The Destroyer and the Servant

By Katherine Sonderegger

“When I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt” (Ex. 12, 13)

It has come. Finally, it has come. The long vigil we have kept, working to build of great cities of Pharaoh, the cities of Ramses and New York, of Boston and London and Milan and Beijing — that vigil of working and waiting and watching is now over. The plague has come. The night of the Destroyer has now closed in around us.

Of course there were weeks and months, years really, when we did not see this coming, did not prepare or consider such things. We worked in Egypt, laborers on the great projects of a mighty power, building up slowly, brick by brick, the monuments of a stable and ambitious nation, and day by day the pyramids and office parks, the temples and schools and storefronts, the places of commerce, of leisure, of luxury, springing up under our hands.

We ate our fill then. Egypt was a land of leeks and onions, of fleshpots filled with every food the world could supply. It seemed unshakable, permanent and confident, like the very stones that decorated the plazas and museums and great halls of a rich land. Of course we knew that in the midst of this opulence, some suffered, suffered greatly.

While some of us lived in the palace of the great Pharaoh, others were little more than slaves, laboring at jobs that gave them no benefits, no leisure time, no security at all, but only the terrifying thought that they could not keep to the quota of bricks, even bricks without straw, and would join that great army of the unemployed, the destitute.

We saw all that, and even before the mighty prophet of God arose, we knew that we were “knit in one fabric of destiny” and that a stark divide ran straight through the middle of Egypt, our own homeland. But still in the midst of all that we saw, we could not believe that anything could shake this realm and shatter its confident expanse along the banks of the Nile.

All that has changed now. For a time, the prophets in our midst, with their charts and algorithmic predictions and warnings like so many staffs turned to serpents, seemed matched by the deniers, with their own secret arts. Perhaps the Destroyer would come among us; but perhaps not! We were unsure then.

But now that season of waiting is all over. It has come; and everything has changed. The mighty engines of world empire — of commerce and world trade, of international travel and tourism, of schooling at university and daycare, of government and medicine and houses of worship — all these have shuddered to a halt, and we do not know when it will all return or how it can.

We now hear the cries of the Egyptians ringing out in the night: the calamity in Italy, of the suffering who must die alone, the hospitals overburdened, the doctors and nurses desperate for supplies, the scars imprinted on the Chinese people, the roaring crisis in New York, and the lamentations raised over the sick and dying in Los Angeles, in Detroit and New Orleans, in Miami and Washington, D.C. We know the Destroyer now, and he has brought the plague in his wake.

And not just Egypt has been forced to reckon with the night: the small band of disciples, gathered around their Teacher that Passover in Jerusalem, tasted fear and destruction that Maundy Thursday in the Upper Room. Long gone were the palmy days in Galilee when Jesus was approved by the crowds, and everyone praised the words that fell from his lips. Long gone were the fresh disciples, eagerly joining in with the 12 in their adventure with this Teacher and Wonder-worker. No one was cutting through the roof to lower the sick down to be healed, no town, crowding around the doorway to be taught or healed or told the way to inherit eternal life.

Long gone the Pharisees such as Nicodemus coming at night to be taught by Jesus, the Scribes who were not far from the kingdom. No, this Passover the night has come and the Destroyer is in their midst. Ahead lies only deeper conflict, harsher rejection, bitter words, bitter deeds. The disciples are truly alone in this Upper Room, the 12 with their Teacher, and they must hear this night that one of them would betray their Lord. It seems there is nothing left for the Destroyer to do.

Fear is all around, violent arrest and execution just over the next hill, grief and uncertainty and defiance even among the inner circle, the whole great engine of preaching and healing and announcing the coming kingdom, all shuddered to a halt. Jesus had spoken of his rejection and death before, but really, who could believe that? But now, that Love and Light of the world, the Beloved Son, seemed destined for nowhere but death.

Then something wonderful happened, breaking into that night of fear and grief, a wonder every bit as great as the mighty deliverance under Moses in that Passover long ago. Their Teacher and Lord rises from the table, takes off his outer cloak, ties a towel around his waist, and kneels down before his disciples, to wash their feet. Jesus has become a slave, a slave in Egypt. He does the slave’s work, washing and wiping and bending down before his disciples; even before the one who would betray him.

That act of washing, so common and, now we see, so vital to life itself, Jesus has taken for his very own. He will make this washing our way of life, our means of participating in him, of having a share, as did Peter and Judas that night, in the Resurrection and the Life who is Jesus Christ. The water that divided like walls to allow the Israelites to pass through on dry feet has now become the water that bathes and cleanses those feet, a washing that leads to eternal life. Jesus that night injected into the darkest pit of plague and fear the love that is his own heart, his own humble service. Into death and fear of death, he has brought love, a love to the end, his own most bitter end.

In our night, too, the Lord Jesus kneels at our feet, robed in his garment of a slave, ready to wash, ready to love, ready to be the means and gateway to Life. This does not mean we will not sicken or die, nor that those whom Christ loves — this dear world of his making — will not suffer greatly in this hour of pestilence and need. Even the ancient Israelites who escaped slavery by water that Passover night tasted hunger, temptation, and death in the wilderness where Moses led them.

But they knew, as Christians have known since our Lord’s death, so very near now, that blood on the lintel will save: Christ’s blood, the lifeblood of love, will deliver us, in our fear, in our uncertainty, in our sickness and at the hour of our death: we are washed by that one slave, and in life as in death, we are his. So even in this night we have everything to be grateful for, a rich thanksgiving to raise, because this one death brings life, and this one washing eternal life. This is Christ’s tender nearness to us this night: amid the cries and lamentations, can you hear his call, his water rushing into the basin, his love ready to illumine every dark place? Listen this night, for he is calling us!

The Rev. Dr. Katherine Sonderegger is the William Meade Chair of Systematic Theology at Virginia Theological Seminary.

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