Let my people go, that they may serve me.
Exodus 9 v 1
The Israelites Eat the Passover (illustration from the 1728 Figures de la Bible) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
‘Pesach’, usually called ‘The Passover’ in English, is the greatest of the Judaic festivals and the oldest in the Jewish calendar. Like the Christian Easter, it varies in date from year to year, occurring in the Spring and lasting for seven or eight days, not all of which are taken as holidays.
The festival probably dates back to the time when the Jews were wandering shepherds in the deserts of the Middle East, pitching their tents wherever they found grazing for their flocks. At the time of ‘lambing’, they observed a festival at which either a sheep or a goat was sacrificed as a thanksgiving. The sacrifice was made at nightfall and the animal was roasted whole and eaten the same night. No bones could be broken and no meat left uneaten at dawn.
As protection against evil the tent posts were daubed with the blood of the sheep. This was a family affair, unconnected with priests and places of worship.
Other groups of more settled Jews who farmed crops had their own festival in springtime, before the barley harvest. This was the ‘Feast of Unleavened Bread‘, i.e. bread without yeast or any other leavening to make it rise. At the beginning of the feast all sour doughs, used like yeast to leaven the bread, had to be destroyed to safeguard the produce of the forthcoming year. Then the first sheaf of the newly cut barley was presented as a sacrifice of thanksgiving to the priest. Since these people were not nomadic, they had their own permanent places of worship, set high up on a nearby hill.
- Handmade shmura matzo used at the Passover Seder especially for the mitzvot of eating matzo and afikoman. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Even so, there were years of poor harvests when the Jews found themselves dependent, like Joseph’s family, on the Egyptians for corn. Thanks to Joseph, who had been sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt, but had risen to a position of authority, the Jews were able to move to Egypt to share the plentiful harvests, so that they also increased in population.
This did not please the Pharaohs, who gradually enslaved them, so that they longed to be free to return to ‘the land promised to them by God’. Under the leadership of Moses, they achieved their freedom through a terrible punishment of their captors, when the first-born of each Egyptian family died in a single night.
This punishment ‘passed over’ the houses of the Hebrew slaves who then, led by Moses, set out on their ‘exodus’ to find their ‘land flowing with milk and honey’. Ever since that time, Jews have remembered the night when they ate hurriedly, ready for the journey, and painted their houses with the blood of lambs, so that the plague did not touch their homes.
- English: Jews Celebrating Passover. Lubok, XIXth century. Русский: Празднование Песаха. Лубок XIX века. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The two festivals of ‘Pesach’ and ‘Unleavened Bread’ thus became combined in the ceremonies of ‘The Passover’ as a celebration symbolising the historic struggle of the Jewish people for national freedom. In the early days of Jewish history, and in the time of Jesus of Nazareth, it was a festival of Pilgrimage when all who could make their way to the Temple in Jerusalem.
Following the destruction of the Temple by the Romans and the further dispersal of the Jews throughout the known world around the Mediterranean, the festival again divided into two parts, one in the local synagogue, and the other in each home.
- Passover Seder 013 (Photo credit: roger_mommaerts)
In the home, every room is made spotlessly clean before the eve of Passover, all leavened bread destroyed, and the ‘matzoh’ of unleavened bread prepared. Greetings are exchanged, the home filled with light, and the table set for the entire family to sit around. This meal is called the ‘Seder‘ and the various parts of it remind everyone present of the deliverance from cruelty and enslavement in Egypt.
To begin the meal the youngest son asks four traditional questions which his father answers in full, symbolising the passing of the Jewish heritage from one generation to the next.
- English: Festive Seder table with wine, matza and Seder plate. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The meal has four special items. Four cups of wine are taken, possibly connected to one of the dreams which Joseph interpreted. There are cakes of bread, roasted egg, a dish of salt water (representing the tears of the Hebrew slaves), bitter herbs and a sweet paste of almonds, apple and wine, said to represent the clay with which the Israelites were forced to make bricks for the Pharaohs. In all, there are fourteen parts to the Seder, giving rise to inspired works of art in the making of the Seder dishes, Passover banners and matzoh covers. The last part of the Seder consists of prayers and songs, with a cup of wine poured symbolically for Elijah, the door being left open for him to enter and drink.
Christians are interested in this meal, because it was at the Seder that Jesus took the cup and the unleavened bread and instituted what became, for them, the central sacramental act of their religion, ‘The Last Supper’, now called in Christian worship ‘Communion’, ‘The Eucharist‘ or ‘The Mass’.
The festival remains essentially a family gathering for remembrance and rejoicing in freedom. In Jewish tradition the festival is known as ‘The Season of Release’, the central theme of which can be interpreted on three levels. Historically, it celebrates the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. On the seasonal level, it marks the release of the earth from the grip of winter, and on a personal level, for those taking part, it symbolises their hope of individual release from the bondage of sin, or wrongdoing.
Pesach is here! (teenainjerusalem.wordpress.com)
Jesus Feeds Five Thousand Men
(Mt 14, 13-21; Mk 6, 32-44; Lk 9, 10-17; Jn 6, 1-14):
When Jesus heard the news about John, he left there in a boat and went to a lonely place by himself. The people heard about it, and so they left their towns and followed him by land. Jesus got out of the boat, and when he saw the large crowd, his heart filled with pity for them, and he healed their sick.
That evening his disciples came to him and said, “It is already very late, and this is a lonely place. Send the people away and let them go to the village to buy food for themselves.” They don’t have to leave,” answered Jesus. “You yourselves give them something to eat!” “All we have here are five loaves and two fish,” they replied.
- English: Jesus feeding a crowd with 5 loaves of bread and two fish (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
“Then bring them here to me,” Jesus said. He ordered the people to sit down on the grass; then he took the five loaves and the two fish, looked up to heaven, and gave thanks to God. He broke the loaves and gave them to the people. Everyone ate and had enough. Then the disciples took up twelve baskets full of what was left over. The number of men who ate was about five thousand, not counting the women and children. (Good News for Modern Man)
The Gospel appointed for Refreshment Sunday, marking the half-way point in the forty days of Lent, the break in fasting, is this well-known story of Jesus’ miracle. In Matthew’s gospel it comes as a direct response by Jesus to the death of John the Baptist, at the hands of Herod, the ruler of Galilee. Rather than immediately mustering John’s disciples with his own, and leading them in vengeance against the despot, Jesus again finds a quiet place to mourn his cousin’s death alone. However, returning to the Lake for a fishing trip, he finds himself intercepted by a huge crowd of angry men, who have by now heard the news and have followed Jesus by land, hoping that he will now lead them in a holy crusade against Herod. Jesus knows, with the festival of Passover drawing near, he must deal with the unrest caused by John’s death before moving on to Jerusalem, where the Judean authorities were already preparing for a further confrontation with him, even plotting to have him killed too.
This ‘incident in the hills’, as Alan T Dale has described it in his Portrait of Jesus, is reported by all four gospel-writers, and there is a remarkable similarity in their accounts of it, not just between the synoptic gospels, but also with John, who often has a very different spiritual ‘take’ on the material events of Jesus’ life. In this dramatic event we are shown Jesus at his most ‘materialistic’, and Christianity is ‘born’ as the most materialistic of world religions. Jesus, when tempted in the wilderness to turn the stones into bread had quoted the scripture, ‘man shall not live by bread alone’, but here he makes a symbolic statement by his acted parable that ‘neither can man live without it’. It obviously made a profound impact on all of his disciples, and John takes care to count the men, loaves, fishes and even the leftovers. Dale captures the scene vividly in his reworking of the gospel-writers common narrative:
The grass was green. It was a familiar spring day, dry and hot with an east wind blowing and a yellowish haze hiding the hills and washing the colour from sea and field. From early light the streets of the small lakeside fishing port – Capernaum – were crowded with men and loud gossip and argument. The soldiers at the small Roman outpost in the town were wondering what was afoot.
Somebody suddenly noticed a small boat putting out.
‘There he is!’ he called out. ‘There he is!’
The boat was making very heavy weather – an on-shore wind was blowing. The crowd – several thousand men – walking, pushing, running, made their way along the shore. The men in the boat saw what was happening; there would be no escape. They put the boat back to land.
Jesus climbed out. He knew the crowd: farmers from the hill villages, fishermen from the lakeside towns. He had grown up with some of them. They were men of the Resistance Movement – ‘zealots’, nationalists – farmers or fishermen by day, ‘freedom fighters’ whenever the chance came.
As he looked at them, he felt sorry for them, and some words from an old story came into his mind: ‘like sheep without a shepherd to look after them’….That’s what they looked like – a leaderless mob, an army without a general.
He went with them into the hills, to a lonely spot out of sight and reach of the Roman garrison. The talk went on and on. They wanted him to become their leader – their ‘king’. Jesus would have no part in their plans.
It was now late in the afternoon. He got everybody to share a common meal together, a meal in which they promised again to live as God‘s People. The men – under command – sat down in companies of fifty and a hundred each, rank by rank.
Jesus had to deal with both his friends and the men. He got his friends to go back to the boat and to sail across the Lake. He had to force them to go – they wanted to stay. He himself, under the darkening sky, climbed the hillside. He wanted to think things out in God’s presence – alone.
- Mosaic in the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves und the Fishes at Tabgha near the Sea of Galilee (Yam Kinneret), Israel. According to the pious legend, in this place Jesus fed 5000 pilgrims with five loaves of bread and two fish (Matthew 14,13). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
According to John, Jesus knew that the men were about to seize him and make him king by force. So, according to Matthew, he agrees to another common meal with them again three days later, and sets off alone into the hills. These incidents, first his meal with five thousand in the hills, followed by the feeding of the four thousand a few days later on the sand-dunes down by the Lake, represent the turning-point in Jesus’ public career, after which he ‘sets his face’ to go to Jerusalem, knowing that it will lead to confrontation with the elders, chief priests and scribes, and to his suffering and death.
There must have been something strong and commanding, rather than ‘meek and mild’ which made the freedom-fighters think of him as a military leader and ‘king’. Their mass meetings with him in the hills, puszta and ‘deserts’ around Galilee brought matters to a head.
We can see how they came to think of him as a guerilla leader. He had great authority as well as charisma. He was indeed acting as if he had been called to lead the Jewish people to liberation, even if he didn’t openly declare this and also charged his disciples not to speak of it. His theme was ‘God’s Rule’ (‘the Kingdom of God‘), the same slogan as the freedom-fighters. However, what had become dramatically clear to him that day in the hills, and after the second meeting to his inner circle of disciples, articulated by Simon the fisherman, his ‘Rock’, was that Jesus and the freedom-fighters were polls apart. He had no use for a ‘Holy War’, even a ‘just’ one, and all the violence that would ensue, as indeed it did a few years later when war broke out between the Jewish people and the Roman legions.
Neither did Jesus think of the ‘foreigners’ as they did. He didn’t hate them or stereotype them. When what Jesus really stood for dawned on them, they had no further use for him. Indeed, many of those who had called themselves his friends abandoned him. Jesus seems to have spent much of the last months of his life alone, or with his small band of close disciples. And in the last week, very few stood by him. Even the gospel-writer, John, when the soldiers came to arrest his master in the orchard, ran away.