March 25, 2013

Passing Over

Not growing up Jewish, nor having ever met any Jewish people until I was an adult, the idea that Jesus was Jewish didn't resonate with me on any level. I had absolutely no frame of reference other than my Christian experience of Judaism to relate to Jesus and the entire experience of his people over the centuries. I had heard of the horrible suffering of the Jewish people at the hands of Hitler, but when during that last week of Lent, Christians would reference Passover, the Last Supper, Jesus and his friends celebration of some long traditional feast of his people, I wouldn't be able to relate. The entire Exodus story was exotic, kind of thrilling, but not spiritual.

Finally when I was in college we studied Judaism quite in-depth. Learned from the Torah, read the Old Testament from the point of view of the people for whom it was written, studied word by word these ancient texts, and when the Jewish festivals and holidays would come around, we as a group of theological and philosophy students would honor these feasts and celebrations in much the same way our Jewish brethren were doing.

My study of theology and biblical history and biblical exegesis was on many levels my own Exodus. Almost from my first class regarding Biblical study I was awakened to its own contradictory nature and lack of logical flow. Until this point in my life I had be given snippets of the bible, taken in piece meal, and then in my first Old Testament class I learned that the very first book, Genesis, in its very first two chapters has not one, but two creation stories I realized any literal interpretation of these texts wasn't possible. Still, even after what was a huge realization, most theological studies further down the course of my education would insist that yes, while some parts of the bible aren't meant to be taken in a literal sense, some parts of the bible, the New Testament for example, contain texts that are literally true (for example when Jesus taking the bread says: "Take this and eat it, this is my body." Matthew 26:26) My mind sat back on its heels and the thought arose, how insanely hypocritical. Why would the Christian revelations of the New Testament hold more sway, more "truth and Truth" than the Old Testament? Then upon further consideration, why would the Judea-Christian understanding of God have more sway than the Hindu, Islamic, Shinto, or any other faith system? Doesn't the entire process of determining divinity seem rather ethnocentric?

My faith crisis did not lessen with time or with further study. In fact, the more I learned about the theological application of biblical and religious tradition in my own experience as a Catholic, in my own experience as a Christian I realized the absolute self centered nature of faith, and that the divine, and the study of the divine, the tradition of the divine was mankind's own attempt to understand a universe that is not comprehendible by the human brain. The enormity of the size and scope of the universe makes absolute sense why we, as a self aware species would attempt to sum the limitless depths of space and time into unseen, unknown, but all powerful divinities that we can define. Yet, what makes no sense, is that as we as a specifies have expanded our ability to see beyond the confines of our own solar system, in some sense our own limits, we have clung to ancient and fantastical notions of divinity. We allow ourselves to hold onto two stories of creation - one that a God created the universe, and two that the universe has always been and shall always be, a force of nature and as we know it moving from a Big Bang.

I remember my first Seder Meal in college at Conception Seminary. The preparation for this feast was amazing, and the excitement built around it was impressive. During Lent the common Christian Practice is to fast, limit oneself, give something, or somethings, up. This meal, this marvelous feast celebrating the freedom of God's chosen people would be a chance to let our hair down, in the final moments before we relive those last moments of Christ's life and death, and finally his resurrection. It was a special time because the seminarians were joined by the monastic community, a rare and always delightful treat. In my college, we always took meals, Monday through Thursday in a formal fashion. Meals were taken at table, with waiter service (we would take turns waiting on one another). We had table clothes, cloth napkins, and proper distribution of courses. The Seder was no different, and the feast was laid out in a grand fashion. The difference was the service of food type, sticking with the traditional Jewish foods of unleavened bread, bitter herbs, charoset, leafy vegetables dipped in salt water, lamb, hard boiled eggs, and four glasses of wine. The Abbot, then the kind Abbot James Jones, would allow the youngest seminarian to ask the question, "Why is this night different from all other nights?" It was magical, it was fun, it made me love for a minute the faith of which I was a member.

Seeing now these memories, the grandness of the traditions, the warm feelings and sense of belonging, I understand the attraction to this life. I understand the ability to set those doubts of god and faith away, and allow oneself to be wrapped in tradition. The stories, the meals, the companionship, the sense of believing we are the most important things in the universe is very compelling. Growing up as a child I always wanted to be special, to be different to be recognized. The faith traditions that I was given allowed me with my brethren, to be special to be recognized. Ultimately I think faith, belief in god is egotistical. It is an indulgent practice that helps us justify our experiences of fear and aloneness. It is a practice that makes us feel rather huge in a universe that is without limit. The microscopic reality that we represent is more grand if we indulge the fantasies of faith, if we indulge believing that our god(s) care enough to personally involve themselves in our lives.

Ironically though, if you're on the wrong side of that divinity's attention, say for instance the Egyptians during the Exodus event, your days are limited. The divinity and the divinity's people who may be in opposition to you will destroy you. The concept of a merciful loving creator is no longer relevant if you do not bend to his will. Even those who are innocent, say the first born sons of the Egyptians, will face the wrath of a divine being who is anything but merciful. I am of course opposed to any sort of slavery, oppression, murder; I am opposed to revenge taken to destroy those who may have wronged us. In reading the story of the divine reaction to a Pharaoh's stubbornness to release the Jews back to Moses and Aaron, I read about a greedy leader, but the rest of the sons of Egypt, they were not the oppressor, and the punishment meted out was smacking soundly of humanity's vanity and need to recognized. The biblical tale of the death of the first born sons of Egypt reads like revenge tale that would be better suited for network television than for a grand faith tale of how much a god loves his chosen people.

Reading the story of Exodus, that God set his angel of death against the first born sons of Egypt so as to "set his people free", struck me all those years ago as a hateful tale. Following my first Seder meal, I was in prayer, and in thinking about the revengeful and murderous act of this alleged divinity, I realized I could not, I would not believe. These tales of unleavened bread becoming the body of Christ (not figuratively but literally), this story of the sons of Egypt being murdered in their sleep by a divinity, all smacked soundly of mankind's ego, our own need, our own desire to be special. This need, this desire to be special sometimes indulges our ego, and sometimes allows us to fantasize about the destruction of those who don't agree with us, who don't believe like us, don't love like us. These faiths that celebrate the murder of those who may not be like us, who may even oppress us, are not faiths to which I can subscribe. I realized that my own goodness is not the result of a passion from a divinity, it is the result of being human. My first celebration of Passover was my last really. Its intoxicating story of revenge, divine intervention, all seemed so convenient, contrived, too compelling. This faith is too easy to deny my humanity so as to indulge my ego.

I sat in that chapel all those years ago and realized the answer to the question, "What makes this night more special than any other night?" The answer, absolutely nothing.

Exodus Chapter 11, Verse 5

And all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sitteth upon his throne, even unto the firstborn of the maidservant that is behind the mill; and all the firstborn of beasts.

Chapter 11, Verse 29
At midnight The Lord slew every first-born in the land of Egypt, from the first born of Pharaoh o the throne to the first born o the prisoner in the dungeon, as well as the first born of the animals.

Did the Angel of The Lord weep?

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