This year, Easter and Passover happen to coincide in the modern Jewish and Western calendars. They don't always, but it's a helpful reminder of the oft-underemphasized reality that on historical and thematic levels, they always have coincided. Mrs. Fausto and I were invited to celebrate the Passover seder last Friday with the family of one of our daughter Faustoette's friends. I was delighted to learn that the friend's aunt, who presided over the seder, was Reb Rachel Barenblat -- better known in the liberal religious blogosphere as The Velveteen Rabbi!
The parallels between Passover and Easter are far deeper than the mere fact that the Last Supper happened to be a seder meal. They also share a common theme of deliverance and liberation: deliverance from worldly bondage to the Pharaoh in Egypt, deliverance from spiritual bondage to sin and death at Calvary; liberation first for the nation of Jacob at the Red Sea, liberation next for all the other nations at the empty tomb. It is because of the Jewish precedent and the shared theme of deliverance that the metaphors of Christian liturgy profess "Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us" and call Jesus the "Lamb of God". Indeed, in all languages except English and German, the Christian festival of the Resurrection is known by some variant of the Greek word Pascha, which in turn is a translation of the Hebrew Pesach, or Passover.
Rationalist scoffers are fond of pointing out that there is no archeological or historical evidence, much less proof, of a mass exodus of escaped slaves from Egypt, nor of the resuscitation of a putrefying corpse lying in a Gethsemane vault. From this they go on to argue that Passover and Easter are false myths and their celebration perpetuates dangerously misleading lies.
However, to look at these celebrations that way ignores the power of sacred myth, which relies on narrative not for its literal factuality (although some myths may also have their foundation in fact), but to illustrate through metaphor conceptual truths that transcend time and place. It's not the case that these ancient legends must be either factually correct or wholly false. Throughout last Friday's seder, Rachel repeatedly drew the figures and tropes of the old Exodus tale forward into the present: Who is your Pharaoh? How are you a Pharaoh to others? What chains bind you? How do you, intentionally or not, forge chains that bind others? How will you break those chains and wander toward the Promised Land in the coming year, and with whom will you make your journey? Next year in Jerusalem! -- indeed, but where is your Jerusalem, and who will be there with you?
The same figurative approach is available to those who struggle to make sense of the Resurrection legend. Taking it too literally can focus too much attention on the person of Jesus himself and the improbability of all the post-mortem miracles -- which is where some Christians do find their deliverance and the ground of their faith, but where many other seekers find only an insurmountable wall of incredibility -- and not enough on his significance as an archetypal figure representing all humanity, the "second Adam". To me, it is in Jesus as a metaphorical archetype for each one of us, and not in insistence on the literal truth of his supernatural feats so long ago, that the Resurrection tale has its most vivid power today.
Significantly, the earliest surviving manuscripts of Mark, the earliest Gospel, say nothing of Jesus's miraculous post-mortem appearances. Instead the Gospel ends abruptly with Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, going to anoint Jesus's body after the Sabbath (there had been no time to do it on Friday afternoon, before the Sabbath began), discovering the empty tomb, and puzzling over what it should mean. In what text scholars call the "shorter ending of Mark," the final verse tells us only, "Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid." It leaves readers, like the women in the story themselves, to draw their own conclusions, to fashion their own meaning from the confounding events.
Today once more many of us will be perplexed by the story of the Passion and the empty tomb, but look again at the images and themes: a stone blocking a dark exit has been rolled away, and outside the sun is bright! Despair is fleeting; joy returns! We are delivered from our captivity -- at least, to the extent that we care to leave it -- and freed to walk out toward our Promised Land! There will be wilderness before we arrive, but there will be manna too, and we can walk together with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm! How else can we respond but to shout: Hallelujah! Alleluia!