Families, anxious, hunker down in their homes because they have been warned. If they emerge more will die. They pass the time trying not to think about what is going on outside. And yet, the plague passes, and then life comes again. They emerge to find not only continued life, but new life—life liberated from the oppression they have suffered. This is the story of Easter. It is the story of Easter that precedes even the first Easter. This is because, when Jesus went down to Jerusalem in his last week before his death and resurrection, he was not inaugurating something new. He was participating in an old celebration: the festival of Passover.
For Christians, remembering that might help us today as we face our own moment of darkness. It might provide us with an orientation, not just for now but also for where we must go when we too emerge back into the light of day. Long before Jesus was born, the Exodus story was a story of new life that emerged from an encounter with death. Death, in this story, is not identified primarily with God, or even with the Angel of death who “passed over” the houses of the Israelites that fateful night. It is the Egyptians who personify oppression, and death as the logical end of oppression in the narrative. God has given Israel life, and that abundantly. It is Egypt that attempts to strangle that life by enslaving and torturing the Israelites, eventually resorting to the murder of Israelite children in its lust to dominate.
God certainly does bring destruction upon Egypt in what follows. But in the wider context of the story, God is showing step-by-step that there is no power beyond Godself. While Egypt identifies the power of the gods with their dominance, the God of Israel shows that Egypt’s lust for dominance ultimately comes to nothing. Each of the plagues pits the God of Israel against one of the gods of Egypt in a fight for control over some sphere of power: water, livestock, crops, etc. Each contest shows that the God of Israel is God. No power stands against God. And no sphere of power falls beyond God, not even the power of death.
The powers marshaled by the Egyptians were destructive. They aimed at the annihilation of the Israelites. The power marshaled by God was, and is, life giving. On the far side of the night of Passover, the Israelites find themselves freed from oppression and death and alive to a new possibility in front of them. They also find themselves with a lot of work to do in a short period. When they emerge from their seclusion, they are not able to revel in the sunlight of the morning. Instead, they must prepare themselves to move forward, or lose everything they have gained during their long night. Thus, they get to work; making bread that does not even have time to rise before they must be on the road.
This was the story that the disciples were getting together to rehearse on the night of the Last Supper. They came to remember their ancestors who had ridden out a plague and seen life on the far side. Easter does not contradict what came before; it reinscribes the themes of life and liberation in a new moment of divine activity. For Christians this becomes the definitive moment of divine activity. In Christ we are brought through death to liberation and new life. The power of death is unable to stymie the power of God.
We live today under stay-at-home orders. That is appropriate. God does not tell us to go out and face death unnecessarily. The Israelites put a lamb’s blood on their doorposts, as a sign of their trust that God loved them and would spare them, but they knew better than to leave home. That would not have been trusting God, it would have been flouting God’s warnings.
Even so, we know that not all of us will make it through the night alive. When God promises us protection, that does not mean we get to avoid suffering and death. With Christ we suffer and die. With Christ we rise. Passover must ultimately take us beyond death to a final liberation and new life. That is the good news for those who mourn, that they might be comforted. That is the good news for those who die, that death has no sting.
But what about the rest of us? What happens when we escape our isolation? Passover gives rise to Easter, which gives rise to today and every day as a new day. Christianity celebrates the coming of Jesus at Christmas and Easter, the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and the coming of God every Sunday. Christianity is a religion of perpetual micro-resurrection as each moment is given to us as a new possibility.
Like the Israelites, when we emerge we will not find time to celebrate. Even escape from Egypt does not lead directly to the promised land. We will encounter a world marked by the tragedy it has just weathered. Out of this tragedy God brings opportunity. We learn from the plagues that we have witnessed. We might come to see that for all our professions of individualism we are all inextricably tied to one another in our humanity in our brokenness and in our greatest strength. We may learn of the extent to which we depend upon hourly wage earners, many of whom stood as the backbone of the economy that does survive. We may recognize not only their need but also the nobility of their labor, which is deserving of more credit and more pay than we have been willing to give.
We may realize that a system that leaves any without healthcare is a threat to us all. Those those who avoided care for fear of cost were forced by the structure of our society to become the bearers of disease to everyone else. We may lament for the disproportionate costs that those without healthcare have suffered and seek to correct this oppression. We may see that there are common goods that require centralized leadership and shared resources. We may realize that the invisible hand of the market is no hand at all when dealing with long-term threats to the very core of our society. We may seek a government neither big nor small, but appropriately structured to fulfill its goal in ordering the society toward the good of all.
Of course, we may not; there are no guarantees. God provides us with new opportunities. It is only with the final coming of the Kingdom of God that God ensures success. The people of Israel ended up at the bottom of Mount Sinai worshipping a golden calf. The disciples denied Christ and were unprepared for his resurrection. We too will stumble. But like the people of Israel, we can get to work baking our bread for the journey. We can emerge from the oppressions we have known, even if we are not able to make it all the way to the Promised Land now. And that is what God promises us. Death is not the final word. Death passes over. We withdraw but are then sent on a journey of new possibilities and new opportunities.
In the darkness which seems to veil this season of light, let us all remember the God who is Lord of all, bringing ultimate resurrection with the Kingdom of God, and offering us resurrected life in every moment, every day. The God who will see us through.
One thought on “Spending Easter with the Angel of Death”
I just read the article by Kevin Carnahan and thought it to be very well said.
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