March 15, the Fourth Sunday of Lent
Exodus 12:3-13; 24-27a; Matthew 12:1-8
At the Women’s Theology Hub last Thursday, Eileen Parfrey, a Presbyterian pastor who serves the church in Estacada, was our speaker. We invited her particularly because she is a delightful story-teller. The woman-story of the Bible which she chose to tell was the story of Deborah and Ja-el, from Judges 4 and 5. You may know the story. It is a gruesome tale. The entire enemy army is massacred and the general, who runs away from his dying soldiers, is finally assassinated by Ja-el with a tent peg. Eileen told the story in all its color, using little wooden characters spread on the table made into a desert. She uses these figures as she tells stories for children and adults every Sunday. We listeners all had the same question at the end of the story: How do you tell this story to children? It so gory and violent! She smiled her mischievous smile and just said: they LOVE it! Children love the fact that the bad guy gets what is coming to him in the end, and is humiliated in the process.
As I have studied the symbols before us today, I too, have wondered how we tell this story. There is this ugly, blackened bone of a lamb, lying starkly on the plate. Why is it there? Because on the night when the Hebrews were released from their slavery, each family killed a lamb. The meat was roasted and completely consumed – there could be no leftovers. And it was eaten in a hurry – the hurry of readying a family to leave on a trip. Bags packed, everyone is excited, and some are nervous. There has been no time to pack properly. “Did I forget to unplug the iron?! O my! So much to do in so little time! And then we are expected to sit down and eat? No time. We will stand and eat this food quickly, so that we can get done what we need to do.”
Before an animal is prepared to eat, though, the blood is drained from it. This rule is set down in the Torah, but was practiced much earlier. This night, the Hebrews were instructed to take that drained blood and splash it on the doorposts and lintel of their houses. It was the sign of blood which would be a signal to the death angel to pass over their houses and leave them all alive within. But the houses without the blood, within it the oldest child would die. Even among the animals, on this night the first born would die. There would be wailing so loud that none like it had ever been heard. Just imagine!
But for the Hebrews, it was a sign of freedom. The wailing was like a fire alarm going off and all the people walk calmly and confidently out of slavery, into the desert of their freedom. But it wasn’t long – you know the story – until morning came and Pharaoh decided to chase them down and get his slaves back. The showdown at the Red Sea. The Hebrews walked through on dry land as the water split in two. But when the armies followed, the waves crashed in on them and they were drowned and completely destroyed.
As in the story of Deborah – the army was completely routed and destroyed in a gruesome scene of broken and water-bloated bodies. Like the children to whom Eileen tells her stories, the Hebrews LOVED it. The oldest poem/song recorded in Scripture is the one Miriam, Moses’ sister sang at this event: Sing unto the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously, the horse and rider thrown into the sea! (Exodus 15:21).
This always troubled me. Why do we as humans, even as children, rejoice in the pain of others? Even if they deserved it?!
Today, here is that bone – the symbol of all this blood and gore. But it isn’t there as a symbol of rejoicing. In the Seder, the Hebrew people have embedded compassion. Yes, on the banks of the sea, terrified of their pursuers, lying in the sand and sweat of their freedom, feeling the spray of the water as it crashed behind them, they celebrated! Yes, they danced and sang. But as a people, who have known repeated periods of persecution and pogrom, they have learned to remember suffering, wherever it may be found, and to pause in compassion.
This is specifically part of the Seder. When they come to the cup of joy, which we will talk about in a couple of weeks, they decrease their joy by pouring out some of their wine for each plague of pain the Egyptian suffered. In this way, their remembrance of freedom reminds them of its cost.
So even though the Passover is a celebration of freedom, it is also there to remind us of the taste of slavery, and to fill us with compassion for those who died in order for us to be free. So it is a somber joy.
Today, on the Seder Plate, though, we have two symbols. Not just the lamb shank, reminding us of the death of the firstborn and the saving of the Hebrews. We also have the egg, roasted and charred by fire.
Taken together, these two symbols are not about slavery and freedom. Instead they are there to remind the Jews of today that the Temple is no longer. The Temple, where the Passover lamb was to be sacrificed is gone. And the celebration sacrifices cannot be made.
It is characteristic of Jewish practice that there should be something to bring the Temple to mind in every celebration. It might be the glass smashed under the foot of the bridegroom at a wedding or the salt on the table into which we dip our bread, or the egg and bone on our Seder table.
In this case, the bone and egg represent two different parts of the Temple sacrifices. At each pilgrimage festival, the people were required to offer two different kinds of sacrifices. The burned offering was fully consumed on the altar and was seen as a gift to God. The whole offering, from which only the forbidden fats were burned on the altar, was a treat for the priest and for the family. The three festivals required both types of ritual: devotional and celebratory.
On the Seder plate, the bone represents the whole burnt offering given to God – there is only a bone left, burned by the fire of the altar. The bone on the Seder plate is called zeroah, and it can also be translated “arm.” So, many see it also as a symbol of the outstretched arm of God when he rescued the Hebrews. The egg represents the celebratory sacrifice which was offered and enjoyed by the family and the Temple staff. In Temple days, it was a meat sacrifice, yet on the Seder Plate it is represented by an egg.
In good Rabbinic style, the egg is rich with all kinds of meaning, depending on the tradition from which one comes. Hard boiled eggs were traditionally the food of mourners. And so the egg appears as a symbol of mourning for the loss of the two Temples, the first of which was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. and the second of which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. And mourning not just the two Temples, but also sadness and yearning to fulfill the Torah completely through the proper offerings.
Another meaning behind the egg is that it celebrates Spring, renewal, and rejuvenation. Not so different from our Easter Egg hunts. The roundness of the egg also represents the cycle of life–even in the most painful of times, there is always hope for a new beginning. Another popular interpretation relates to the nature of eggs as a food – unlike most other foods, the longer you cook an egg, it gets harder rather than softer. And so it is seen as an appropriate image of the Jewish people: the hotter you make it for them, the tougher they get.
So the Seder remembers the end of the sacrificial system. This change occurred for them just a generation after the death of Jesus. In a sense, Jesus death proclaimed the same thing. No more sacrifices. You humans have forgotten what they mean anyway. You have come to believe that if you make a sacrifice to God, it must be rewarded by God. You have come to see sacrifice as a justice system – as paying a penalty for wrongs done. As an exchange, not unlike what one does in the grocery store. I give you money, you give me food. The celebration of God, the delight of eating with others in God’s presence, all seems lost. The sacrifice concept we humans have come to understand as something we pay for getting to heaven.
But that misses the whole point, as Jesus reminded us. Jesus died, yes, as a way to say that God loves us so much that God would rather die that exercise “justice” as we have come to name it. God is pure love. We humans are not. So we have tended to make God in our own image – a God who is demanding, vengeful, punishing. It is the childlikeness of those story-listeners Pastor Eileen talked about coming out in us. As children, we love the comeuppance for the bad guy. But as we grow up, as we understand the way of Jesus, we open ourselves to love – even love of our enemies. And we, too, like the Passover celebrants, remember our enemies with compassion. We pray for them, we love them, we reach out to heal them. There is no “them” and “us.” We are all one before God – never living up to our creation or our Creator, but loved never the less.
There is no more Temple to end the possibility of sacrificial exchange. Now, we have Temples as they places where we encounter God. We celebrate God wherever God touches us.
What’s In the Temple? (excerpt), by Tom Barrett
I miss the old temples where you could hang out with God….
We don’t build many temples anymore.
Maybe we learned that the sacred can’t be contained.
Or maybe it can’t be sustained inside a building.
It’s the spirit that lives on.
If you had a temple in the secret spaces of your heart,
What would you worship there?
What would you bring to sacrifice?
What would be behind the curtain in the holy of holies?
Go there now.