There is a reasonably old joke based on our lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures. Moses is leading the Jews out of Egypt, and is standing on the shore of the sea, watching the Egyptian army beginning to gain on the people.
As Moses begins to pray he hears a voice.
“Moses, Moses, I’ve got some good news. And I’ve got some bad news.”
Moses knew the routine, so he said, “OK. Lord, give me the good news first.”
“I will split the sea, so that you and your people can cross safely to the other side, then I will cause the sea to return to its place so that the army cannot follow you.”
Moses said, “That’s really great, Lord. What’s the bad news?”
“You get to write the environmental impact statement.”
I said it was an old one.
Many of us, when we hear this lesson, think of Cecil B. DeMille’s version of this story in the film The Ten Commandments, with special effects piled upon special effects.
The reality of this story may well have been a lot less dramatic than the Cecil B. DeMille version.
Many biblical scholars today feel that the Israelites could have crossed over through a marshy, swampy area on the edge of the land and the sea. It was an area that people on foot, along with their flocks of sheep, could have crossed, even if a bit uncomfortably. It was an area where horses, chariots, and soldiers in heavy armour could easily have become bogged down.
But, you know, just as in the joke with which I began, in this story there is “some good news” and “some bad news”.
The good news is that the group of slaves led by Moses escaped. They became a nation of free people. Their belief in a single God not only survived but spread. That is good news.
But there is also bad news in this story. There was a great loss of life among the Egyptian soldiers (not to mention their horses). The Egyptian soldiers may have been on the wrong side in this conflict, but they had little – if any – personal choice in the matter. Their horses had much less choice. There was bad news in this story as well.
It reminds me of a scene in one of Mike Myers’ films in the Austin Powers series. These were comic films made in the 1990s which were essentially spoofs of the James Bond style of spy thriller film. Anyway, in one of these movies, there was a combat scene where a number of the henchmen of the main villain were killed. After each death, the film cut to a scene where the reaction of the henchman’s friends and family was seen, such as a scene where a friend of a henchman said to another:
“I just heard that Fred died yesterday. …. Yeah, even if he was working for an evil madman who wanted to rule the world, he was such a nice guy.”
… or a scene where a henchman’s wife said:
“I begged Charlie not to get a job as a henchman. Even if the pay was good, it was far too dangerous.”
And, as with these characters in Mike Myers’ movie, there was a similar thing going on with the Egyptian soldiers. Even if they were on the wrong side on the conflict, their deaths were still profoundly tragic.
And there is a sense of this universality whenever the Jews remember the Exodus at their annual Passover celebrations. While there is a great sense of rejoicing over the liberation of the community from slavery, there is no sense of gloating over the misfortunes of the Egyptians.
On the contrary, there is one part of the Passover meal in which the Jews remembered – with sympathy – the misfortunes of the Egyptians. As the list of plagues are read, each person dips a finger into their cup of wine, takes a drop of wine from their cup, and drips it onto the table for each of the plagues. The idea is that every person’s tragedy should be shared by all people. If our neighbour suffers – even if our neighbour positions himself as your enemy – we should respond in sympathy. And so, there was a reduction in the Passover celebration for each of the misfortunes of the Egyptians. The Passover is a celebration of liberation, and it is a celebration of universal compassion.
And, for us as Christians, we know that whenever we gather to celebrate the central act of Christian worship: the service that Christians have variously called the Eucharist, the Mass, the Lord’s Supper, and Holy Communion; we do so in the awareness that Jesus was celebrating the Passover at the time when he gave us this sacrament. Jesus was participating in a celebration of universal compassion.
The note of universal compassion that is a mark of the Jewish Passover celebration continues into the Christian Eucharist. Both the Passover and the Eucharist remind us that all humanity is one family, sharing our joys and sharing our sorrows.
Al humanity is a single community:
- We are one in our shared suffering.
- We are one in our shared liberation.
Whenever we gather at Christ’s table, we know that
- we share in the one bread,
- we share in the one cup,
- we are part of each other’s life,
- we are part of the life of the whole human family.