The Passover Exodus plays a major role in both Christianity and Judaism.
Today both faith traditions commemorate Passover based on different historic events. Easter this year occurs on April 16, and Passover”s eight day festival begins on Monday night April 10th. How do these great religious traditions interpret the Exodus in their sacred texts?
In the Synoptic gospels, two classic texts give differing interpretations that relate to the timing of Jesus’ Last Supper, otherwise known as the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper as a Passover Seder meal.
Both reaffirm the importance of Passover in the unfolding drama of the life of Jesus. In Mark 14:12-25, for example, it is written: “On the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, when it was customary to sacrifice the Passover lamb, Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Where do you want us to go and make preparations for you to eat the Passover?” In the book of John 13:1-2, it says: “It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” In these last two verses the meal occurred the night before Passover.
Today, more and more Christians recreate a Passover styled meal and ritual to commemorate the Last Supper.
For Jews, the Passover meal symbolized the exodus from Egypt and ultimately the salvation of the Jews that led them to receiving the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai. In the book of Exodus 13:3: “Remember this day on which you came out of Egypt.” The underlying idea for Passover in Judaism is described in the pages of the Talmud; “In every generation, each must see himself as if he went forth from Egypt.”
Both religions use the Exodus in different ways to connect to sacred memories in their religions.
They both highlight the idea of commemoration and communal memory which takes us back to ancient times to those sacred moments that define our religious experience. Once again we affirm how important memory is in religion and why we need it for our religious identity today. Our society is so geared toward the present and the future that the past struggles for our attention. Memory in religion reminds us of why we exist and the meaning of our existence, not only as individuals, but as communities of faith.
We reenact these events with prayers, songs and food so we might have the spiritual texture of not just a liturgical moment, but of transforming our thoughts to another time and space. We need to not only read history, but live it, even if it is for a brief night of remembrance.
Judaism brought to the world the idea that the Exodus was about reaffirming God’s concern for not only for a generation of slaves but the freedom for all humanity.
Christianity grew the idea in its theology to commemorate the death and resurrection of Jesus.
In addition, the blood of the Passover lamb foreshadowed the sacrifice of Jesus, which passes over the sins of people who repent in order to spare them from eternal death. The point is that even though there is a parting of the ways between both traditions in the way they interpret the Passover Biblical rituals, the Exodus still provides the platform for each religion to solidify their core narratives.
One of my teachers Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, spoke in the 1960s about the universal meaning of Passover by comparing this great holiday to history’s “first conference on religion and race.” The main participants were Pharaoh and Moses.
Moses’ words were: “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, let my people go.”
Pharaoh retorted: “Who’s the Lord that I should heed his voice and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord. I will not let Israel go.”
The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. “The Exodus began but is far from having been completed. In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a (African American) to cross certain university campuses,” Heschel taught.
There are many modern interpretations that emerge from the ancient world about Passover that inspire us to seek justice for those in every generation. Suffering is a part and parcel of the struggle for salvation in both Christianity and Judaism. Passover is the quintessential event which enables us to share in the bounty of love.
For Christianity it is the Eucharist that Jesus presented at his sacred table.
For the Jewish people, it is sitting down at the Seder meal and sharing the matzah, the unleavened bread that commemorates the actual Exodus with the invitation to all who are hungry to come and enjoy the meal.
The spirituality from Heschel’s teachings is that the process of salvation — whether it is for an individual or an entire people — still depends upon recognizing that history is an ongoing process, a struggle to free the oppressed and model divine compassion to all who suffer. God feels the pain and suffering in both traditions and is actively engaged as a spiritual redeeming force to inspire us to make a difference in the world.
Passover gives us that opportunity to explore our differences and our commonalities.
Heschel concluded in his essay —entitled “No Religion is an Island” — “ What then is the purpose of inter religious cooperation?
“It is to share insight and learning, to cooperate …. to search in the wilderness for well-springs of devotion, for treasurers of stillness, for the power of love and care of man. What is urgently needed are ways of helping one another in the terrible predicament of here and now by the courage to believe that the word of the Lord endures for ever as well as here and now; to cooperate in trying to bring about a resurrection of sensitivity, a revival of conscience; to keep alive the divine sparks of the inner souls, to nurture openness to the spirit of the Psalms, reverence of the words of the prophets and faithfulness to the living God.”