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Giles Fraser: Liberation at the heart of Easter

15 April 2009

“I PROMISE you that many will come from the East and from the West to take their place at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in heaven’s reign” (Matthew 8.11).

Well, we drove up from the South, from Putney to Finchley. And there we took our place around the dining- room table to celebrate Passover with our friends the Levys.

As well as the traditional Haggadah, with readings and singing in Hebrew and English, there were readings about slavery from the American South and from the War­saw ghetto. We were reminded how many people continue to live in slavery of one sort or another, whether as sex workers or as child soldiers or through sheer poverty.

We listened to Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech with that extraordinarily rousing climax: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” Chag pesach sameach — Happy Passover.

For well over 3000 years, Jews have been celebrating the escape of the people of Israel from their slavery in Egypt. In every country on the earth and in every conceivable circumstance, this great cry of freedom has rung out to challenge and inspire. Long may it continue.

Christians have their own version of this celebration: the eucharist. Yes, there is some dispute whether the Last Supper was itself a Passover meal, the Synoptic Gospels indicat­ing that it was and John’s Gospel that it wasn’t. But even those scholars who side more with John (and I don’t) recognise that the institution of the eucharist contains a high de­gree of cultural sampling from the seder.

Which means that, when we gather round the Lord’s table, we are celebrating our liberation from slavery recognised in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

These days, many self-describing “orthodox” theologians spend their lives falling over themselves to be rude about freedom as a theological principle, dismissing it as a function of liberalism or capitalism, thinking of it as mere wilful self-assertiveness.

Others dismiss liberation-based theologies as being responsible for what they see as the decline in serious theology in the United States, arguing that “serious theology” has been replaced by a politically correct obsession with victims and the marginalised.

This is total bunkum. To under­stand the eucharist as a Passover meal is to recognise that the great cry of freedom is loaded deep within the DNA of all orthodox Christian theology. It has nothing to do with liberalism. Freedom is the beating heart of the story of Easter. Our salvation is thus: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

Canon Fraser is Team Rector of Putney, in south London.

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