The Fourth Cup - April 1, 2013

I do not want this blog to be another iteration of Facebook, informing people I do not know, but have enough respect for that I cannot see boring or embarrassing them, with intimate details of my life. Except for e-mail and new printing know-how, I have done my level best to stay as far away from technologies as is possible, most especially social media. Life is too short to waste it on trivia. If my name is fated to be writ in water, so be it. Far better than splattered with corn syrup.

However, what I want to say about the Fourth Cup makes more sense if I mention a little background. I was born and raised into a Jewish household in the Washington Metropolitan area so long ago that, frankly, it was not so metropolitan. I was the beneficiary of a wonderful family and soaked in all the beauty and tradition of Judaism with precious little of what should have been the accompanying belief. By the time I married the first non-Jewish girl I ever dated, I called myself an agnostic for the simple reason that I did not have enough faith to be an atheist.

My journey (or, rather, my battle; for some, life is an Odyssey; for me it is an Iliad) was shepherded by a wonderful teacher, a great writer, a close friend, and, most especially, that non-Jewish girl. And I brought with me the Old Testament foundation that continues to mark my life.

I am no theologian, but I know a syllogism when I see one, and some events from the Bible or from our own reactions and life experiences remain central. I am afraid that were I to have had a Road to Damascus experience, my reaction would have been more like Scrooge than St. Paul . . . a bad piece of boiled beef. But God is good, and the pathway He has put before me, marked by these remarkable people and many others, has changed every important aspect of my life.

Now to prove that I am not a theologian. For many years now, my wife and I have celebrated both Passover and Easter, often, as this year, in the same week. The haggadah (the Passover prayer book) we use is completely authentic, not a “Christianized” one, but it lends itself to thought and questions and participation. This year I concentrated on the elements of likeness and of difference in Passover v. Easter. For example, both begin with a triumph, degenerate into catastrophe, and finish with a far greater victory. On the other hand, Passover is about saving a people (the salvation portion of the story, the handing over of the Law on Mt. Horeb, is not included), whereas Easter is about salvation, not about specific people or peoples to be saved. I never really thought before about the wide swath there is between saving and salvation.

This Passover I concentrated on the four cups of wine that are traditionally drunk during the Passover seder. The first cup is the Kiddush cup (the cup of sanctification), for blessing the festival day. The second cup (judgment) introduces Psalm 113, a psalm of praise. The third cup (redemption) is taken just after the meal of the unleavened bread. The fourth cup (Kingdom) is used in singing Psalms 115–116 and for the final prayer and exhortation. This tradition of four comes from the four promises that God made in Exodus: I will bring, I will rid, I will redeem, and I will take.

The Last Supper is often seen as a Passover meal, though there are arguments against this (i.e., Pope Benedict XVI gave good arguments that the Last Supper was the evening meal that occurred immediately before the first day of  Passover, which lasts eight days; for example, in John 19:31 we hear “[s]ince it was the day of Preparation, in order to prevent the bodies from remaining on the cross on the sabbath (for that sabbath was a high day),” the legs of those being executed should be broken so that they might die). It is interesting that Judas drank the second cup (judgment) but left the table before the third cup (redemption), whereas Jesus drank the third cup (and here I am assuming specific times in the celebration), but left before the last cup, which is often called the Cup of Elijah, after a part of the seder when a young child opens the door to allow the Prophet to enter.

Elijah plays several prominent parts in the New Testament. He is there at the Transfiguration, representing the Prophets along with Moses, who represents the Law. He is mentioned while Christ recites the 22nd Psalm while on the Cross, when the people misunderstand the first words, “Eli Eli lama sabachthani” to be calling for Elijah. Elijah is the only man mentioned in the Old Testament who is spared death, but ascends into heaven on a chariot. He is to come again to announce the coming of the Messiah at the end of days.

So, if Jesus leaves the meal for Gethsemane after the third cup and before the opening of the door for Elijah, before the fourth cup, the Cup of Elijah, it is for a very good reason: the Messiah is not to come; the Messiah has come.

When Jesus arrives at Gethsemane, he prays to the Father that the cup may pass from him. Could this cup be the fourth cup? If so, Jesus’ actions mean more than asking for a stay of execution; it means a reprieve from Messiahship.

But the Father greatly honored him, perhaps best said in Luke 24:5, when, after the Sabbath, the women came to the tomb to attend to Jesus and found the tomb empty. There they were confronted by two men in dazzling apparel, who asked them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?”