History, Memory, and Liturgy

The way our biblical text is arranged in Exodus 11-12, that is, the form in which it is presented, is of as great importance as its content. We go from the three sets of three plagues (chapters 7-10), which we may call “history,” (although it is highly stylized for theological effect; very foreign to the way we do history in our age) to a divine oracle of instruction (chapter 11), to liturgical instruction (12:1-28), back to the historical narrative (12:28-42), and then back to liturgical instruction (12:43-49, along with 12:50-13:16). What does this tell us about the Scripture and the Hebrew mind in which it was conceived? It suggests to us that history, in and of itself, means nothing outside of a theological context. But what is more, redemptive history can only have its full meaning as liturgical history which is acted out in prayer and worship.

By “liturgy” we mean “work,” for the Hebrew word used to describe the action of sacred worship is `abôdâ (the word for both labor and worship; the LXX reads latreian from which we get our word “liturgy”) as we read in the command, “when you come to the land which YHWH will give you … you shall keep (Heb. šāmar) this service (`abôdâ) in 12:25. Here we have a direct link to creation, for Adam and Eve was to keep (Heb. šāmar) the work (`abôdâ) the Garden (Gen. 2:15). God is preparing Israel for the Promised Land, a return, as it were, to the Garden, and their main responsibility in it, as it was supposed to be for our first parents, was to “keep and work” it.

This day of the Passover in which the liturgy was to be performed, is a day of “remembrance” (12:14). To the Hebrew, “remembrance” (Heb. zikkārôn) is not a mere cognitive, subjective, act of recalling something to mind as it is to us in our culture. Rather, remembrance is an objective liturgical act where the worshipers were transported back in time to the original historical event in a way that made them as present to that event as the ones who first experienced it. We see this in 12:26-27 where the deliverance is as much the experience of the children in generations to come as the first generation. History is therefore preserved in the liturgical act, and is given continuous meaning as the generations pass by. There is no word for “history” in Hebrew. What we have is the word “remember” (Heb. zākar) which is essentially linked to liturgical action. History becomes a prayer acted out in liturgy, a sacred drama, a reenactment.

Now it is true that liturgy can become an empty form when done thoughtlessly or in ignorance. The prophets condemn this and it is an ever present danger (e.g. Is.1:10-17). But it is equally true that without the objective prayer acted out in the community, we are no longer essentially connected with the past, and we become lost in our own subjectivity. There is a direct relationship between our present disregard for history and our disdain for the ancient liturgy. Most Christians are aware, at least vaguely, that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Passover sacrifice described here in Ex. 12, but many do not experience it liturgically, and therefore do not experience it as a corporate, objective act of worship. That is, they are not, as the ancient Hebrews were with their Passover, transported back to the original sacrifice of Jesus at the cross, thus binding themselves to Jesus with all the ages of worshipers in one divine moment at Eucharist. This is because they are completely blinded to the ancient idea of history by our modern idea of history given to us by the Enlightenment. Worship is reduced for them to subjective feelings and has little to no objective reality in the here and now.

The Christian liturgy of the Eucharist is often called the “divine liturgy,” especially by the Eastern Orthodox. We see from the connection made above between the garden of our origins in Eden and the liturgy of the Passover to the Holy Eucharist that we enter into paradise through the prayers acted out together. Only then does history become real to us rather than some vague mental recollection of something that happened long ago.

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