity), which is broken and hidden away, and must be recovered and unwrapped in order to finish the celebration with dessert.

A tomb with the stone rolled away, which I saw on a trip to Israel.

I’ve written about my personal response to the litany of gratitude, Dayenuhere.
Here’s something new that just struck me this year.  In Exodus 13:8, when God is commanding the Israelites to celebrate Passover every year, He says: “you shall tell your son on that day, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.'”  The Haggadah (the book of prayers for the Seder ritual) comments: “In every generation, a person is obligated to regard himself as if he had left Egypt. It was not only our ancestors whom the Holy One, blessed be He, redeemed from Egypt; rather, He redeemed us, as it is stated: ‘He brought us out from there, so that He might bring us to the land He promised our fathers, and give it to us.'”  Later on, the Hagaddah makes it even more explicit: “If God had not taken us out of Egypt, then we and our children and our children’s children would still be slaves to Pharaoh.”
As a child, I took this literally: I guess it’s possible that I, a descendant of Jewish ancestors, could still be a slave in Egypt.  Later on, I realized that it was meant symbolically.  But now, in light of the coming of Christ, I believe that it actually is literal.  If Jesus hadn’t shed his blood for us, we would still be slaves to sin and death.  When we say that we ourselves were rescued from slavery, we are referring to the power of the Cross that reaches to us across eternity.  Jesus did not offer redemption to just his followers, or just the Jews, or even just the righteous, but to everyone.
Happy Easter!  Tell your children that we celebrate not because of what Jesus did two thousand years ago, but because of what he did for us, today.

Exodus, by Marc Chagall


Why did Jesus Say “Tell No one?”

In yesterday’s Gospel reading (Mark 1:40-45), Jesus heals a leper, but then warns him “sternly” to not tell anybody what happened.  This happens many times in the Gospels, and I’ve always been mystified by it; if I were the leper, I would probably go right ahead and tell everyone, too.  Why wouldn’t Jesus want us to witness to his mercy and his healing power?  My priest, Fr. K., finally cleared this up for me, and it suddenly answered a lot of other questions I had.  According to Fr. K., Jesus didn’t want the news of his healing miracles spread around because he didn’t want people thinking that physical healing was his main purpose.  He came to save us from Hell; any other miracles that he performed were really extras.

I often struggle with the fact that God is able to save us from all our sufferings, to answer all our prayers for healing, but he doesn’t.  He only heals sometimes. Then I noticed that in the Gospels, even when Jesus was walking around and directly healing people, he still didn’t heal everyone; as far as we know, he didn’t fill up his 33 years with healing everyone he could reach.  Instead, he healed some, and he preached to more; but he came to save everybody. 

In the Jewish Passover ceremony, we recite a litany with the refrain “dayenu–it would have been enough for us, it would have sufficed us.”  Had the Lord saved Israel from slavery, but not opened the Red Sea for them, it would have been enough.  Had he led them through the Red Sea, but not given them manna in the desert, it would have been enough.  Had he given them manna, but not allowed them to reach the Promised Land, it would have been enough.  In the same way, had Jesus redeemed us by his death, but not saved us from earthly suffering, it would have been enough.

For me, this is the only answer to the question of why God allows suffering; but it’s not the end of the story.  In the Gospels, Jesus is often “moved with pity” (Mark 8:2) to go above and beyond his original mission.  He wants us to remember that God does not owe us anything, and that the enormous gift of Heaven is more than “enough for us;” but he loves to do extra things for us, too.  So go ahead and pray for whatever you want!  But if God doesn’t respond, remember that what he has already given us what we need.

Sometime this week I’d like to follow up on this theme, as a remedy for existential crises.  Stay tuned!