Passover and Easter. Israel’s redemption from bondage to Pharaoh, and humanity’ redemption from bondage to death. The Old and the New. They finally intersected in the flesh at a first-century table, during Jesus’ last Passover meal in that upper room.
Celebrating Passover was always my favorite ritual growing up. And after I met Jesus, every bit of it came alive in ways I’d never imagined. And in ways I’m still discovering today. And, just like with most of our familiar holidays and rituals, different aspects of Passover speak more powerfully to me than others during different seasons.
This year, it’s the first cup.
The Passover meal is structured around four cups of wine. In fact, seder - the name of the Passover meal - literally means “order.” And an incredible thing is that the Seder meal today is identical in structure to the way it was in Jesus’ day. Some songs and stories have been added along the way, and there’s no sacrificial lamb because there’s no longer a Temple where people can make sacrifices.
But the structure and prayers are exactly the same, and it’s still built around four cups of wine and the breaking of bread. I love to teach on this sacred meal, walking through each cup in light of the Last Supper. But this year, I keep coming back to the first cup.
You see, each cup represents one of God’s four “I will” promises to Moses in Exodus 6:6-7:
“Therefore say to the Israelites, ‘I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as my own people.’”
The first cup of the Passover meal recalls that first “I will:” God’s promise to bring the Israelites out from under the burden and bondage of Egypt. In that moment, His words had to be music to their ears and to their aching bodies and broken hearts. Remember, Joseph’s family had been laboring under more and more harsh conditions since they’d first been welcomed by the Pharaoh back in Genesis. And now they were experiencing the genocide of their baby boys.
Freedom from that yoke of Egypt was almost more than they knew to ask or imagine. And recalling this promise to deliver them from that state of physical and emotional brokenness is how Jews have always begun the Passover meal.
But. The Passover celebration is never supposed to be just a lesson in history. Every Passover worship guide, or Haggadah, includes the statement that we are to celebrate as if we ourselves had been personally rescued from Egypt and its yoke of slavery.
On the surface, it may sound hard to do, especially in twenty-first century America. But a really quick Hebrew lesson will show you that it isn’t really hard at all, and it will also show you why I keep coming back to the “first cup.”
So, the word we translate as Egypt in the Old Testament isn’t really “Egypt.” It’s Mitzrayim. Mitzrayim comes from two different roots; one (metzir) meaning to be bordered or limited, and the other (tzar) meaning to be bound and tied up. Combined together as Miztrayim, then, this name for Egypt means hardship and distress and oppression and being hemmed in.
It really isn’t hard, then, to imagine ourselves being stuck in Egypt, because we have all been under the yoke of Mitzrayim. Mitzrayim is the hardship and distress and isolation that comes from being separated from God. And it’s sin; our own sin and living in the wake of other people’s sin. And it’s also the fallout of living in a broken world. Things like death, layoffs, broken relationships, depression/anxiety, abuse, shootings, a global pandemic and the ongoing brutal attack on a sovereign people.
And so, during the Last Supper Passover meal, when Jesus raised that first cup and recounted His Father’s promise to bring His people out from under the yoke of Mitzrayim, He wasn’t just talking about Egypt.
The Messiah knew that He was just hours away from rescuing all of humanity - including you and me - from the distress and isolation that comes from being a broken person in a broken world.
In fact, when Jesus lifted that first cup, the disciples probably remembered something Jesus had already said to them about a yoke. A different kind of yoke, for people like them and like you and like me, who suffer in this broken world.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30 NIV
In contrast to the yoke of Mitzrayim - Jesus’ yoke brings rest to our souls.
Yes, we will still experience the pain and isolation that comes from living in this world. But if we choose to be yoked to the Messiah, He promises to gently lead us through it. Giving rest for our souls, even when our bodies and our hearts are weary.
And weary is what many of us are today. Weary from so much, and from the accumulation of so much. And so this year, I keep closing my eyes, imagining Jesus lifting that first cup. Recounting that ancient promise to those who were weary and heavy laden, knowing that He was about to fulfill it in ways no one could comprehend.
Even on this side of Calvary, it’s hard to comprehend. But even so, I will rest in it.