The Food Network show “The Best Thing I Ever Ate” asks celebrity chefs and “food personalities” what their favorite meal, appetizer or dessert is from a variety of food types. Each episode features a different food type and each participant gushes over the taste, texture, smell, color, and various other qualities of this their favorite food. Food is not just fuel for the body but can indeed be an experience that creates deep social and even cultural memory for us. The OT text for Maundy Thursday does not present a meal that would fall under the category of “The Best Think I Ever Ate” Exodus edition. It would however become a meal that is seared into their cultural memory and now defines their corporate identity. It will bind them together and become the food that sustains them in a sacred tradition or origin and purpose.
The passage begins with God instituting a new year for Israel. Until now their year had begun with the month of Tisri in the autumn of the year but now Abib, later to be called Nisan after the exile, was to be the first of the year. This event was to be a new beginning for their identity as a people redeemed from captivity by God. This memorable meal would serve as a new beginning.
The focus of the passage falls heavily on the lamb as the subject of the ritual meal. It is the star of the show so-to-speak and yet it is the passive element throughout the narrative. It appears (body, blood, flesh) as the subject of the verbs take (vss. 3, 5, 7), slaughter (vs. 6), put (vs. 7), eat (vss. 8, 9, 11), and burn (vs. 10). God’s provision for escape from captivity was bound up in the symbol of the lamb. “The real significance of the lamb is in its relationship with the Israelites. The lamb is “for you.”
The choosing and preparation of the lamb was to be specific and purposeful just as God’s choosing of Israel was specific and purposeful. Even the manner of eating the lamb was to be done according to God’s intentional directive. They were to eat the lamb whole and roasted without wasting any of the precious life. This was not to be a sacrificial meal but one of preparation for travel. Their shoes were to be on, their bags packed and their hearts and minds ready for the journey ahead. The entrance to the path was through their own doors. By marking their doors with the lamb’s blood, they were walking from one life into another, from despair into hope, from captivity to freedom. The blood of the lamb was also a symbol of Israel’s relationship to God in contrast to their relationship with Egypt. It marks Israel as belonging to God.
Verse 11 ends in the NRSV with “It is the passover of the Lord.” The NASB translates this as “it is the Lord’s Passover”. The ritual, the parameters and the outcome are the possession of God. This is his triumph over the foes of Israel, the gods of Egypt, and any narrative that attempts to define the lives of his people.
The narrative ends just as it began by changing time or rather reordering time for Israel. This event would now be a defining moment not only in their past but one that shapes their present and future. It would now become a memorial that is to be recounted and celebrated in perpetuity.
The Passover is a continual reminder of God’s provision and fulfillment of promise. God is a faithful covenant partner who will always care for his own. Although we do not believe God takes joy in the death of Egypt’s children, livestock or even eventually Pharoah’s army at the waters of the Red Sea, we see the great cost for Israel’s liberation.
Jesus uses these same concepts of shared history, provision and deliverance while inviting his disciples to join him in a meal that will reorient their identity. Maundy Thursday is also an invitation to the faithful to partake in an act of memory and grace. Yet we are also called to remember the great sacrifice and the costly grace required to bring our liberation. Just as Israel’s freedom was brought about due to the great suffering of others, so our freedom was also brought about from Christ’s suffering and sacrifice.
The Passover story draws us together into a story of deliverance in Christ. This Maundy Thursday as we prepare for Easter, we are reminded that God’s ultimate end is liberation. Liberation from all that would imprison us in lives of desperation devoid of hope. Jesus’ institution of the eucharist is our perpetual remembrance of the high cost of that liberation.
We can at times allow ourselves to be slaves to the powers of Egypt, leading us into places apart from the wideness of God’s love. Suzanne Woolston-Bossert says, “What would it mean for us to finally understand that God’s longing for us is so great that God will do anything, going out beyond the limits of human imagination, out to the place of Abraham’s homemade altar, to wrest us away from the suffocation of our slavery?”
The Passover narrative gives us opportunity to reorient the daily stories of our people around our shared story in God’s liberating work. Perhaps this Maundy Thursday we ask the question, “What is holding us as slaves, imprisoning us in lives from which we need liberation?