Rev. Tess Baumberger: Passover, Easter and liberation
Archbishop Desmond Tutu writes that liberation is costly, “Even after the Lord delivered the Israelites from Egypt, they had to travel through the desert. They had to bear the responsibilities and difficulties of freedom.”
In this Passover and Easter season, I am contemplating themes of liberation in both stories, because of course they intersect.
They intersect because Jesus was an observant Jewish man. He and his friends went together into Jerusalem that fateful week in order to celebrate Passover. His last supper was a Seder meal. At the time, there was no haggadah – the written service used during Pesach for centuries – but no doubt he and his disciples remembered and told the story of their ancestors’ liberation from Egypt.
This year I find myself wondering how remembering that story and celebrating that festival might have shaped the way Jesus faced his death the next day, and the way his followers later understood that great loss.
Consider the story of that terrible night when the angel of death passed over Jewish homes and killed the firstborn of Egypt. What a mix of terror and anticipation one imagines in the Israelite households – hope for their own freedom mixed fear of that terrible spirit. They were instructed to be ready to go, so I imagine them all packed, dressed for the journey out of slavery. The Egyptians’ cries of grief must have touched their hearts, at least the hearts of those who oppression had not robbed of compassion.
If we enter into the story we can imagine the disorientating joy of the Jewish people’s sudden release. We can picture them hurrying away, scarcely able to believe it was really happening after centuries of captivity. Then there came the terror of finding themselves pursued, the impossible crossing between walls of water, then the devastation of their pursuers, and the celebration of their newfound, untried freedom.
But freedom is not the same as liberation. Bishop Tutu reminds us that liberation takes time as we learn to bear “the responsibilities and difficulties of freedom.”
For the Jewish people, after the initial escape there were years and years of wandering in the desert. Think how disheartening it must have been, to wander so long in search of a promised land. At times the people cried out, wanting to return to Egypt where food was plentiful, where at least they had a place to stay.
In his book “Understanding the Bible.” John Buehrens writes that though physically free, slavery had so broken the Israelites’ spirits that they were still slaves in their minds and hearts. Perhaps, he suggests, they had to wander in the desert until they became truly liberated. Maybe only a generation raised in freedom could find true liberty. If we think about how our nation’s own history of slavery still echoes nearly 150 years later, 40 years does not seem too long a time for this shift in mentality.
By the time Jesus lived, the Jewish people had lived under various empires for centuries. Though they were not slaves, still their spirits were oppressed and broken. They longed for a messiah like Moses or Joshua who could throw off the Romans and reclaim for them their homeland. There was a brief liberation under the Maccabbees, but that did not hold for long against the military might of the Roman Empire.
The people longed for the sort of messiah who could secure physical freedom for them. Jesus was not that sort of military or political leader, yet somehow, despite the seeming defeat of his ignominious death, Jesus’ early followers came to believe he had indeed been the promised messiah. Somehow, despite their grief and oppression, they realized that he had taught and practiced a liberation of the spirit. They saw that he had tried to show them the way to a kingdom of the soul, an inner sense of freedom that defies one’s outside circumstances. Maybe that is how that last Seder with him affected them. Perhaps it helped them see the heart of his liberating message.
Today most Christians believe Jesus really did rise physically on the third day, but for me this does not have to be historical fact. For me it is enough that despite the trauma and grief over his death, his followers had the shackle-shattering insight that we each can discover within us a promised land where were we can be not only free, but liberated.
For me it is enough that this frightened band, huddled in a dark room, fearful that soldiers might come for them at any time, somehow resurrected this message from their memories of how Jesus lived and what he had said. For me the resurrection of this hope in the midst of their grief and fear would have been enough, without their having taken up the responsibilities and difficulties of building that liberation together. As Jewish people sing at Passover “dayenu,” it would have been enough.
Desmond Tutu writes that liberation is costly, “It needs unity. We most hold hands and refuse to be divided. We must be ready.” He writes that some of those who start the struggle for liberation may not live to see its physical reality. As much as we long to see it become an outer reality, when we approach the tasks of liberation with hope rather than hate, we have already tasted the milk and the honey of true liberty. We have already entered the Promised Land.
The Rev. Tess Baumberger, PhD, is minister at Unity Church of North Easton, Mass. For more information and links to this and other Unitarian Universalist churches, please visit www.uua.org.She can be reached at email@example.com.