The gospel writers disagree about the exact relationship between the Last Supper and the Passover meal. But there clearly is a link, and the story of the first Passover can help in our appreciation of this most holy day. The essence is that it is a night of God’s dramatic judgement on a nation whose monarch has consistently refused to comply with God’s instructions to him, preferring to keep Israel as his slaves, working in appalling conditions and under cruel domination. To our minds it seems profoundly unfair that just because of Pharaoh’s hardness of heart the entire Egyptian nation should be bereaved, but God’s ways are different from ours, and we are reminded not of the unfairness of a vindictive God but rather of the awesome responsibility of leadership. Politicians make bad decisions and nations suffer: it was ever thus, and continues to be so today.
But it is also a night of rescue, as the people God has called as his own find their freedom from slavery and oppression, and begin a new journey to a home of their own. The blood on their doorposts provides a dramatic symbol of the cost of their freedom, and this most momentous of events becomes the turning point for Israel, the night to which all further generations will look back as their reference point.
These twin themes of judgement and rescue come hand in hand in Holy Week too: evil is defeated by the shedding of the blood of an innocent victim, and there is freedom and the beginning of a homeward journey for God’s people. It is symbolised, perhaps a bit strangely, in both cases, by a meal. The blood of the Passover lamb becomes the wine shared by Jesus’ disciples, but it is wine which refers both backwards and forwards to shed blood. The Israelites eat with coats and shoes on, ready for their escape; Jesus finds nourishment before his journey through death and hell to resurrection. And Christians down the ages have tasted the wine which speaks of the shed blood of redemption. The author to the Hebrews tells us that without the shedding of blood there can be no forgiveness for sin (9:22), and so the Christian community is constantly reminded of the cost of their salvation in the context of a celebratory meal.
What a bittersweet night this is! We eat and drink to celebrate but also to remember death and sin. We are rescued and saved, but at the cost of enormous pain and suffering. Our journey begins, but will take us a lifetime to complete. And at the centre of it sits Jesus, both Moses the host at the feast and the silent sacrificial lamb. Only later, in Gethsemane, does his anguish reveal itself: for now he is content to share a meal with his beloved friends.
Passover reminds us graphically of the cost of our salvation: on this of all nights we must not take it lightly, seek cheap grace, or forget those who suffer innocently because of the hard-heartedness of others.