Passover meets Easter

Glen Eira Interfaith Network, 24th May 2012
David Schutz

“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. [10] Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” 1 Peter 2:9-10

Christians have a term which connects the death and resurrection of Jesus to the Jewish celebration of Pesach: we speak of the “Paschal Mystery” to mean this, and we also apply it to the weekly celebration of the Eucharist and to the annual celebration of Holy Week and Easter. Before Jesus died, three of his disciples had a vision of Jesus “transfigured” and talking to the prophets Moses and Elijah. Luke’s Gospel tells us that Jesus was heard to be speaking to them about his “departure” – that is, his death and resurrection. In the greek of Luke’s Gospel, the word for “departure” is “exodus” (Luke 9:31). Thus a theological connection is established between Easter and Pesach already in this passage.

Historically linkage between Easter and Passover comes about because Jesus’ death took place during the festival of the Passover (possibly in the year 30AD or near by). It should be noted that this was in the period of the 2nd Temple (about 40 years prior to its destruction in AD70) and that following this event, Christianity and Synagogue/Rabbinic Judaism developed as independant religions. While much historical work has been done on the development of Easter and Pesach within each of these religious traditions, it is only now that there has begun to be scholarly historical work done by both Jewish and Christian scholars on the effect that each developing tradition had on the other in respect to the celebration of Easter and Pesach respectively. This is important work, but not work that either I or Shamir have much knowledge on at this point in time.

I. The Eucharist and the Passover

According to Christian tradition, Jesus instituted the Eucharist on a Thursday night before his death on a Friday. He was buried on Friday afternoon before the beginning of the Sabbath and rose to life some time during the night following the Sabbath, ie. on the Sunday. Christians rely upon the four Gospels (written between 50AD and 100AD) for this chronology.

All four Gospels record Jesus celebrating the “Last Supper” with his disciples on Thursday night, but John does not record the institution of the Eucharist itself at this meal. Matthew and Luke agree with Mark that this was the Passover meal (to call it a ‘seder’ is perhaps anacronistic, as the ‘seder’ as it exists today is a later development):

“And on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrificed the Passover lamb, his disciples said to him, “Where will you have us go and prepare for you to eat the Passover?” …And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. “(Mark 14:12, 26)

By this chronology, the Friday (starting at sundown on the Thursday evening) was the first day of Pesach. John’s Gospel however is insistent that the lambs for the Passover were sacrificed on the Friday afternoon – at the same time that Jesus was crucified – so that the Feast itself fell on the Sabbath, beginning on the Friday evening. John 13:1-2 says that the supper on Thursday night was “before the Feast of the Passover”.

There is considerable scholarly argument – by both Jews and Christians today – over which tradition maintains the historical truth: Was John simply theologising the death of Jesus “the Lamb of God”? Or does his account reflect the historical fact? After all, none of the accounts mention the eating of a lamb at the Last Supper, and for Christians, the only remnants of the meal are the bread and the wine. No less a person than Pope Benedict XVI has weighed into this scholarly debate (Jesus of Nazareth, Volume II). (Jesus is also known as the Bread of life but this is connected to the manna of the wilderness rather than the Passover matzah.)

The two divergent scriptural traditions have been reflected in a major difference between Eastern (following John) and Western (following the Synoptics) Christianity. The West understands the Last Supper to have been a Passover meal and therefore uses unleavened bread in the Eucharist; the East follows John’s Gospel and therefore uses leavened bread.

In any case, because the Eucharist was instituted in the context of the Passover festival, there is a sense in which every Sunday Eucharist has a connection to the Passover. Nevertheless, it is a weekly celebration, not an annual celebration like the Passover. Every Sunday celebration is a recollection of the “Paschal Mystery”. The celebration takes place on Sunday because this day – which is both the first day of the week and the “eighth day” of the new creation – is a celebration of Easter.

II. Easter and the Passover

St Paul wrote to the Church in Corinth (sometime between 53 and 57AD):
“Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” (1 Corinthians 5:7-8)

Easter is the oldest liturgical feast in the Christian year, dating back to the first century and quite possibly to the earliest years of Christianity even before the destruction of the Temple. Christmas was celebrated from at least the 2nd Century, but it never had the central importance of Easter, and was celebrated on different dates (as it still is in both East and West).

The liturgical celebration of Easter itself – in both the East and the West – takes up the rhythm of the seven day week. It occurs in conjunction with the feast of Passover, but with the significant change that it always begins on a Sunday (mirroring the chronology of ‘Holy Week’ in the Scriptures), whereas the First Day of Pesach may occur on a day during the week.

Something that few outside the Church are aware of is that the Festival of Easter actually lasts for 7 full weeks – the whole period from Easter Sunday to Pentecost (the Jewish feast of Shavuot). The seven Sundays are named “Sundays of Easter”. The first week – the “octave” or eight day period from the First Sunday of Easter up to and including the Second Sunday of Easter – is treated as one long extended Sunday. This is shown liturgically by the repeated use of the same refrain each day “This is the day the Lord has made : Let us rejoice and be glad!” (Psalm 118:24). Easter is treated as a “Week of Weeks”.

In the very early church, there was a disagreement about the day of celebration of the Resurrection. Some celebrated the week in strict accordance with the timing of the Passover. But the significance of Sunday as the Day of Resurrection, as well as the significance of the other days of the week (in relation to the Genesis 1 account of Creation), eventually led to the agreement at the Council of Nicea (325AD) that Easter Day should always be on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring Equinox.

This should still mean that Passover and Easter happen at roughly the same time, but the Western Church uses the Julian calendar, with a fixed date of the equinox as March 21 and an ecclesiastical definition of a “full moon”, meaning that Easter in the West can sometimes preceed Passover by a couple of weeks. The East still uses the Gregorian calendar, calculates the Equinox astronomically as at Jerusalem, and uses an astronomical definition of the full moon. This means that the Eastern Church always celebrates Easter Sunday after the first day of the feast of the Passover, in accordance with the biblical account.

Very early on in the Church’s history, the night of Easter (between sundown on the Sabbath and sunrise on Sunday) became the traditional time for baptism. Baptism has indeed been connected with Easter since the very beginning. St Paul wrote to the Church in Rome (in the mid 50’s AD):

“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Romans 6:3-5)

The liturgical service (or “Vigil”) begins with the lighting of a “new fire” in darkness, which is followed by readings from the Old Testament (the Hebrew Scriptures), psalms and prayers. Then the baptisms take place. When the newly baptised are brought into the Church, they participate in the celebration of the Eucharist with their new community.

The readings and psalms assigned for the Vigil demonstrate vividly both the connection with the festival of the Passover, and the significance of the Sunday – the first day of the week – as the Day of Resurrection.

The first reading is always the reading of the Creation account from Genesis 1:1-2:4. This reading begins with the creation of Light on the first day. This reflects Christian symbolism. Jesus is the “Light of the World”. In him the Light of Life overcomes the darkness of death. The newly baptised have been “enlightened” with the sacrament. Most significantly, the Day of Resurrection is seen as the first day of the New Creation. The sixth day of creation (Friday) is the day on which mankind is created. Friday corresponds to the day on which Jesus died – the New Adam redeems the Old Adam.

After the creation of mankind on the sixth day, we are told, like all other days in the story, “there was evening and there was morning – the sixth day.” The Genesis reading ends like this:

“Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.” (Genesis 2:1-3)

God’s rest on the seventh day and the commandment to keep the Sabbath rest are fulfilled by Jesus’ “perfect rest” in the tomb. The reading from Genesis does not tell us that the seventh day ended – the refrain “there was evening and there was morning” does not occur. In Christian thinking (following, I believe, Jewish teaching) the age in which we live is the “seventh day”. It is the day of God’s rest, and by means of entering into God’s presence in worship, we participate in his rest (cf. Psalm 95:11).

But for Christians, Sunday, the day after the Sabbath, is not only the “first” day of the week, but also represents the dawning of a new day: the “first day” of the New Creation, which is also the eternal “eighth day”. For this reason, baptismal fonts traditionally have been shaped as octogons.

The next reading at the Vigil is the story of the Sacrifice of Abraham, Genesis 22. This is interpreted by Christians in the light of the sacrifice of Christ who, as the Lamb of God and the Son of God, is prefigured by the ram caught in the thicket which Abraham offers instead of his son Isaac.

The third reading has significance for the theme of the Passover. It is the story of the crossing of the Red Sea by the people of Israel under the guidance of Moses. Chapter 14 of Exodus (which recounts this) is read, and then Chapter 15, the Song of Miriam, is sung by the congregation. The themes connecting Easter and Passover here abound. Central is the the theme of deliverance from captivity into freedom. Paul wrote to the church in Corinth:

“For I want you to know, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, [and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, [3] and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.” (1 Corinthians 10:1-4)

In the Easter Vigil, the new fire (and the candle lighted from it) are seen as images of the pillar of fire and cloud that the people followed through the wilderness. The crossing of the Red Sea is taken to be an image of Baptism: by going down into the water, those who are baptised are buried with Christ. By coming out of it, they enter into the freedom of the people of God.

While none of this explicitly mentions the Passover, it is clear that ancient Christians connected their celebration of Easter with the Exodus event – the same event that the Passover Seder commemorates. At the blessing of the baptismal water during the Easter Vigil, the priest prays:

“O God, who caused the children of Abraham to pass dry-shod through the Red Sea, so that the chosen people, set free from slavery to Pharaoh, would prefigure the people of the baptised… Look now, we pray, upon the face of your Church and graciously unseal for her the fountain of baptism.”

Quite clearly at this point we see that the liberation which is celebrated by Christians at Easter is a spiritual liberation: captivity to sin gives way to liberation in the Spirit.

The Seven Week Feast of Easter finishes with Pentecost. Although today this name is used only for the Christian festival, it was the Greek name given to the Jewish feast of Shavuot by Hellenistic Jews in the time of the Second Temple because it it falls on the 50th day after the first day of Passover. For Christians, this is the celebration of the gift of the Holy Spirit, which is the crowing of the redemption won by Jesus in the Paschal Mystery. The Octave of Pentecost (although no longer celebrated in the new Roman Calendar) retains its significance as the “eighth week” of Easter, and therefore as a celebration of the New Creation wrought by the Spirit of God.

III. Several other thoughts in response to Rabbi Shamir Caplan’s preceeding presentation:

Shamir said that Passover is a festival of the constitution of Israel as a people in the liberation from Egypt. For Christians, Easter is related to the Red Sea crossing in terms of baptism and personal entry into the people of God, but Pentecost is more directly related to the constitution of the Church. It commemorates the gift of the Spirit, which gave birth to the Church. It also corresponds to the constitution of the people of Israel through the giving of the Law on Mt Sinai – which is also the emphasis of the Jewish feast of Weeks, Shavuot, as far as I understand it.

Shamir said that Passover is a family celebration. For Christains, Easter is more of an experience of the life of the Christian community than the personal family, in which personal devotion is expressed within the parish community and the many liturgies that take place over Holy Week (mostly of a solemn nature). Christmas is, correspondingly, more of a family event.

Shamir mentioned the book of the Song of Solomon, interpreted by the Rabbis as a book about God’s love for Israel. Correspondingly, early Christian interpreters took it to be a a song of love between Christ and his bride the Church.

Finally, at the end, there was mention of the nature of the Jewish and Christian God as a God who intervenes in history. This is a vital insight. Passover and Easter both commemorate events which, even if not strictly historical in the scientific sense, at least belong to the real of this world and this time in which we live. God works out our salvation in “real time”.

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