During Holy Week when we contemplate Jesus’ death, we remember that the Christian scriptures emerged from a small, originally Jewish community of believers in Jesus, who functioned long years as a sect of Judaism before being “put out of the synagogues” (John 9:18-23). In John’s texts especially, the term “the Jews” refers to those among the people who do not accept Jesus as Messiah. It is a term that reflects the growing antagonism and mutual recrimination that developed in the later part of the first century between those who followed Jesus and those who didn’t. It did not then and does not now mean a condemnation of Jewish people in general. It is one of the bitter ironies of history that the sacred texts of a beleaguered minority (the early Christians) have been used to justify the subsequent persecution of the covenanted people who were and are forever God’s first love in our tradition.
May we witness that as Christians, we carry with us the Church’s lengthy history of persecuting the Jewish people, living still in the sobering shadow of the Holocaust and with painful awareness of the current struggles in the Holy Land. So as we read these scriptures and tell these stories surrounding the death of our Lord, we are accountable to hear them not as condemnation of Jewish believers, but as being about people of any community at any time who might have heard Jesus’ message and sought to stop it. May we listen with humility to the tragic progression of events that could have been done at the hands of any of us living even today.
Trying to Understand Jesus’ Last Acts through his Jewish Heart
One of Jesus’ last earthly acts recorded in scripture was the celebration of the Passover with his disciples in a small room in Jerusalem. He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.” (Luke 22:15) In order to understand Jesus’ words about what was about to happen to him, and to understand the birth of our sacrament of communion, we attempt to understand what Passover meant to him and the Jewish people of his time. No one knows exactly what prayers and readings the Jewish people would have used in Jesus’ time to celebrate the Passover Feast but we can consider elements and themes of a modern day Jewish Passover Seder to help us dig deeper into the setting of Christianity’s most holy days.
Passover is the oldest Jewish holiday and it lasts eight days. It recalls the night some 3,000 years ago when the God “passed over” the houses of the Israelite slaves in Egypt during the tenth plague in the time of Moses, which were marked with the blood of a new lamb to identify them. God then led the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt with miraculous acts through the hands of Moses. This history demonstrates God’s power, saving grace and faithfulness. Passover’s themes of freedom, deliverance, redemption, thanksgiving and renewal have meaning for Christians as well.
As Christians, we might hear then how Jesus’ disciples came to understand Jesus through the Exodus story as being the New Lamb who was sacrificed to God’s people, whose blood saved them from death. When Jesus broke the bread and instituted our communion celebration, he and his followers may have been blessing the unleavened bread of the Passover Feast, connecting Jesus directly to God’s acts of redemption throughout history, seeing Jesus as sent by God to feed God’s people, the Bread of Life. As Jesus raised the cup at the end of the meal to name it the cup of his blood poured out as a New Covenant, he may have been raising the Cup of Redemption in the Passover meal, identifying himself as the Messiah for whom the Jews wait, come then (and now) to free all God’s people. How fitting it would be for Jesus to have explained himself to his Jewish friends in such a way that whenever we celebrate communion, then, we are connected to all people everywhere who love God, strive to live God’s sacred teachings, and search for freedom and peace.
This year, as the Jewish celebration of Passover coincides with the Holy Week of Christians, let us honor that modern Jews and Christians alike strive to return to God during these celebrations of remembrance, and seek God’s redemption born anew in our time. May we see it together!
To all who are celebrating the Passover Seder: Chag Pesach Sameach! Happy Passover Holiday!
May Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter be deep blessings also for all who celebrate them.