The Politics of the Memorial—Exodus 12:1-14; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 (Alastair Roberts)

Lectionary, The Politics of Scripture

In maintaining a faithful Christian presence in the political realities of this age, few things are more important than living and acting in God’s good time, being people who find their life in the living memory of a sustaining past, who patiently wait in hope for a promised future, and who are kept in the present through faith in the daily mercies of One who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Christ’s institution of a memorial helps us to do just this.

Exodus 12:1-14
The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: 2 This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. 3 Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. 4 If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbour in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it. 5 Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. 6 You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight.7 They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. 8 They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. 9 Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. 10 You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. 11 This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the Lord. 12 For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgements: I am the Lord. 13 The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.

14 This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.

When we arrive at the point of the Passover—the climactic event to which the preceding chapters of Exodus have been building up—what has hitherto been a linear historical narrative of Moses and the plagues upon Egypt slips loose from its immediate temporal moorings. 12:1 first effects this temporal disjunction: what might appear to be the surprisingly redundant presence of the words ‘in the land of Egypt’ resituates the events described relative to the hearer and alerts us that the character of the text we are dealing with has changed. The narrative vantage point is implicitly thrust forward to some time after the Exodus has occurred: its vantage point is now that of the communal memory, looking back upon events that had occurred in the past.

Yet the narrated events themselves also undergo a shift. At this juncture, what was a contained historical account of events projects its reality out into a time beyond its own, breaking the temporal ‘fourth wall’. This occurs through the various acts of institution that occur in these chapters. If the narrative vantage point implicitly shifts forward to a point where the worshipping community is looking back upon the founding events, the events themselves—the first institution of the Passover—look forward to the life of the worshipping community: ‘This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.’ The temporal gap opened up between the narrated events and the narrative vantage point becomes a space where the founding events are first distinguished from, then related to, the time of the community. The eyes of the text meet those of the worshipping community.

This change makes more sense when we appreciate that Exodus 12:1—13:16 ‘does not present itself as an account of the departure from Egypt, but as a collection of liturgical texts … that shows how the memorial of this departure from Egypt is to be celebrated.’[1] Louis-Marie Chauvet remarks upon this phenomenon:

[T]he great foundational moments of Israelite identity are recounted in liturgical terms. If the liturgy is not apparent in the text itself, it is because it is its pre-text. One does not tell the liturgy; one liturgically tells the story that one memorializes. The “liturgification” of the telling of stories about the early times is the best way to manifest their continuing foundational role in the identity of Israel.[2]

In the establishment of the liturgical memorial, the redemptive event establishes a new temporal pattern and structure, which will frame the time that is to come. The memorial is far more than bare memorization of lifeless facts or past occurrences: the memorial powerfully drives, animates, and orients the present. The memorialized event is an open reality, a past event that continues to yield its promise. In the memorial the waves that emanate out from the founding event strike us in regular temporal succession, moving and directing our own point in time. It is in commemoration—an ‘act of communal memory’—that a people ‘regenerates itself.’ ‘The past of its origins is snatched out of its “pastness” to become the living genesis of today.’[3]

Although it draws the people back to their origins, the celebration of the Passover also presses them forward, each successive Passover an impetus towards the greater fulfilment of the promise of the founding event. The memorialized deliverance of the Exodus came to be associated with promises of a greater, new Exodus: the waves once set in motion had yet to crash upon God’s intended shore and, riding those waves, the people were suspended in the pregnant moment between God’s past saving action and the anticipated future of his promise.

1 Corinthians 11:23-26
For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ 25 In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

By instituting his memorial within the context of the Passover, Jesus’ deliverance is framed by the events and pattern of the Exodus. At this point the waves of the Exodus event that meet Israel at each successive memorialization of the Passover swell through the introduction of a new impetus. Jesus takes up and transforms existing symbols, disclosing both deep continuity and startling novelty.

[T]here is every reason to suppose that the host at a Passover meal, then as now, would retell the story of the exodus, interpreting the actions and the elements of the meal in terms of that story, thereby linking the present company with the children of Israel as they left Egypt. The words of Jesus at the supper would therefore have been seen, not only with later hindsight, but at the time, as performing a similar function. They would have been understood as reinterpreting the meal in relation to himself, claiming that the kingdom-events about to occur were the climax of the long history which looked back to the exodus from Egypt as its formative moment.[4]

The founding time is subjected to a ‘refounding’, grounding it in a yet more determinative reality, in an event whose open promise exceeds even that of the original Exodus.

When we reach 1 Corinthians 11, it is clear that Christ’s institution has assumed the status of a liturgical memorial, granting it comparable animating power in the life, prominence in the communal memory, and generating significance for the hope of the early Church that the Passover enjoyed within Israel. Christ’s memorial holds the times together: it unites the time of the origin (‘the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed’ … ‘you proclaim the Lord’s death’), the time of the recurring waves of communal practice (‘as often as this bread and drink the cup’), and the anticipated time of fulfilment to come (‘…until he comes’).

As in the prophetic tradition of a ‘second exodus’ that developed around the memory of the original Exodus, the originating event has also been recast as an anticipatory deliverance, to be surpassed by the eschatological deliverance that it prophetically foreshadows and which its memorial both invokes and awaits. Geoffrey Wainwright draws attention to the eschatological and messianic expectation associated with the Passover, and argues that within the church the ‘messianic eschatological expectation’ of Israel was ‘transposed to the return of Christ.’[5]

This combination of historical memory and eschatological hope in the celebration of the Eucharist—the Christian Passover—is exhibited at various points in 1 Corinthians 11. The explicit reference to the anticipated coming of our Lord in verse 26 is one example of this. However, in the verses that follow this, it seems clear that the Eucharist functioned as a sort of proleptic judgment, an advance testing of the Church before the universal judgment to come at Christ’s great and final advent. It also was a reality-filled promise of the joyful feast of the coming kingdom.

Although not uncommonly practiced as such, the Eucharistic memorial was never a commemoration of a closed event, like an effigy-bearing lid of a sarcophagus, a lifeless likeness from an unretrievable past. The memorialized death is the death of the risen One, the memorialization the same action in which he revealed himself to two amazed disciples at a meal in Emmaus after his resurrection (Luke 24:30-31).

This Maundy Thursday, when our attention is drawn back, once again, to the events and words of that upper room, let us discover there a living past, and actions that still propel and orient our time. The memorial that Christ instituted there continues to establish the steady rhythm of God’s time in our world, to evoke and anticipate his promised future, and make present the power of his past covenant-establishing action.

In maintaining a faithful Christian presence in the political realities of this age, few things are more important than living and acting in God’s good time, being people who find their life in the living memory of a sustaining past, who patiently wait in hope for a promised future, and who are kept in the present through faith in the daily mercies of One who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. The decaying of Christian political witness often arises precisely from our ceding of the control of time to other, hostile, powers, from our submission to their fallen rhythms, our abandonment of memory, and our despairing of future hope. The memorial given to the Church on that Maundy Thursday—that great Last Supper, that great first Supper—keeps us in time, in time with God, in God’s time, and in times hostile to him.


[1] Cited in Louis-Marie Chauvet, Symbol and Sacrament: A Sacramental Reinterpretation of Christian Existence, translated by Patrick Madigan S.J. and Madeleine Beaumont (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1995), 192. Emphasis original.
[2] Ibid. 194
[3] Ibid. 233
[4] N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1996), 559.
[5] Geoffrey Wainwright, Eucharist and Eschatology (London: Epworth Press, 1971), 23.

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