Passover, Betrayal, and Deep
by Catherine McNiel
he leans over to pass the plate of bitter herbs, her shawl grazing the edge of the Passover table. The bitterness is to remind us of our bondage, our suffering. And my phone rings.
Reaching down to silence the ringer, I recognize the name of a neighbor I hardly know, rarely talk to, and never call. I ignore it.
“Why on this night do we dip the herbs twice?” My child asks the traditional question, and our host offers the traditional answer: The greenness of the herbs reminds us of springtime, of new life. We dip the parsley in salt to remember the weeping. We dip the bitter herbs in sweetness to recall that from suffering comes redemption.
And my phone rings again.
Around the table we drink a cup of wine, symbolizing deliverance— and my phone rings.
We cover and uncover the matzah, a picture of brokenness and division that will one day become wholeness and unity—and my phone rings.
Finally, I am alarmed enough to excuse myself and step into the next room. As the rituals of suffering-becoming-redemption are carried out around me, I struggle to absorb the news from my frantic neighbor: I have been the victim of a crime. During the reenacting of this Passover I am pulled away—away from this same reenactment that Judas hastily left so many years ago. He left this ceremony of suffering and hope to betray. I am pulled away to discover that I am betrayed.
All through the long dark night my husband and I search for understanding. Silent car rides, meetings with police, confrontations with the accused. We stand outdoors in the cold, looking through windows—our windows—from the outside. Standing in darkness, peering into a dimly lit room, wondering how to get from where we are back into the light.
We had moved recently, and our condo, our first home, was under contract to be sold. Everything about this change was outside my comfort zone. The market was poor, and the financial hit was staggering. The process moved forward on a knife’s edge. And then, just weeks before closing, on Passover, came the unbelievable news that someone we knew had broken into our now-empty home, moved herself in, replaced the locks, drawn up a forged lease, and called it her own.
Amazingly, the law was not on our side; at least not at first. Squatter laws—written with vulnerable women and children in mind—give rights to whoever lives on a property currently, however shaky their legal right to be there. The same laws that offer dearly needed justice to unwanted ex-girlfriends tossed out on the streets by their homeowning boyfriends now put us in an impossible position. The police believed us, but they could not remove the woman and her children from our house. The expertly forged lease she waved in their faces gave them reason even to doubt our story.
For days we held vigil, one of us outside our condo, the other at the police station. For a week, this went on day and night.
It was Holy Week.
Our vigil kept us from marking the sacred days: Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday. But the liturgy and its meaning are written so deeply into my soul that the words echoed through my mind all the same.
So it happened that while I reflected on Holy Week and the alchemy of redemption in Christ—in whom death, sin, pain, suffering, injustice, forgiveness, and love are mingled—in the same physical and mental space, I suffered pain and searing anger, strained for justice, encountered injustice, and longed to be known and vindicated, to forgive and be forgiven, to love and be loved.
Above all, I pondered redemption.
Late at night on Friday, Good Friday, we received a call from the police. New information had been uncovered, and the woman who stole our house had been arrested on other charges, and her children removed. While we still could not legally clear out her things, have keys made, or take back our condo (it would require her voluntary change of heart or a sheriff with a judge’s eviction notice to do that), the police let us in to sort out our own belongings.
What a poignant and painful thing it was to walk up the steps to my house—through the doorway where I brought my own babies home from the hospital on their second day of life; that sanctuary now a place of fear and pain.
Inside that doorway was another woman’s life, a woman who also sought sanctuary for her babies. Everything was deceptively arranged as though she had lived there for months, as the forged lease indicated. Her things, my things; the two us intertwined without my consent.
In the hours between Good Friday and Holy Saturday, we went through our-home-that-was-her-home, sorting our things from hers.
Touching with our hands the intimate mingling of ourselves and our adversary.
Never before or since have I received such a bittersweet gift, an invitation to see an enemy’s life as she sees it.
Her pantry and her closets. The gifts hiding for her children’s birthdays, and the homemade presents they affectionately made for her. The DVDs promising escape and a better life through romance. Postcards from televangelists promising a get-rich-quick theology. Her intimate hopes and dreams reflected in everyday things, like those we each gather around us.
In those hours of sorting, I saw how she was raised and how she lived. I saw what resources she did and did not have, her feisty courage, her brokenness, her desperate attempts and frightening failures. I saw the layers upon layers of injustice others had heaped upon her, as well as the social and systemic abuses in which we all play a part. I saw that these things were intermingled with her own wrong, illegal, and unjust choices.
But the first and overwhelming thing I saw when I looked at my perpetrator was a woman who was utterly broken, herself a victim of so much injustice and pain; and I saw that I could not pick up a stone to throw at her. Legal recourse, yes, for her sake as well as my own. But even the furious anger pulsing through me was not large enough to keep down the compassion and—yes—love I felt for her. From just a glimpse through the lens of God, who sees all things, I saw she was my sister. Yes, I had filled my life with better choices—but only after others filled me with better resources, training, encouragement, and love. That I have these things—unearned and overflowing at my disposal—does not qualify me to look down on those who do not.
To whom much is given, much will be required.
Late that night, in the middle of literal and spiritual darkness, I wrote down this cry for redemption:
She has only processed white flour and sugar, bologna and junk food— no fruits or vegetables, grain or meat. She has cable in every room but no books, games, music, or friends. She has letters and promises and formulas for wealth from God but no evidence of Good News, of Love and Grace. She has tips on how to win the lottery and a trail of shortlived employment start-date letters and pay stubs. She has love notes from her babies and school notes reporting their fights, suspensions, and failures. She has a journal of love songs and poems and court documents for her divorce and custody disputes.
She has committed crimes against us, lied to and about us, forged legal documents in our name, broken and entered our house, pushed us to the limits, and forced the loss of finances and property.
She is lost, scared, and desperate. She has nowhere to go and no one to help her. She has children and dreams of security for them and for herself. She is homeless and has a picture of a sprawling California mansion on her nightstand.
She needs mercy.
We need justice.
My longing is for restoration, but my recourse is the law.
We spend our working days advocating for the vulnerable, while advocating in our spare time for her arrest.
I am vulnerable to her crimes, and she is vulnerable to my rights.
She needs compassion but seeks help through lawlessness.
She has hurt us and is hurting.
She is the wicked and evil in my life but the broken victim in her own.
I cannot accept a redemption story that does not keep her in its deepest and most precious heart. You can see her childhood and her past, those things that molded and broke her, the life built by junk food and junk companionship.
You know it all and more.
This Easter, and in the final day, what redemption do You have in mind? A new earth must have room for the living things that both kill us and give us life and for this woman who is both criminal and precious child.
I am undone.
Rebuild me according to your truth.
As the sun rose, we went home and to bed. My troubled thoughts wandered to a friend walking through a time of darkness, meandered next to my children, then to my husband, then to other friends and family in their own darknesses. I pondered how each person is as valuable to someone as my babies are to me, that somehow life is both unfathomably precious and utterly fragile—that God-sized redemption must swallow us all, not merely skim a little off the top.
Just after sunrise, the room floods with light, the scent of spring flowers, and the sound of bells—the symbolism of new life, of darkness vanquished, of Good News that interrupts all sounds of weeping. On this Easter morning my mind is jammed with tortured thoughts, the abstract theology of Jesus’s triumph over evil juxtaposed starkly with the crime that has overtaken my life.
She sits in jail this morning. I sit in church.
Theology, this Easter, cannot be abstract. Suffering, redemption, grace, sin, and forgiveness stare me in the face and demand an answer. The pain and anger in life up close means that Resurrection cannot be limited to the safe domain of songs and stories. It cannot be contained by those of us dressed up in the pews on Sunday.
Surrounded by jubilant celebration, I can’t help but ask: What does this mean for her? For my enemy who is my sister? And more, what can this possibly mean for her-and-me, one entity meant to sit and receive together the shocking news of Resurrection?
Redemption is wholeness for both of us, not one of us triumphing over the other.
When he announced his redemption of the world, to the world, he did not address only those who were only a little broken and could run to him; he did not overlook those so shattered they could neither hear his voice nor lift broken arms toward his saving hands. It is not redemption if the most broken and destroyed among us are not made whole. God’s promise cannot be limited to me and those like me. If he is to make things new, then redemption includes my enemies. If God’s redemptive story is true, it is true for the real world and every ugly, broken thing suffering within it. Resurrection redemption reaches all the way into death and decay.
The question pulses through me with every breath: if I understand what Easter is about, how can I celebrate it without her? The redemption initiated by Christ is not my righteousness triumphing over her lawlessness. That is simply the righteousness under the law, the former thing. But now, in Christ, a new mystery is revealed. Resurrection redemption is full restoration of her life and mine. Restoration of her life with mine.
We cannot truly celebrate alone. After all, in God’s kingdom the lion will lie down with the lamb.
If I believe Christ’s Easter story in its fullness and follow it to its conclusion, what can the truth be but this? And if this is true, what other truth could be large enough to overcome it?
My phone rings again.
The police officer assigned to our case asks to meet me at the condo; the woman who stole our home has agreed to leave. Even so, the law states that only she can remove her possessions from our house.
Since she is in jail, her friend is coming to pack up instead.
A moving crew joins us, and as they carry clothing and furniture to the truck, they look at me quizzically. “We just moved this stuff into the condo two weeks ago. What’s going on?”
My job is to be a witness, along with the police, as this friend boxes the possessions, as the movers carry them out. My heart breaks as I realize that the “friend” is a sister of a former boyfriend. The two women haven’t spoken in years—yet this was the closest kin she knew to call at such a desperately dark hour.
Finally, the empty house is ours again. The sale under contract can continue toward closing. What was lost has been found. What was stolen has been redeemed.
At least, for me.
“Why on this night do we dip the herbs twice?” On Passover night, my child asks the traditional question and receives the traditional answer: The greenness of the herbs reminds us of springtime, of new life. We dip the parsley in salt to remember the weeping. We dip the bitter herbs in sweetness to recall that from suffering comes redemption.
This is deep redemption. Not pruning a bit off the top, but swallowing up from the roots. New Creation must undo and remake every broken, breaking, destructive piece and turn it to wholeness and life. Only by joining this story of redeeming power can we ever hope. Not for protection, perhaps, or safety, but for ultimate salvation and love. The sort of love that, once or twice in a lifetime, feels so tangible you could reach out and grab ahold of it.
On Resurrection Sunday, as on Passover, the bitter herbs of all our brokenness are dipped, twice. In the deepest magic of his redemption, our suffering and bondage are taken into his fathomless arms—and made green with new life.
She sits in jail; I sit at home. She chooses deception and theft against me, while I pursue her conviction. She will lose everything she sacrificed for; I will recover all I have lost. Deep redemption has not yet come, for we cannot yet sit together and rejoice, made new and set free. We are truly enemies.
I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Even in the darkest hour. Each of us.
The matzah crumbling in my hands is broken. But it will be brought back together. Somewhere in the world-made-new my enemy and I sit and drink the wine of rejoicing, whole.
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Catherine McNiel is a seeker who writes to open eyes to the creative and redemptive work of God in each moment. She is the author of “Long Days of Small Things: Motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline” (NavPress 2017), and her writing has appeared in numerous books and articles. Catherine serves alongside her husband in a community-based ministry, while caring for three kids, two jobs, and one enormous garden. Connect with Catherine at catherinemcniel.com or on Twitter @catherinemcnielhttp://www.catherinemcniel.com
To read the other Everbloom essays, pre-order from Amazon.com, Paraclete Press, Barnes & Noble and Christian Book Distributors