In 1974 I was in a cult in Colorado. That spring our leader announced that we would celebrate a Seder (Passover meal). This ritual meal celebrates the miracle that finally released the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt.
Some of us knew about Moses and the plagues he brought upon Egypt; the ultimate plague was death for all first born male children and animals. The angel of death passed over the houses marked with blood of the sacrificial lamb.
Tirzah, a Jewess, headed the project. She sent us out to collect items we’d need: yarmulkes, the small head covering for the men, the Haggadah, the order of service and text for the evening, the Seder plate, which displays the symbolic elements. It became a physical and spiritual treasure hunt.
|photo by Robert Couse-Baker|
Reuven, the Jewish man taught us the songs in Hebrew.
The cult leader wanted to take us one step deeper into tradition -- the ceremonial slaughter of the sheep. The man assigned to slaughter the lamb was tall and burly. He had a thicket of a beard, and long curly hair. He’d come from a hunting, woodsy background. I thought of him as Paul Bunyan.
The leader told him to go to the Kosher slaughter house to learn the methods for the ritual killing and referred him to Exodus 12, where God gave Moses the original instructions. I went home and read it.
whole assembly of the congregation of Israel is to kill it at twilight. Moreover, they shall take some of the blood and put it on the lintel of the house in which they eat it.
And they shall eat the flesh that night, roasted with fire, and they shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs."
Tirzah kept us on task, checking off items on her do list, until our preparations for the Seder were accomplished. Behind our rented building, the men dug a pit large enough to hold a whole sheep. The fire in the pit died down to hot coals so the meat could be roasted as required.
We stood in a circle between the building and the pit. We could feel the heat from the coals, smell the sheep’s wool, and hear our feet sliding over the gravel in the driveway. “Paul” held the lamb between his legs, its chin in his left hand. It was as tall as his knees. Few of us had hunted or seen an animal slaughtered. I expected the animal to be kicking and bleating. But it stood quietly, without apparent fear, as if it trusted its handler, which may be the nature of sheep. We stood quietly too, but I felt a small tremble of fear for the lamb. Or was it fear of the slaughter?
"Paul” hefted the blade lying near his foot. He examined the special knife. It was about eighteen inches long, unpointed. He ran his fingernail over the blade to make sure that it had no nicks which could tear the throat of the animal. Satisfied that it was sharp, he closed his eyes and spoke a short blessing. Then he took a deep breath. The muscles in his arm bulged as he gripped the knife and bent down over the head of the sheep. He would not stab the animal, because the goal was to kill the animal quickly, cleanly, and painlessly. In one forceful slice he severed the trachea , esophagus, and jugular vein of the lamb. As blood poured out Reuven caught some in a basin. Paul continued to hold the lamb while its front legs buckled. Then it sat on its back haunches, and eventually, its chin lay on the ground. Reuven took the basin, dipped a branch into it, and painted blood up the right side of the door frame, over the door, and down the left side.
We filed in and left the butchering to Paul and his team. Sobered by the sacrifice of the lamb, we worked quietly. I was awed by the way the lamb had died, almost consensually, without struggle. It had folded itself as it would in sleep, without protest.
The death was the purest thing I had ever seen.
I understand it more fully now. In Acts 8:32 Jesus’ disciple describes him:
“He was led as a sheep to slaughter, and as a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth.”
Because of that sacrifice, we have a contemporary “passover”. When we ask Jesus to forgive us our sin, and “cover” us with his blood, the angel of death passes over us. Passover prefigured Christ's death and our salvation.