What Good is the Past?

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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"This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the LORD; throughout your generations you shall observe it as an ordinance for ever. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread; on the first day you shall put away leaven out of your houses, for if any one eats what is leavened, from the first day until the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel. On the first day you shall hold a holy assembly, and on the seventh day a holy assembly; no work shall be done on those days; but what every one must eat, that only may be prepared by you. And you shall observe the feast of unleavened bread, for on this very day I brought your hosts out of the land of Egypt: therefore you shall observe this day, throughout your generations, as an ordinance for ever. In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at evening, you shall eat unleavened bread, and so until the twenty-first day of the month at evening. For seven days no leaven shall be found in your houses; for if any one eats what is leavened, that person shall be cut off from the congregation of Israel, whether he is a sojourner or a native of the land. You shall eat nothing leavened; in all your dwellings you shall eat unleavened bread." Exodus 12:14-20 (RSV)

And when the hour came, he sat at table, and the apostles with him. And he said to them, "I have earnestly desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you I shall not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God." And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, "Take this, and divide it among yourselves; 18 for I tell you that from now on I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes." And he took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, "This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me." Luke 22:14-19 (RSV)

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, "This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes. 1 Cor. 11:23-26 (RSV)

For Americans, past is past: old news languishing in dusty books. History—to think about it all—is about knowing the Cubs’ last game in the World Series. Then again, every now and then, through personal drama such as the loss of a child or an Olympic gold medal, or through something more public, such as 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina, we learn again that the outlines of our stories are shaped by the forces of the past.

In the Old Testament, the most important celebration was the Passover feast, when Israel recalled its deliverance from Egypt’s slavery. In Exodus 12:14-20, the Lord instructs Israel on the festival’s significance: "This day shall be a day of remembrance for you," He says through Moses, ". . . for on this very day I brought your companies out of the land of Egypt" (vv. 14, 17). For all generations to come, the Israelites are to remember their day of new freedom. At the same time, Passover is a particular brand of remembrance—more accurately a re-presenting because all subsequent generations were to confess that God had brought them out of Egypt. Not only were they to mark a past event; in their remembrance of the past, they would receive blessings in the present.

In the New Testament, Israel’s past is absorbed into the world-shaping story of Jesus’ present and future. On the night of His betrayal, with His disciples at the table of the feast of remembrance, Jesus turned the light onto history as He inaugurated a new understanding of Passover. Luke reports that in the midst of the Passover meal, Jesus took a loaf, blessed it, and gave it to His disciples, saying: “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). The Apostle Paul tells us that later this celebration would become a chief means by which Christians remember (re-present!) and proclaim the Lord’s death until He returns (1 Cor. 11:23-26). In the Eucharist, believers mark Christ’s death not as a past event only but as a means to celebrate their present forgivenness—their deliverance from the slavery of sin.

Even those who think little of the past, struggle to make sense of their lives. Why do things happen this way? What sense or order do I make of these events? In the light of life’s questions, knowledge of the past is essential. History is not a scattered field of random past events like baseball championships or the first season of Seinfeld; it is the story of God’s plan in the world. The Israelites’ exodus and Christ’s death are but two central stories in the magnificent plot in which we also are players. History matters, and it concerns me vitally. Indeed, only within the contours of what came before—for nations, peoples, armies, and souls—do we contemporary people begin to understand what is happening today.