Christmas 1 · Exodus 13:1-3a, 11-15 · December 27, 2009
By Travis J. Scholl
“The text is designed so that the memory is a generative event in subsequent generations of Israel, generative of energy and courage for the belated contexts in which God’s people will again face oppression, will again cry out in pain, and will again appeal to the God of all departures.” So says Walter Brueggemann of the context of Exodus 12-13 in general and of this pericope in particular (An Introduction to the Old Testament, 57). The event we are remembering is the exodus from Egypt. The event’s ongoing ability to generate energy and courage in the lives of God’s people is enacted in this liturgy of sacrifice and redemption.
This commandment of ancient Israel’s God stands in stark contrast to the gods of ancient Israel’s neighbors. Israel’s consecration of the firstborn is decisively not an act of human sacrifice to ensure fertility. For YHWH, this liturgy commemorates redemption, the liberation of his chosen people from oppression into covenantal relationship with him. The whole point is that the firstborn children live in that covenant, in the mercy and loving-kindness of a God who shall be their life all their days. “When in the future your child asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall answer, ‘By strength of hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery…'” (v. 14).
What does this mean? This is a familiar question for Lutheran Christians. And indeed, it is impossible not to view this liturgy of remembrance and redemption without beholding the firstborn of Bethlehem upheld in the taut arms of the old man Simeon and proclaimed by the old prophet Anna (Lk 2:22-40, today’s Gospel reading). This firstborn arises from among the poor (the offering of two turdedoves was for those who couldn’t afford a sheep, Lev 12:8), and his ministry is for those oppressed. And only in this Christ can we who are Gentile, grafted into the vine of God’s chosen, find meaning in this liturgy of remembrance and redemption. In this way, we too are part of the “belated contexts” where sin and death hold sway, awaiting the saving acts of “the God of all departures.” The firstborn of God his Father, though, is consecrated not to be redeemed, but to redeem. And his life is dedicated from birth to death, from conception to resurrection, to the work of redeeming not only the children of Israel, but all of humankind, all the world, and the whole cosmos. Once for all.
Thus, our liturgy this Christmastide is also “a generative event… of energy and courage.” We cry out in pain, and God acts in grace and mercy. Or, to put it another way, the Word at the center of the liturgy generates faith in our hearts. We receive that gift “in remembrance of him.”
Indeed, we are once again at the beginning of the extraordinary liturgical journey of remembering his life on this earth: “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him” (Lk 2:40, more about that wisdom next week). We depart the liturgy “in peace,” singing “a light for revelation to the Gentiles” (Lk 2:29-32).