Sunday, April 10, 2011

#91. Evolution and the Passover Seder

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I have been celebrating the Passover Seder with family and friends for many years, but its relevance for our lives this year seems far more immediate than ever.

Earthquakes, tidal waves, and the nuclear disaster in Japan, with its radiation poisoning of the air and ocean and even the drinking water, make us more conscious than usual of our place in the natural world.

And the grass-roots freedom movements in North Africa and the Middle East-- as well as the bullying of workers, women, teachers, firefighters, immigrants-- just about everyone-- by political patriarchs and financial CEOs in the United States-- make us more conscious than ever of our place in the human world.

Nature and culture-- environment and government-- creation and liberation. That's what the seder is all about.


In this post I want to share my thoughts about the seder's highlights. 

It's easy to get lost in the details because there are so many things going on... so much to experience... so many aspects to think about:
... the first full moon after the spring equinox...
... the salt tears we eat with the parsley to affirm life-- even with its numerous problems and difficulties...
... the youngest child's four questions...
... the unleavened bread that goes back to the beginnings of Neolithic agriculture ten thousand years ago...
... the roasted lamb as the sacrificed animal that dates back many more thousands of years, to the Paleolithic hunting culture...
... the bitter herbs that go with the story of slavery...
... the Exodus from Egypt more than three thousand years ago...
... the Last Supper of Jesus twenty centuries ago....

So much! So rich!

And as the seder text says, "This story holds true for us today." It is one of the great treasures of the Western world.


Everyone involved has something to contribute: reading, singing, decorations, foods. For some the preparations take many days.

On the day itself, we gather at dusk as the first full moon of spring is rising.

The mother begins with a candle-lighting prayer. When light emerges out of the darkness of the evening twilight it's like the Big Bang. 

Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme prefer a better phrase, "the great flaring forth." But whatever we call it, the beginning of the seder puts us at the creation of the world.

An amazing thing, easy to overlook, is that the great flaring forth happens by way of the feminine. In our minds we usually link the creation story with the familiar words, "Let there be light." But in the person of the mother it is Divine wisdom, the feminine aspect of the creative power, who first brings the light from the darkness.

And as that light moves down the long table, then spreads to the sides of the room, out of the darkness a human world is created for us.


The first thing we perceive is how beautiful world is. As the Bible says, even God's first response to the created world was, "It is good."

We find ourselves surrounded by candles and flowers, sparkling eyes and smiling faces.

Our immediate response is appreciation for the goodness of the world; we find ourselves filled with gratefulness. So the first words we say together are words of thanks for our lives in the beautiful world: "Blessed are you, Lord our God...." It's ourselves, our lives in the world, we give thanks for.

And we give thanks not just with words. As we drink the first cup of wine, reclining as in ancient times on our left elbow, we literally take the world's goodness into ourselves; we become what it is-- good and beautiful-- and know ourselves as its spokespersons.


After the first cup, we expect next to eat the unleavened bread, but instead we eat "the green herb." We welcome spring and say "yes!" to life. Life has its tears and so we acknowledge the many problems and difficulties of our lives by first dipping the parsley into salty water before we say the blessing and eat it.

Wisdom is here, too. We know that admitting our problems-- acknowledging them as our own and not blaming someone else-- is the first step if we are to be free of them. No matter what we might be enslaved to-- no matter what addictions we may have-- we can become free. But first we have to consciously acknowledge them.

So after the world's creation, it is liberation-- freedom from whatever enslaves us-- that is the focus of the second part of the seder.


Wisdom inaugurates this part, too-- in the person of the youngest child.
Personally, I think the most important thing that happens all evening may be when the youngest child asks, "Why is this night different from all other nights?"

Why, indeed, are we doing these strange things?

In the Grail Legends, Sir Percival, the young knight of the Round Table, failed to find the holy grail because he stood by dumbly in silence during his vision of the Grail. Parsifal wasn't sufficiently self-aware to ask, "What is this all about?"

Just as it's only by acknowledging our difficulties that we can deal with them, so it's only by questioning life's meaning that we can open up a space within ourselves to receive an answer.

In the language of alchemy "Egypt" means something like what today we call "hang-ups." The word "Egypt" means all the things that we may be enslaved to-- unconscious of, and so possessed by-- that we need to be freed from. Only then can the fullness of life be ours.

In response to the wisdom of the youngest child, the father provides the background details of this central story of the Great Escape from Egypt. "It all began," he says, with "our father Abraham." It was Abraham's great-grandson, Joseph, who first went down to Egypt; his jealous brothers had sold him as a slave.

The story can be told in many different ways. I've heard it read from the King James Bible as well as from many modern translations; I've also seen it illustrated with the drawings in a child's picture book and even acted out as a play by teenagers.

But however the story is told, the main point is always the same: when Pharaoh refuses to let God's people go, the results are biological plagues and environmental disasters.


In our day, modern technology allows us to experience this story intimately and personally. The details pop up on our computer screens from moment to moment.

But it's also modern science which gives us the biggest context for understanding it all: creation and liberation. From the mother's blessing of light to the story of the Great Escape, our participation in the seder makes us present to the whole evolution of the universe.

It also makes us present to the dawning awareness in the mind of global humanity that all the peoples of the Earth are one family, and that all human persons are related to everything else in the universe.

I think Native Americans say it best: "All things are our relations!"


But it's to the ancient Hebrews that we owe the basic evolutionary perspectives of the modern world. As Thomas Berry points out, it was this very story of the Great Escape at the heart of the seder which inaugurated humanity's awareness of cosmic, biological and cultural evolution.

In the face of the old static worldview, where for a million years there seemed to be "nothing new under the sun," it dawned on those freed slaves that "God did something new!"

And for the peoples of the Western world, it's that focus on newness-- on the emergence of new levels of complexity in cosmic matter, biological life and human culture-- which came to special clarity in the story of Jesus.

Irenaeus of Lyons says that it is precisely consciousness of this newness-- the novitatem, he called it-- that came into the world via Jesus. We know it as the New Creation and the coming of the Kingdom.
It's what our existence is all about.


Christianity in practice often degenerated; it took on a negative, world-renouncing attitude.

But its underlying perspective is just the opposite: world-affirmation. 

The essence of the Christian perspective inaugurated by Jesus is the "God so loved the world" of St. John's Gospel and the divine "It is good" from the book of Genesis.

We can easily see this basic world-affirmation of the Christian perspective in the ways in which the story of the Exodus and the story of Jesus are linked.

In the gospels, the story of Jesus is all about life: personal freedom and "abundant life." And in the letters of St. Paul Jesus' story is merged with the Exodus story so that Jesus is identified with the sacrificial lamb and he is called "our Passover."

To this day the very name for the first Sunday after the first full moon in spring remains, in most languages, some version of Passover, Passage, Pascha.


No matter what name we use, it is transition-- transformation, passing-over-- that's the whole point of the seder.

It's not accidental that "Pascha" is always celebrated in spring. Just as the cold and darkness of winter gives way to the warmth and light of summer, so the worst we can imagine happening to us-- the annihilation of our person and the deaths of those who are especially important to us-- isn't the end of the story.

We don't know any details and we can't make much sense of it. But deep down-- in the most profound layer of our personal self-awareness-- we have the gut-feeling that, in the big picture of the evolution of the universe, death does not have the last word.

We experience within ourselves a basic trust in reality: that our existence is not absurd, that our lives are not meaningless, that the good things of the world don't just come to an end.

That evolutionary life-force within us, in the words of one of my favorite religious thinkers, Bruno Barnhart, "promises our completion and fulfillment and the persistence of our relationships in the in-gathering of all beyond the passing away of things."


And this is not something we have to take on the word of someone else.

As Karl Rahner, another of my favorite religious thinkers says, each of us knows by personal experience that at the very lowest points in our life we have been raised up again by the dynamic life-force operating within us.

Whatever we may call it-- the cosmic chi, the divine breath, the evolutionary spiritus-- we experience that cosmic energy acting at the deepest layer of our personal self-awareness.

It's a confidence in the mystery of the universe which we can't very well put into words.

Which is precisely what makes the celebration of the Passover seder so important for us.


I think the seder's best expression of our fundamental trust in the goodness of reality is easy to overlook: what happens after we eat the bitter herbs.

Sometimes that horseradish seems to be more than we can take! It brings tears to our eyes and some of us make awful noises, trying to clear our heads.

But the seder doesn't end with those odd sounds. The bitter herbs don't get the last word.

There's a whole meal still to come-- good food, laughter, singing, more wine.

Tears and bitterness are not the end of our life-story.

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I inadvertently deleted all comments at the end of the posts up until #90, but they are still preserved in the collections of comments found in posts #32, #67 and #83.)

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Anonymous said...

What an uplifting and appropriate message, Sam, in the light of all the darkness on so many fronts right now. May we always know, in our heart of hearts, that life does indeed have the edge over death.


Sam said...

An old family-friend, living 3,000 miles away for the last 30 years, said:

Sam: The Seder blog was excellent. It flooded me with memories of past celebrations on Brookmeade Drive. And summed up perfectly the larger themes that hovered almost palpably through the air as the evenings progressed. I pray that you soon find an agent and editor that will take the work of MY favorite religious thinker to the wider world

I remember the gold/yellow light spread over the earth tones of the central room in the Mackintosh home (I always thought of it as the Womb Room); Anne grinning triumphantly as she came down the stairs bearing the decorated lamb; Rosy sitting rather tipsily next to me, impatient for her turn to shout out her question (which she practiced on me in a stage whisper 3 or 4 times); the pillows we got to sit on; you walking around with the basin, pitcher and towel with a serious look while washing the hands of each guest with fragrant water (maybe hoping the meaning the the ritual would sink in to us despite our chatter and giggles and needing to attend to the little ones among us-- little Michael-bummer and Baby Paul in those days); the cool air seeping through the slightly opened door and brushing my neck, knowing in my heart that the prophet was indeed present ... as well as the thousands (millions?) over the centuries who similarly entered into those mysteries.

As the old and new generations gather this year, look for me in the candlelight. I would not miss it,

Bill J. said...

Sam, Mary and I thought it was great. It brought back all the times we shared the Seder with your family and guests. You also got us hooked on the Seder meal which we shared with many scripture groups and Marriage Encounter groups; in fact I believe some of them still have the Seder. Your deep insights made it even more interesting than I remembered.

Sam said...

While trying to eliminate numerous spam comments, I inadvertently deleted all comments at the END of the posts up until #90. BUT... they are still preserved in the collections of comments found in posts #32, #67 and #83.

One set of comments, however-- for posts #84 to #89-- has been completely lost. If you happen to have copied any of them, I'd much appreciate your sending a copy to me so I can restore them. Thanks.