In the spring of each year both Christians and Jews respectively celebrate the foundational events of both of their faiths. For Jews it is the Passover and Christians Easter. At Easter, as you know, we celebrate the Resurrection of Christ. On Passover, Jews remember the Exodus of their people out of slavery in Egypt. The two festivals often fall close to one another, although it so happens this year that Easter is rather early and Passover rather late this year. We will celebrate Easter this coming Sunday on March 27th but Passover won’t begin until April 22nd. The proximity of the two festivals to one another is not coincidental. There is a historical and theological relation to one another. In fact in many places in the world Easter is called Pascha which is Greek for Passover.
On the night before the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ—the night we commemorate today on Maundy Thursday—he gathered with his disciples in the upper room to celebrate the Passover feast with them. As observant Jews this was their custom.
The meal commemorates the meal that their ancestors ate in Egypt when God sent his destroying angel to strike down the first born of every house in the land. The Jews who kept this feast were passed over, they were spared the awful plague, and ultimately delivered from slavery. God commanded his people to keep this feast until the end of the age, and the scriptures give instruction for how it is to be observed. Let’s go over the basic liturgy as described in our reading from Exodus.
First, an unblemished male lamb a year old was to be chosen from the flock of each household. The lamb was to be male because it was to be a kind of substitute for the first born son, but also because the male lambs were considered of more value. This was to be a costly sacrifice. The people were to offer their best and most healthy, not the crippled or the lame.
Second, the lamb was to be taken and sacrificed. At the time of the Exodus, any head of the household could offer the sacrifice on behalf of his family but later in the history of Israel this privilege was preserved for the house of Levi, the priests, after the majority of the other tribes lost their right when they worshiped the Golden Calf. In Jesus’ day, the lambs had to be sacrificed in the Temple and eaten in the city of Jerusalem and so the holy city was brimming with pilgrims during the feast. Not only were the lambs sacrificed, they were also erected on skewers of wood, you might even say they were crucified. Justin Maytr in his dialogue with the rabbi Trypho writes,
“The Lamb, which is roasted, is roasted and dressed up in the form of a cross. For one spit is transfixed right through from the lower parts up to the head, and one across the back, to which are attached the legs of the lamb.”
The third step in the Passover liturgy was to spread the blood of the lamb. In the Exodus story the blood was spread on the door post. When the angel saw the blood on the door posts he would pass by the house and the people would be sparred through the blood of the lamb. In Jesus’ day the blood of the lambs would be poured out on the altar by the priests.
Finally, the fourth step in the Passover liturgy was to eat the lamb. This is the meal that families gather together to observe. The sacrifice was not completed at the slaughter of the lamb, but by a kind of communion by which the people shared in the sacrifice by feasting on its body. The Passover is meant to be more than just a remembrance, it is an actual participation in the events of the original exodus so that those who keep it can say not just that “our fathers were delivered”, but “we were delivered.”
So was this what Jesus was doing with his disciples in the upper room? Yes and no. Jesus was not just celebrating the Passover, he was inaugurating a new exodus and proclaiming a new Passover sacrifice. There were similarities, but there were also differences. For instance there is no reference to a lamb in the gospel descriptions of their meal. There may have been one present, but the emphasis is shifted away from it. Instead when Jesus explains the meaning of the unleavened bread, as it was the hosts’ duty to do, he took it and said, “This is my body.” When he took the cup of wine he told them, “This is my blood.” In doing so, he was proclaiming himself to be the Passover lamb, the sacrifice that would deliver them from sin and lead them out of bondage.
The original Passover celebrated the exodus from Egypt lead by God’s anointed prophet Moses, but Moses foretold of another greater prophet and deliverer yet to come, a messiah who would come at the end of the age to deliver God’s people. Because of this, the Passover became a night of vigil for the coming of the messiah and the salvation he would bring.
In the upper room Jesus was saying, “Now is the end of the age. I am he. The long promised messiah, and salvation will come through me. I will be offered as a sacrifice, lifted high on a cross like the Passover lambs, my blood poured out for the redemption of the world. In order to share in that redemption you must eat my flesh and drink my blood.”
Just as God commanded the people to keep the Passover as a perpetual remembrance of their deliverance from Egypt, so Jesus commands his people to celebrate the Eucharist with bread and whine as a remembrance of his death until he comes again. Just as the people of Israel shared in the exodus through the Passover meal, the Church shares is Jesus’ death through the Eucharistic feast. As Saint Paul writes, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?”
Brothers and sisters, Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us, therefore let us keep the feast!