This post is a little past its proper time, since everyone celebrated both Easter and Passover two weeks ago, and even the Orthodox finally got around to it last week on our crazy calendar. (Disclaimer: Nothing I say about the Julian-Gregorian calendar disputes should be taken as a statement of strongly held opinion or expertise. Full stop.) So it’s a little late to be reflecting on Lent. But since I spent Lent and Pascha running crazily back and forth between my office and Lenten and Paschal services, I’m only getting around to it now, and shamelessly expect your forgiveness. Here goes.
I’ve never been able to fully grasp the significance of eating matzah during the weeks of Passover. Granted, this may have a little something to do with the fact that I have celeac disease and pretty much never have any bread in the house, whether leavened or unleavened, nor can I actually eat the matzah when the time comes. But beyond that, the eating of crummy-tasting bread to remind us of the crummy-tasting bread our ancestors ate in the desert never struck me as particularly symbolically powerful – especially since the food of real import in the desert was manna, not matzah.
This year, we got together with some friends, also of partly Jewish ancestry, for a Passover seder. As we were working our way through the Haggadah (courtesy of the AHC), I found myself reflecting for the first time on the fact that matzah is referred to as “the bread of affliction” – the bread that had to be cooked quickly and any-which-way, without leavening, because the Israelites were fleeing Egypt, pushed by fear of the Pharaoh and pulled by fear of God Almighty.
The reason it drew my attention was because – with Passover falling just before the start of Holy Week this year – I was getting really, really tired of Lent. The traditional Orthodox fast has been getting harder for me the last couple of years, especially as I’ve lost weight; plus I’m one of those people who just really, really like red meat. I may not have been eating bread, but I sure felt like my daily meals were consisting largely of vegetables of affliction.
The eating of matzah and the Lenten fast have in common precisely this matter of affliction. The bread of affliction is not just a reminder of what happened in Egypt several thousand years ago, an object lesson of the kind elementary school teachers like to come up with for their charges. The two both point to the spiritual truth that freedom – from the oppression of Egypt as well as the oppression of sin – cannot be gained without the suffering of the body.
In the celebration of Passover, the fast begins after the feast – the eating of matzah is inaugurated at the seder and continues for two weeks afterward. The feast refreshes and the fast supports the national memory. But in the Christian tradition the fast comes first, and the Feast is the fulfillment and reward of the labor of its spiritual discipline. Our diet of affliction is ended and reconciled (and just to make sure we get the point, we eat lots of meat and cheese non-stop for an entire week after Pascha). That of the Jews remains unresolved – but until when?
(On a completely unrelated note, Planet Money did a great short podcast entitled “The Matzo Economy”… check it out.)