The New Passover

March 18 2010 | by

THIS IS THE Passover of the Lord. With these words, the Jewish people celebrate the miraculous intervention of God when he brought the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt to a new freedom in the land flowing with milk and honey. With these words, Christians celebrate the new Passover, the Death and Resurrection of Jesus, which has liberated us from our slavery to sin and given us a new freedom, the freedom of the children of God. These two events are intimately connected. The first prepares us for the second. That is why, as we celebrate our Easter Vigil, we read the account of that first Passover so that we will understand the context of what Jesus did for us on Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

The First Passover

Passover is the most important Jewish festival, for it marks their birth as a people. The feast was originally celebrated as an agricultural festival in the spring. It seems to have been a ritual to celebrate the birth of the lambs. This is why it involved a sacrifice of a year-old lamb from the previous year’s crop. The Hebrew name for Passover is Pesach (which literally means leaping), and probably refers to the leaping of the new born lambs.

The feast took on an entirely new meaning when God freed the Israelite slaves from Egypt under the leadership of Moses. Instead of interpreting the word Pesach as leaping, it was interpreted as ‘passing over’. Thus, it was understood as referring to the passing over of the Angel of Death which killed all of the first born of the Egyptians, but passed over the first born of the Israelites, leaving them unharmed. It also refers to the passing over of the Red Sea, when the Israelites were able to pass through the sea on dry ground after Moses had parted the waters.

This event was so important that the Israelites were commanded to celebrate it every year. They would dress up just as they had that eventful night and read the account of what God had done for His people. It is interesting that as they read the account, they believed that they were not just reciting past events. They were somehow participating in the miracle – they were somehow present.

A Second Exodus

This is why this event became a symbol for the Lord’s saving interventions throughout the history of Israel. When the people of Israel were exiled to Babylon in 587 BC, the prophets spoke of a ‘new exodus’ that would bring the people back from the land of their exile. They told the people not to speak of past events (referring to what God had done in Egypt), for God would perform new events that would be even greater than those of the past. God would level mountains and fill in valleys so that the people of Israel could return to their homeland without any difficulty. Just as God had given His chosen people a covenant in the desert when He gave Moses the Ten Commandments, so now He would give them a new covenant. Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel speak of how this covenant would not be written upon stone, it would be written upon the people’s hearts. This covenant would not seem like an external requirement that was imposed upon them, it would be internalized. According to the Shema Israel, the formula by which Jewish people profess their faith, they would speak of it at home and abroad, when they were rising in the morning and when they were going to bed for the night.

The definitive exodus

We recall these events each Easter Vigil when we proclaim readings that speak of the first and second exodus of Israel. But that is only to prepare us for the proclamation of the definitive exodus, one in which we pass from death to life.

The connection between the Death and Resurrection of Jesus and the Passover is a natural one. Jesus, after all, died during Passover season. The Synoptics, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, speak of how Jesus ate the Last Supper as the Passover meal on Thursday night, for the Passover began at sundown on Thursday that year. John speaks about how Jesus’ Last Supper meal on Thursday night was actually an anticipation of the Passover which began on Friday night (which is why the leaders of the Jews could not enter Pilate’s palace when they brought Jesus to him on Good Friday morning, for they wanted to eat the Passover meal that night and they could not afford to become impure by entering the house of a pagan). Either way, the meal that Jesus ate and the actions he performed were closely tied to the Passover celebration.

This is why Jesus was seen as a new Passover lamb. Remember how none of his bones were broken in the Gospel of John when the soldier came to break the legs of those who had been crucified. In fact, if John is correct that Jesus anticipated the Passover meal by a night, then it would mean that He was crucified just as the Passover lambs were being killed to prepare for the Passover meal. This connection between Jesus and a lamb is one that seems to have been recognized right from the beginning of his Ministry. Remember how John the Baptist proclaimed Him as the Lamb of God. John’s phrase was actually a bit ambiguous, for the Aramaic phrase he used could be translated either as lamb (of God) or servant (of God), both of which are appropriate for He was both the sacrifice offered and the servant who offered His life for the sins of His people (the Suffering Servant of Isaiah).

The Eucharist

Since the Last Supper was a Passover meal (whether it was anticipated or not), we should remember the Jewish attitude toward the celebration of that rite. When they read the account of the Exodus experience, they believed they were actually somehow participating in it. Likewise, when we offer up bread and wine which become the body and blood of Christ, we are somehow present at the Last Supper, under the Cross, and at the Resurrection of Jesus.

Even Saint Paul recognized the connection between our Christian Pascal mystery and Passover. He speaks of getting rid of the old leaven. During Passover, since it was also the feast of unleavened bread, the Jewish people would toss out whatever leavened products might be found in their homes. Paul was telling the community to get rid of all of the old ways of thinking and acting, for we were purifying ourselves for a new feast.

The connection between the Cross and Resurrection and Passover is brought out best in the Book of Revelation. There Jesus is presented as a lamb which had been slain, but which was now standing (for He had risen from the dead). He had seven horns (7 = perfection, and horns = authority) and seven eyes (eyes = spirit). Jesus has all authority upon heaven and earth, and He is overflowing with the gifts of the Spirit. He is both the lamb which is slain and the priest who offers up that sacrifice, for the Book of Revelation also presents Jesus in the role of the high priest.

This Pascal lamb, Jesus, marries the Church, just as Jesus married the Church upon the Cross. As in marriage when two flesh become one, He gives His flesh to the Church in the Eucharist so that He might be united to her for all eternity. The Passover feast is thus also a wedding banquet, one in which Christ and the Church become one.

Updated on October 06 2016