The word Pharaoh in Hebrew moves in a great many etymological directions. It means great one, leader and ruler, but its root, prh, also contains elements of binding and unbinding. This is entirely logical. To be powerful is to gather up and to set loose. Remember Jesus’ saying to Peter in Matthew, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Binding and loosing are what we do when we fast, when we celebrate, when we repent, when we pray.
In ancient mythology, the universe itself was a conversation between order and chaos, often contained in a single figure, like the sacred serpent monster that held it all in its cosmic coils. Dealing with chaos, therefore, is one of the great tasks of theological life. Drew University theologian Catherine Keller writes in her book Face of the Deep, that God did not create ex nihilo, out of nothing. There is no creativity in nothing. Nothing, as we shall later see, is death. Rather, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.” This suggests not hands conjuring matter out of nowhere, but creation as awakening, as formless matter receiving form and sense, as a great gathering together that awakens and becomes conscious, God as mind. To be fully awake, therefore, is to somehow make this journey from formless chaos into conscious life, from our beginnings as liquid in the womb, through our material life in the body, to our full spiritual formation as the people of God.
In the Passover, the people were born again, from the slavery of a purely physical life to a new, spirit filled understanding of themselves and the universe. Passover is the mystery reenacted in the baptism of John when people are submerged in the waters and death passes over them. Passover, as was earlier said, was the meal Jesus shared with his disciples on the night before he died. Because we Christians think of Passover as part of our watery mystery of baptism, it is good to remember that Passover does not refer to the passing of the Israelites over the sea. They had already been saved from death by the time that happened. Their passover happened when the angel of death passed over them on the night of Egypt’s final plague. Their passover was when their firstborn were spared and their lives could continue. Their passover was assured by the lamb's blood on the lintels of their houses, for God ordered them to kill a lamb for each household as nourishment and to use the blood as a mark so that the angel of death would know them as God's chosen that night. That night marked their journey from death to life, just as the Cross would mark Jesus’, just as baptism by water and the spirit marks ours.
When the Israelites emerged from the Red Sea, they completed a process of re-creation from the chaos of the world they left behind and were literally made a new people. In like manner, in the ancient Church, the weeks leading toward Easter was the season in which those seeking to become the people of the Christ entered deeply into preparation for their baptism. In the ancient church, baptism involved stripping down to utter nakedness, as Christ was stripped for the cross and being submerged beneath the waters three times. Emerging from the waters, the new Christian was clothed in white and fed a first meal of milk and honey to celebrate that person’s arrival in the promised land of eternal life. The old life loosed, its old clothes strewn across the past, the new life was bound in the love of God become human in Christ. All these mingled tales and mysteries deal with a place beyond fate and fear, and during Lent we spend time with the mysteries of fate and fear because it is hard to experience deliverance until you know what it is you are being delivered from. Lent is the season when I face what enslaves me. Lent is the season when, with God’s help, I seek my own shape and form in the midst of my life’s chaos.