“Once We Were Slaves. Now We are Free:” Passover, Easter, an Ordination Celebration, and New Beginnings
“Once We Were Slaves. Now We are Free:” Passover, Easter, an ordination celebration, and new beginnings
Above the mantel in my living room is an amazing embossed lithograph by a well-known Jewish artist, Amram Ebgi, called “From Slavery to Freedom,” that was gifted to me at my ordination, thirty years ago this coming Wed (April 7). From right to left, it depicts the Hebrews leaving Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea, wandering through the wilderness to Mt. Sinai, where the Torah was given, and then winding toward Jerusalem. It is a round picture, and in a circle around the edge, you can see the 10 commandments in raised white letters in Hebrew. In the picture are also brightly colored medallions with the names of the symbolic foods of the Seder, the holy meal celebrating the Hebrews’ escape from Egypt. It’s one of those pictures that draws you in. With so much detail, there is always something new to see.
As a Christian ordained to a teaching ministry – and one specifically teaching Hebrew and Hebrew Scriptures – the very close connections between our two traditions are always brought home to me at Pesach (Passover) and Easter. And in fact I love it when both occur together as that first Easter did. Both of these high holy days are all about remembrance and new beginnings.
Re-membering: making present and alive
Remembrance is literally a re-membering – a making present and alive a past event that is central to each religion’s identity. In the Passover seder, a special meal, each family gathers, and re-members the time of slavery and the exodus.
Each part of the meal itself is symbolic: for example, charoseth, a paste made of fruits, nuts, and sweet wine or honey, symbolizes the mortar for the bricks that the Hebrews had to make as slaves. And each year, each family makes present the past by saying or singing “We were once slaves to the Pharaoh in Egypt, and now we are free.” When they say this they are literally re-membering it in their body. The past becomes present.
Jesus’ last supper was a Seder. This meal would henceforth not only re-member the freedom from Egypt, but it is a pre-membering of his death and resurrection in the Christian tradition. Every time people gather in Communion, it is a re-membering of that last supper, and also a re-membering of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The past becomes present as people also re-member Jesus’ promise to be with them always.
But what is this re-membering all about?
In both traditions, this re-membering is linked not only to making present the past, but it also has radical implications for how people are called to live. In the Jewish tradition, when people say “We were once slaves in Egypt, and now we are free,” it not only makes the past present, but it is also a call. In Scripture after Scripture, they are called to remember that they were once slaves in Egypt and therefore they should act with justice and lovingkindness, particularly with the alien in their midst.
In the Christian tradition, likewise, the call to re-member is a re-membering of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Jesus’ teaching was clear. In the great rabbinic tradition, he taught people to do justice and act with lovingkindness. His actions modeled his speech, and he consciously included those who were outside the norms (tax collectors, who were government employees of Rome, the culture that had subjugated them; and also with “sinners”). He taught about taking care of those who had no safety net in his society: the widow, the orphan, and the alien. He said that God’s rule would make these people central.
Listening to the witnesses to the killing of George Floyd during the week of Passover and the week before Easter has been extraordinary. Listening from the perspective of re-membering, including the call to action that comes out of that remembering is sobering, to say the least.
Jim Rigby, a Presbyterian minister, has written powerfully about this. He says, “I feel like I am walking the stations of the cross as I hear the clerk who says he wasn’t sure George Floyd even knew the twenty dollar bill was counterfeit, and the witness who said she blamed herself for not being able to stop the authorities from killing an arrested man, and the witness who tried to call the police on the police, and FOX News who, instead of risking that their viewers might empathize with grieving People of Color, reported about a white prosecutor in the case who had to move because he felt threatened.”
What Re-membering means here and now
He goes on to talk about the execution of Jesus, where bystanders had to decide whether to stand in front or behind the cross. Would they stand on the “law and order side of the cross, or the side that has the “nails piercing EVERY person who suffers under oppression?” Both he and I want to be clear. Neither of us is comparing George Floyd to Jesus. But rather, he’s drawing attention to what it truly means to re-member: “I’m saying we have not understood the message of Easter until we can feel the pain of those on the side of the cross that has nails.” Both of the traditions I am steeped in say that so clearly.
Passover and Easter offer new beginnings. My hope is that, whatever your particular spiritual tradition, or if you have none, you will re-member the deep truths contained in these traditions: We were once slaves, and we have been freed. We are called to use that freedom to free others – especially those not like us, those who don’t have what we have, those who have no net in society. May we use the freedom each of us has, no matter how small or large, to work toward a world in which all are free.
Chag Pesach Sameach! Happy Easter!
PS: As part of the work of re-membering, which is also the work of mending the world, tikkun olam, I will be offering my Mending Webs online course again soon. This course will teach you how to work with groups to help them release them old sticky patterns into a new sense of freedom. More to come!