Monday, April 23, 2007

Why Passover?

Wow - it's hard to believe that Easter was over two weeks ago. Where does the time go?

The Christian holidays surrounding Easter are very underrated in my evangelical tradition. There is Maunday Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter, followed by Ascension 6 weeks after Easter, and Pentecost 50 days after Easter. It has always seemed bizarre to me that these days are not more prominent in church life. Is it perhaps because we don't give candy to our kids (as in Easter), or give each other presents (as in Christmas) that the command given to the disciples on Maunday Thursday, or the atonement on Good Friday, or the Ascension of Christ into heaven, or the coming of the Spirit on the apostles at Pentecost fades away as unimportant? Maybe adults are afraid to take seriously these more somber holidays because that would mean that Christianity itself would have to be taken more seriously?

I've been thinking this year specifically about Good Friday. Good Friday is the day when Jesus was crucified. Biblically, there were several things leading up to this day, but one thing really sticks out to me: Good Friday happened during the Passover festival.

It seems to me that most Christians believe that our sins were forgiven when Jesus died on the cross - that his death was an atonement for our sins. I don't disagree with this. But, the Jews already had a festival for atonement called Yom Kippur (which means "Day of Atonement" in Hebrew). Biblically, this is considered the day of repentance, where people are reconciled to each other and to God. This Jewish holiday is fascinating to study, but one of the most interesting parts is when the High Priest lays his hands on a goat and confesses the entire sins of Israel. While he does this, the people in the crowd were supposed to confess their sins, too. Then, the goat is sent out into the wilderness never to be seen again. The symbol here is that the sins of Israel - including the sins of individuals - were put onto an innocent animal, which was then separated from the people. Their sins were literally carried away and lost in the vastness of the wilderness.

It seems to me that the symbolism of Yom Kippur might fit the atonement that happened at the crucifixion. Yet, Jesus chose to be crucified on the holiday of Passover. Why Passover?

Passover, if you remember the story in Exodus, was when the Israelites smeared the blood of a lamb on their door frame so that the angel of death would not kill their firstborn. This event marked the last in a line of plagues brought against Egypt because they held God's people captive. When the Pharaoh woke up and his firstborn son was dead, he finally relented and let the people of Israel go free. Passover was a time of liberation from bondage.

Why Passover? Maybe Jesus was making a point by going into Jerusalem during the Passover feast. Maybe Jesus was choosing to symbolize his death as liberation from bondage - as freedom from slavery and oppression. Maybe he is choosing to say that his body and blood - given to the disciples on Thursday - deflect the wrath of the angel of death. Maybe he is choosing to tell the story that the awful events of Good Friday were the end of the plagues, and the beginning of freedom. Maybe Jesus chose passover because he is choosing a story that signifies the beginning of life.

Certainly, themes of atonement have a place in Jesus' crucifixion. As I reflect on Easter week, however, I find that the story of freedom makes sense, too. Not just liberation from sin and death, but freedom to LIVE.

"I have come that they might have life, and have it to the full." John 10:10b


lorri said...

ok, i'm kind of embarrased to admit this and you can tell me if i am one of the only baptist raised person who didn't know this. i had never heard of maunday thursday until this year. i don't know if i have heard it and just didn't ever let it sink in or if i have truly never heard of it. anyway i went to a maunday thursday service at our church-- it was done as a play of the last supper.

Benjamin said...

You're not the only one who never heard of Maunday Thursday. (10 pts for whoever can tell me what Maunday Thursday means and what it is about without Googling.) It was never talked about in the churches I grew up in, either.

I was much older before I discovered what Good Friday was even about. If I remember correctly, it was after I moved to Minnesota - all those good Lutheran and Catholics taught me what Christian holidays are really about.

How was the Maunday Thursday service? Was it a little cheezy, or was it well done?

lorri said...

i thought the service was very well done. i can't tell you what maunday thursday means though, so i eagerly await one of you smarter people's answers.

Tracy P. said...

Well, over achiever that I am, I can't resist. I heard the meaning a couple of times this year, and didn't ever remember hearing it before. If I recall correctly, maundy means mandate, referring to Christ's mandate to love one another.

As a Lutheran growing up, I loved the Holy Week services. But the most powerful part was the stripping of the sanctuary on Good Friday. Even the pastor took his vestments off, and the eternal flame was not extinguished, but carried out, ending the service in dark silence. No one spoke as we left. And then, the contrast of Easter Sunday sunrise service, with the brass ensemble and organ belting out "Christ the Lord is Risen Today"... (but I wonder how they tore me away from my pet gerbil that the Easter bunny brought to get me to sunrise service!) I do miss being Lutheran at this time of year! But I'm not going back...

Benjamin said...

Fiddle-faddle, Scot McKnight put up a similar post on his blog, before mine, no less.

Now people will think I'm a plagarist. I guess there are worse things in life.

I think my post is better, but his is worth a look, too.