Two nights separated by 1,500 years; two nights similarly marked by contingency and ambiguity. In Exodus, we hear that God will unleash his tenth plague upon the Egyptians, the death of all their firstborn whether human or animal, whether as high as the Pharaoh or as low as a prisoner, to cause such suffering and desolation that Pharaoh will free the Israelites from slavery. The Egyptians’ unprecedented cries of grief, horror, and anger will call for the immediate expulsion of the Israelites from Egypt into a new life of freedom.
The Israelites, however, did not know exactly what would happen or what they were to do. God, however, gives them a new commandment, telling them how to get ready for the great change that will come in a moment’s notice. They are to sacrifice a lamb and mark their doors with lamb’s blood so that the plague will pass over them; they must make preparation for a quick getaway (thus unleavened bread because the dough will not have time to rise).
Just as God makes that night a “night of vigil,” they too are to make it a “night of vigil.” They are to be acutely attuned to each and every sound and movement around them—to be on pins and needles, readying themselves mentally and physically to respond to whatever happens. Theirs is an active vigil held in uneasy anticipation of change that will bring uncertainty as well as freedom.
On the eve of Passover more than 1,500 years later, Jesus shares a meal with his disciples, and what had been certain to them—continuing to learn from him and be his companions —is suddenly thrown into question. Startlingly, Jesus washes their feet (the lowest of lowly acts), declares his impending betrayal, signals his imminent departure from them through death, and tells them this is for the good that God has in store for his people (John 13:33).
They did not know exactly what would happen or what they were to do. Nor, do we know the exact details for ourselves. However, like God did so long ago for the Israelites, God gives a new commandment on this night of vigil, telling the disciples and us how to ready ourselves for what is to come: “love one another” (13:34). As we approach our expulsion from bondage to sin into the freedom of reconciliation and rebirth through Christ’s death and resurrection—our Passover—we are to “love one another.” Our vigil is to be a vigil of engaged love. We are to be actively attentive, loving one another other in body and soul, as God leads us into the great salvation that he has begun to accomplish.
The Rev. Dr. Heather Warren