March 1, Second Sunday of Lent
Exodus 1:8-14; John 15:18-19; 16:1-3; 20-22; 32-33
The children’s Christmas pageant is one of the highlights of our year! When I was a child, this ritual was prepared and enacted on Christmas Eve. Each year, we learned our parts – words from angels, shepherds, wise men. I remember learning my “Christmas piece,” as we called it. Mom or Dad would work with us for weeks before that night, until we knew it just right. And still, we stumbled sometimes.
We had a family ritual, too. Just before leaving for church and the Christmas program, we each got to open one gift from under the Christmas tree. It was always something we could wear or take to church – one year we received real rabbit fur muffs to warm our hands!
And after the pageant was over, the ushers tromped down the aisle with big boxes, and everyone in church received a gift bag full of fruit and nuts and candies. In Low German, it was called a “toot,” Low German for “paper bag.” And it always was – a plain brown paper bag full of treats.
In our congregation, the Christmas pageant tradition had fallen into disuse until a couple of years ago when Marsha Johnson and Linda Natale returned it to production – Shepherds, angels, wise men, even a dove – and don’t forget the goats! Real live goats!
Passover is a tradition for Jewish children, sort of like the Christmas pageant is for Christian children. In the Haggadah I am using, it describes the Seder as “a celebration, serious yet relaxed, and filled with gaiety and drama.”
Definition break: Passover is an 8-day observance which marks for the Jewish people the Exodus from Egypt and freedom to serve God. It begins with the Seder – a meal, complete with much symbolism and drama re-enacting, re-experiencing, the release from bondage. A HagGAdah, if you are Ashkenazi – of central and eastern European descent, or HaggaDAH, if you are Sephardim – of Spanish or Portugese descent. The Haggadah is the book which contains the order of service for the Seder – sort of like the Book of Common Worship Presbyterians use to guide our worship.
The Seder is a joyful but serious religious service celebrated in the home of the Jewish family and friends they invite – which they are encouraged to do. It is an educational meal designed to fulfill, in part, the command of God in Deuteronomy 6:6-9: Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
In order to engage the children, there are specific parts they are prepared to play. Preparation is needed for the whole household. Particular foods are supplied for the week. Dishes and utensils, used only at Passover, are gotten out and prepared. Children are always to be involved in this process
All leaven must be removed from the house for Passover. So, just to be sure, the whole house is cleaned from top to bottom, a sort of spring cleaning. On the last night before Passover begins, there is a special ceremony (if you can call it that – perhaps a game would be more appropriate) of searching for leaven. A parent hides some pieces of bread wrapped in paper around the home. All the lights are turned off and in the dark, the children, with flashlights or candles, or probably cell phones these days, search them out. When all the bread packets are collected they are taken outside or gathered in a paper bag and burned. Can’t you imagine how much fun children would have with this?! Sort of like an Easter Egg hunt by flashlight.
There are many parts in the drama of the Seder for the children. That is why it reminds me of the Christmas pageant. There are childlike folk songs. There are the questions the children ask. It may be the four specific questions in the Haggadah, or others which have developed in their curiosity during the weeks of preparation. They are prepared so they will be ready to bring their questions to the table. Their parents have rehearsed this with them. They also get to act out the point of high drama when someone must run to the door and open it for Elijah. And no Passover can conclude until the AfiKOmen is found. Early in the Seder, a piece of matzah is broken off and stealthily hidden by a parent. This piece is the Afikomen. As the meal concludes, the children again play treasure hunt. The one who finds the Afikomen is often awarded a special gift, along with all the other hunters.
The Seder is high drama, a lot of fun, and very serious and important – all at the same time. The new element on the Seder plate before us today most symbolizes this multi-dimensional aspect of Passover. Today we have Haroseth. Again, there are different pronunciations according to your tradition, so we will just do our best.
Haroseth is a mixture usually of apples and nuts, chopped or ground finely enough to make a paste. There is no specific recipe. Many different fruits are used – apricots, raisins, bananas, dates, figs, even oranges. As well as different nuts, spices and sweeteners. It is supposed to be pleasantly sweet, fresh and fruity. Usually a dash of kosher wine is added to give it just the right texture.
And what is the right texture? you ask. You ARE learning! Asking questions! It is supposed to be the texture of mortar, resembling the mortar the Hebrews used to secure the bricks in the building projects they did as slaves of Pharaoh. You would think this would be a bitter element, like the bitter herbs we talked about last week. But no. The people are called to remember that there is sweetness even in the suffering and oppression. The sweetness of God’s presence and protection kept them alive and strong, even under slave whips. The sweetness of God’s promises to Abraham and his descendants held them together like the mortar holds bricks into a strong building.
As part of the meal the people eat the Haroseth in a sandwich – matzah, horseradish and Haroseth – all the flavors in one. Again, the Haggadah says: Together they shall be: For in the time of freedom there is knowledge of servitude. And in the time of bondage, there is hope of redemption.
It may sound odd, but that sandwich of matzah, horseradish and applesauce, is really quite tasty. It has that perfect blend of hot and sweet. I was reading my latest Bon Apetit this weekend, and again it praised the unusual sweet and spicy combinations so popular among chefs these days. I thought of the matzah sandwich (though that was not in the magazine).
We have learned a lot about the practice of the Seder today, but you ask: What difference does it make to us? What do we learn from this? Again, good question.
One small lesson for us is to be childlike. Jesus said that in order to enter the realm of God, we must become like children. And children ask lots of questions! Be as curious as children. Never assume we know the answers. Even when we do know the story, we find that there is no clear answer – sweet and bitter go together and sometimes we don’t know why.
Remember that Jesus practiced this Passover ritual all his life, as well as in his last week with the disciples. As followers of Jesus, we have come to understand that in so many ways, Jesus lived the expectations of his people in a powerful way. In a way which fulfilled them, brought them to life again. Jesus tasted the sweet friendship of his disciples and followers, along with the bitter betrayal by one of his friends. He knew an intimate sweet relationship with God, yet experienced the bitter disappointment of rejection by his people. Jesus experienced the bitter death on the cross, like the thousands of Passover lambs at the Temple, yet he experienced the sweetness of surrendering his life into the hands of God and emerging alive through the other side of death!
Neither the bitterness, nor the sweetness of the Seder can be understood apart from each other. Jesus knew this, and did not avoid it. It is tempting to teach that faith in Jesus will make us all “healthy, wealthy and wise.” Some DO teach this. But not Jesus. The sweetness of faith in God is not eaten alone. We must also immerse ourselves in the world around us and the earth under our feet – know its pain. We are not called out of the pain, but through it.
Jesus was clear about this with his disciples – “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). Or from the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven” (Mt. 5:11-12). Or from John: “When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world. So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (John 16:21-22).
Childbirth can be a harrowing experience, but it is perhaps the clearest example of how our pain brings us new life. For Jesus first, and for us, death is that same pathway to new life. How hard it is even to say that. But Jesus did, and so must we. Eat the bitter herbs with the sweet Haroseth.
Clearly Jesus knew that the way of discipleship included the bitter with the sweet. He knew that the new world, which he called the Kingdom of God, which he introduced and invited people to enter, was a change so radical, it would be painful. The freedom of the kingdom requires letting go of the things which had helped us feel secure outside God’s realm. The letting go can be excruciating. And sometimes, we just don’t want to do it. In times like these, we are reminded to eat the horseradish. It is part of the way to freedom.
On the other hand, when life’s trauma hits and we are flattened on the road of life, we are full of the Passover child’s questions: Why, why, why? Then it is time to eat the Haroseth. To taste and see that the Lord is good. That God’s way is sweeter than honey.
In the community of God we eat the bitter and the sweet together. Together they become the mortar which binds us together into the people God has chosen for God’s very own beloved. Like the sweet and bitter must be eaten at once by an individual, it is the sweet and bitter which we hold together in our community experience which makes us the body of Christ. What he suffered in his body, we suffer. What gave him delight in his body, we celebrate as well.
Next year, in Jerusalem! Next year, may all be free!