By Walter Fenton
April 13, 2022
In a small Bible study class for teenagers, a boy volunteered to read one of the several selected passages for Holy Week. Among the many challenges he faced in his young life, he struggled to read. He came to it later than most, so he read slowly, and he also stuttered. But he liked to volunteer to read in our small group because he knew his peers and his pastor would patiently listen to him. They would not make fun of him; they would just quietly listen.
These are the verses from Exodus 12 that he read:
At midnight the Lord struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the prisoner who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of the livestock. Pharaoh arose in the night, he and all his officials and all the Egyptians; and there was a loud cry in Egypt, for there was not a house without someone dead.
With no disrespect for those who find it difficult to read, I strongly encourage you to go back and just quietly, to yourself, stutter and stammer your way through that passage before reading any further. You will gain some sense of how poignant it was to hear that young man read those verses. It was like hearing them for the very first time.
Suddenly, pretty much everything I had planned to tell those teens about the relationship between Passover, the Last Supper, and Good Friday seemed simplistic and contrived. It was my turn to stutter, to stammer, to try to find words to make sense of all that death that I had overlooked when preparing the lesson.
Embarrassingly, I had become so familiar with the larger message that I wanted to share with them that all those “firstborn deaths” were like collateral damage in a triumphal story. But after that boy slowly and painfully stuttered through the passage, they were no longer. Five polite teenagers, with no desire to embarrass me or challenge me, just assumed I would have an explanation. I had no good ones then, and only partial ones now.
It is a testament to the power of the Passover story that it is still observed down to this day. Our Jewish brothers and sisters rightfully find liberation in it, but, like some of the other stories in the Old Testament, it is still hard to hear.
We Christians of course read the Passover story as one that foreshadows another event, another story that speaks of liberation, namely our deliverance from our slavery to sin and death – the hardest story to hear in the New Testament.
The great deliverance of the Israelites on that dark and mysterious Passover night, is a precursor to the Last Supper, when, with deep symbolism, Jesus said, “take, eat, this is my body, broken for you, and drink, this is my blood, shed for you.” So the blood of the Passover lambs brushed on the doorposts and the lintels, and all those firstborn deaths in Egypt, foreshadow the day when Jesus, the firstborn of all creation, becomes our Passover lamb, and so in his death, we find our deliverance and liberation.
At one time or another, we struggle to tell this story, and at least in part, we do so because there’s all of that death standing in the way. But no one gets to look away from it, at least not for long. It is there, all the time, every day.
Death is a great barrier we must contend with. We confront it sometimes with simple and profound questions: “How long, O Lord” (Psalm 13)? “In death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol, who can give you praise” (Psalm 6)? And, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me” (Psalm 22)? When we hear these searing questions, we hear Jesus in the Garden and on the cross. We ask the questions right along with him.
And we ask them even as we proclaim the faith. God is our Creator. He is the Lord of life and death. That’s the beginning of the story, but it’s not the end. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
Jesus, even as the firstborn of all creation, entered this world in the same way we did. He knew the joy of living in these bodies of ours, in our flesh and skin and bones. And he experienced this world; he saw its beauty and majesty.
But some of what he witnessed grieved him deeply. He saw people beaten down by others, or simply excluded because they were sick or diseased, or because they practiced a certain profession in order to eke out their existence. Surely it troubled him to see how good and evil could so easily co-exist at the same time and in the same place. And surely it grieved him to see people suffer and die, to see so much death all around him.
In faith he walked closely with his Father. And yet being like us in the flesh, he experienced anger, fear, and foreboding. Christians do not believe Jesus was play acting in the Garden or on the cross. We believe he suffered physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
So Jesus, God’s only son, joins himself to all creation, joins in the death of God’s creatures, joins with all those firstborn deaths, as he dies on the cross.
In that act, Jesus joined all of us in the most profound way possible. He joined with us in the midst of all of our wonderments, joys, fears, disappointments, doubts and finally in our deaths. But in that act, Jesus not only suffered with us; he redeemed us and liberated us from our slavery to sin and our fear of death.
Every day we are being saved, being transformed because Christ went to the cross. And so, despite the darkness and our questions, we proclaim with confidence the mystery of our faith: “Christ has died, Christ is Risen, Christ will come again!”
The Rev. Walter Fenton serves as the secretary for the Transitional Leadership Council.