Drizzle punctuates the dun sky, appearing far less vernal than April 9th might wish. A cerulean ribbon aloft tender shoots of daffodils might yield more cheer but for Maundy Thursday and Passover combined, the weather feels befitting. The dripping dampness paints a gray wash over clouded sky. The ancient Hebrews trudging through a morass of fear and uncertainty, less a feeling of liberation than a yoke of taking leave into an unknown inhospitable and unsettling as the cries of keening blotting the air.
In a more recent tradition, Jesus gathers with his disciples for the last time to celebrate Passover, knowing in his bones the weight of his ancestors taking leave, the scent of the sea of reeds sharp as he dips the karpas (bitter herbs) in salt water recalling the taste of tears.
He too, will depart, crossing into a realm unfamiliar, but not without passing through a suffering so consolidated as to distill the generations of bondage: the mistreatment and violence, a body broken across the tree of life. Sin flanking sin.
Deuteronomy 20:19—If you besiege a town for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you must not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them. Although you may take food from them, you must not cut them down. Are trees in the field human beings that they should come under siege from you?
Trees give life, bear fruit, yield their flesh that we might endure. To transform one into an instrument of death desecrates three-dimensionally. Creator, Created, Holy Spirit. Breathe of the Universe Ruah ha-olam exhales sorrow.
At the Seder table, the leader reclines, the ritual foods embody the epic of deliverance, the cup for Elijah signals a justice yet to come. We wash hands not feet. And yet the Gospel of John asserts before the festival of Passover, during the meal, Jesus washes his disciples’ feet.
Did the cells in his body re-member his forbears scrambling through the sands of Egypt, dung and debris, locusts and frogs, blood and carcasses everywhere, the soles of their feet sodden with terror and grief?
Did he know as he gathered at a table made sacred by story that the story retold about him on that night and the following days would cast the very people he sought to commemorate: a people scared and oppressed, traumatized and fraught—as the villains? As the ones who turned against him and his transgressive ways? Did he imagine himself the tree of life felled and hewn into crucifix?
John 13:33, 19:14-15—You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’…Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon. [Pilate] said to the Jews, “Here is your King!” 15 They cried out, “Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!”
Why is it we don’t see Jesus on the cross as the distillation of historical Jewish suffering: the embodiment of a people misunderstood and blamed not just for deicide but the killing of children?
The rain slows but the questions do not. Was Jesus troubled that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart? Did he hear echoes of that hardening in his own trial? Did he understand the machinations of fear, the way any of us might distance ourselves from what might befall us? In his years at the Seder table, did young Jesus contemplate the grip of absolute power? Did that teach him a better way to uncurl the fist? Did he understand long before contemporary neurobiology would instruct us how, in a traumatized body in freeze mode, rationality and compassion go offline?
The representation of God in Exodus depicts an ire about injustice, a fundamental understanding that subjugation disrupts the capacity to flourish—for oppressed and oppressor. To bind ourselves in wrong-relation fetters us the way lashing tender branches to a stone deprives both tree and sky of fulfillment.
The ten drops of wine removed from the Seder cup symbolize this truth: the suffering wrought by plagues upon the Egyptians (human, animal, botanical: remember even the trees perished). No one escapes unscathed.
Jesus knows this as he sits at the table, wine glass in hand, finger poised above the fruit of the vine poured out in remembrance of bodies intimately acquainted with brokenness long before his.
As he breaks the middle matzo on the plate of three, the one we will come to call afikomen (that which comes after, or dessert), does the dry bread snap like human bones? Does it remind him that the world breaks daily along the human fault lines of greed and the fear of scarcity, domination and the fear of lost agency, marginalization and the fear of unworthiness? Do the others at the table consider their complicity? Do we?
Some say religion arises at the intersection of consciousness and mortality as a means of reckoning with the fact we know we will die. I wonder if it emerges at the fault line of that broken matzo: leaving the Seder incomplete until the missing piece gets returned. Restoration completes Creation. Intrinsic to Creation is its incompleteness. Intrinsic to humanity are basic needs often subverted, converted, and ultimately, if we find the matzo and reassemble our divine fragments, met and transformed.
The Tenebrae service in Christian traditions leads followers through light extinguished as death looms and God soon disappears into the blackened tomb.
And in this liminal moment when Creation re-enacts life imagining itself, each of us becomes the empty vessel: invited to carry the incipient unfolding of fist and flower, dismantling the grip of power as petals and leaves unfurl, their tenacious tenderness beckoning: behold! A new world awaits.
For on this day as rain seeps from the laden sky and a plague descends across the land, we gather unto ourselves—feeling our hollowness as ruah ha-olam, with bated breath, fills us, abiding, as Jesus and his forbears did, preparing us once more to restore and complete Creation.