Why is This Night Different?
Texts: Luke 23:39-43; Deut. 26:1-11
As the sun began to set, Rachel ran home quickly. She knew Sabbath was approaching and she must be home. Still panting as she ducked into the tent, she said, “Shabbat shalom.” But as she looked around, she saw that this was no ordinary Sabbath night. There was blood on the entrance to the tent and the table was set with lamb, matzoth, wine, and bitter herbs. The candles were being lit by her father, Aaron. Rachel was clearly confused. Why was there blood on the tent? Why had the candles already been lit? Unable to contain her bewilderment, she burst out, asking her father, “Why is this night different from any other night?”
Aaron looked patiently at his young daughter and answered, “Because, my child, a wandering Aramean was our ancestor. He traveled into Egypt and grew great in number. In that foreign land, we became slaves to Pharaoh. But our God, Adonai, Master of the Universe, heard our cries, saw our affliction, and delivered us with mighty signs and wonders. God passed over our houses, gave us our freedom, and delivered us into this land of milk and honey.”
Years later, Israel was no longer living in a land of milk and honey. They were slaves again, this time not in Egypt, but in Babylon. Rachel came home in tears, having been told to leave the market because she was a Jew. As she walked into the house, she saw the Sabbath table set with lamb, matzoth, wine, and bitter herbs. Angrily, she asked her father, “How can you praise God in this horrid land? Why is this terrible night different from any other night in captivity?”
Aaron took his daughter in his arms and answered, “Because, my child, a wandering Aramean was our ancestor. He traveled to Egypt and grew great in number. In that foreign land, we became slaves to Pharaoh. But our God, Adonai, Master of the Universe, heard our cries, saw our affliction, and delivered us with mighty signs and wonders. And so now, we still dare to believe that our God sees our affliction, hears our cries, and will deliver us from our captors.”
Centuries passed and Israel found itself again in captivity, and this time, perhaps to the harshest captors of them all. Rachel knocked four quick knocks on the door and then spoke the password in Dutch. The owner of the house opened the door and hurried Rachel inside. The woman said, “Rachel, go quickly to the attic.” As Rachel climbed the last step into the attic she saw small candles lit, a tiny piece of meat on a cardboard plate, a thimble of wine, and her family huddled around a makeshift, cardboard table. Aaron said, “We were worried, my child; we have waited for you to begin.” Flabbergasted, Rachel said, “Father, each day the Nazis board more of our people onto their trains. Each day, hundreds, maybe thousands, of our people die. How can you sit here pretending as if nothing is happening? How can you mention the name of God tonight when God has forsaken us? Why, father, is this awful night different from any other awful night?
Aaron rose slowly and wore an expression borne of both suffering and faith. He pulled his daughter close to him and whispered softly so no one else could hear his voice: “Because, my child, a wandering Aramean was our ancestor. He traveled to Egypt and grew great in number. In that foreign and treacherous land, we became slaves to Pharaoh and we were treated harshly, miserably. Years later, the same would happen to our people in Babylon. But our God, Adonai, Master of the Universe, heard our cries, saw our affliction, and delivered us with mighty signs and wonders. God charged us always to keep the Passover and so we do even this night, even in this attic, even in the dark.”
Well, decades passed and Rachel drove into the driveway, went inside, threw her yoga bag on the chair, ran up the steps, pushed open the door to the dining room and blurted out, “Sorry, Dad, I got stuck on the beltway.” As she looked around, she saw candles burning at the dining room table. And, on the table was a leg of lamb, matzoth, wine, and bitter herbs. Forgetting it was the Sabbath, much less Passover, Rachel asked, “So what going on here, Dad? Why are things so different tonight?”
Aaron rose and with the hint of a tear in his eyes, answered his daughter, “Because, my child, a wandering Aramean was our ancestor. He traveled into Egypt and grew great in number. In that foreign and abusive land, we became slaves to Pharaoh and were treated harshly, miserably. Years later, the same would happen in Babylon, in Persia, in Rome, in Russia. But our God, Adonai, Master of the Universe, heard our cries, saw our affliction, and delivered us with mighty signs and wonders. God charged us always to keep the Passover and so we do even tonight.”
Each Passover scene stresses the importance of memory, especially in this age of amnesia. The one thing the penitent thief asks of Jesus on the cross is not deliverance from his deadly fate. The thief pleads: “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.”
Memory is what keeps us connected to God, to our faith, to the world, to each other. Memory is what helps us fight the corrosive forces of amnesia and denial. By keeping the Passover Seder with his disciples, Jesus was remembering “a wandering Aramean was our ancestor.”
In that upper room, Jesus reclaimed the story of a God who hears the cries of the afflicted just moments before he would bear the kiss of a betrayer, feel the whip of a centurion, and bleed from every pore of his hands and feet. He paused long enough on his last Passover evening to lift a cup and break bread, to celebrate the loving deliverance of God even on the darkest night of despair.
Typically, Christians do not observe a Passover Seder meal and increasingly, we do not even observe Sabbath. When I was a child, the Protestant church in the South had turned the Sabbath largely into a tedious rule-keeping game to make sure that Christianity and enjoying life were never equated. I was told that on the Sabbath, we “don’t play cards,” “don’t dance,” “don’t go the movies,” “don’t even think of having any fun!” How the train ever got so far off the rails I can only speculate.
In the last century, the Rabbi Abraham Heschel said this about Sabbath: “To set one day a week for freedom, a day on which we do not use the instruments which have been so easily turned into weapons of destruction, a day for being with ourselves, a day of detachment from the vulgar, of independence of external obligations, a day on which we stop worshiping the idols of technical civilization, a day on which we use no money, a day of armistice in the economic struggle with our fellow men [and women] and the forces of nature--is there any institution that holds out a greater hope for (humanity's) progress than the Sabbath?”
Today, the season of Lent begins. It is a Sabbath season. It is a season of remembering. In Lent, we remember not only that “a wandering Aramean was our ancestor,” but also some of the last words of Jesus, “Do this in remembrance of me.” Lent is a long Sabbath, memory arousing, season. At the close of Lent, you and I will sit with the friends of Jesus in an upper room in Jerusalem, eat bread and drink wine, and ask, “Why is this night any different?”
On the next day, a day that Christians dare to call Good Friday, if someone should ask: “Why is this day different from any other day?” we will remember with them the day that the sky turned black and the hounds of hell shouted with glee. We will remember with them that “a wandering Aramean was our ancestor” and “a crucified Jew our Lord.”
But our Sabbath memory work will not end on Good Friday. For two days later, we will gather here again not to the sound of weeping and wailing, not ready to forget it all. We will gather on Easter morning not to answer: “Why is this day different from any other day?” We will gather to let loose our loud alleluias because a wandering Aramean was our ancestor and a Palestinian Jew is our Lord and because the last word that comes from the mouth of God is life.
For God’s sake, never forget it.