The Paschal Mystery in the Context of the Passover

Fr. Mike Liledahl

The Paschal Mystery in the Context of the Passover

The date of Easter moves around. As a priest, when the calendar for the parish and school and such starts to be looked at in the summer, one of the first questions asked is “when is Easter this year?” We all know Christmas is always on December 25, but Easter can be on a range of dates anywhere from late March to late April. Why is this? Simply put, it is because Easter always aligns with the Jewish feast of Passover and Passover is determined primarily by the lunar calendar of moon cycles and that doesn’t exactly line up with the calendar we hang on our walls. Wouldn’t it be simpler if Easter were always just a fixed date? Probably, but would we forget something profound that the Church wants us to remember? That the Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ is intimately connected to the Jewish Passover? I would argue yes. Emphatically yes. 

Now nothing I am going to say is original research. Throughout the years so much research has been done on this topic that it is difficult to say anything that has not been said before. Recently, two Catholic scholars and teachers have each written books on this topic that I cannot recommend highly enough; Dr. Scott Hahn’s The Fourth Cup: Unveiling the Mystery of the Last Supper and the Cross Dr. Brant Pitre’s Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist: Unlocking the Secrets of the Last Supper. Both of these books are easily accessible and highly informative on how the Last Supper of Jesus particularly ties into the Jewish feast of Passover and much of what I am going to say draws upon these books.

But in order to look at the intimate connections between the Jewish Passover and the events of the Paschal Mystery we need to look at three things: the original Passover as described in the Book of Exodus, how Passover would have been celebrated at the time of Jesus thousands of years after the original event being commemorated and then finally the events of Jesus’ passion- his Last Supper, arrest, trial, condemnation, death, burial, and resurrection. 

The first Passover might be described as the seminal moment in the history of the Jewish people. If you remember from the Book of Exodus the Israelites had come to Egypt when Joseph was high in the Egyptian government after his brothers sold him rather than killing him and during a drought Joseph welcomed his brothers, and the Israelite people, into Egypt. But the Israelites had grown in number and strength and frightened Pharaoh with their potential for uprising and so he had enslaved the Israelites. The Israelites in slavery under an oppressive ruler is the situation into which Moses, their deliverer, is born. 

Moses, together with his brother Aaron, approach Pharaoh with a message from the Lord telling Pharaoh to let the Israelites go free so they can worship their God. Pharaoh refuses and so Egypt is besieged with the plagues, culminating in the final plague- the Angel of Death. The Angel of Death is going to go throughout all of Egypt and kill the firstborn of every family, every animal, everybody from king to slave. But Israel is to be saved from this fate. They are instructed to have each family take a lamb, slaughter it, eat it, and take the blood and smear it on the doorpost of their dwelling as a sign and when the Angel of Death sees the blood on the doorpost, he will pass over that house and spare them from death. 

Rising in the morning to the death of every firstborn, Pharaoh demands that the Israelites depart from Egypt at once and so the nation of Israel gathers their things and leaves. Pharaoh changes his mind soon after and sends his army after them to recapture them. Israel arrives at the Red Sea and Moses, instructed by the Lord, plants his staff in the Red Sea, the sea splits in half and the people pass through the water to safety before the water returns to its normal state, drowning the Egyptians chasing them. Then 40 years of wandering in the desert, including many instances of doubting the Lord, worshipping idols, and other events before Israel, again passing through the waters but this time of the River Jordan, arrives at the Promised Land.

This is the basic story of the first Passover, and the Israelites were instructed by the Lord to never forget this event. They were to celebrate and commemorate it each and every year. For the most part, Israel would do this in the ways prescribed in the Scriptures. Now there was a period of time where they did not do this, and problems befell them until they began to celebrate the Passover again. The celebration of this event, at the time of Jesus, was a central feature of first century Jewish life in Israel; the culture into which Jesus was born and raised and intimately familiar with. So what did this celebration look like at the time of Jesus?

At the time of Jesus the Jewish people had three major feasts each year. Passover was one of these major feasts. For a major feast, each Jewish adult male would have to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in order to offer a sacrifice at the temple. This means that during the childhood of Jesus, after his return from Egypt, the Holy Family would travel at least three times a year to Jerusalem in order to fulfill the law. It was on one of these pilgrimages that Jesus stayed behind and it took three days for Mary and Joseph to find him, eventually finding him in the temple. But for Passover, each Jewish adult male (and often with their families accompanying them) would go to Jerusalem for the two fold requirements for the liturgy of Passover. The two things required would be the offering of the sacrificial lamb in the temple and the Passover Meal at which the lamb, among other things, would be consumed. During this meal a number of required courses would be consumed along with a commentary offered by the leader of the meal explaining the significance. The primary makeup of the Passover Meal would be the lamb, unleavened bread, bitter herbs, and then cups of wine that would conclude each course. It was Jesus’ celebration of this Passover Meal while in Jerusalem that he would institute the Eucharist in what we now call the “Last Supper”. 

Now that we know some of the aspects of the Jewish Passover celebration we can begin to see how Jesus’ Passion mirrors the Passover, or more correctly, fulfills the signs and symbols that make up the Passover, both the sacrifice and the meal.  That the Last Supper and immediately after this the arrest, condemnation and events on Golgotha happen in the context of Passover is no mere coincidence and is the first thing that points us to make this connection.  But many of the very familiar symbols of Passover were present, not only in their typographical form during Jesus and his disciples celebration but in the reality of the Passion as well.  

Especially the lamb itself. Every year of his teenage and adult life, Jesus would have witnessed the sacrifice of the lambs in the temple for Passover. St. Justin Martyr, a Christian apologist who lived in first century Palestine, described how the lamb was sacrificed in his writings and notes that the lamb would be skewered by two pieces of wood, one running the length of the lambs back and the other going from shoulder to shoulder.  In essence, the lamb was sacrificed on a cross made of wood! So, when Jesus is identified as the “Lamb of God” as John the Baptist identifies him, this image should have come to mind for anybody who heard this. Jesus certainly knew this connection. 

Many people want to equate Jesus’ Last Supper with his celebration of the Passover, and the institution of the New Passover; but both Dr. Hahn and Dr. Pitre, in their above mentioned books, made compelling cases that although the Last Supper was certainly an integral part of the New Covenant made at the New Passover that not including the subsequent events of the cross is an incomplete look at what Jesus was doing. Jesus, in the course of his paschal mystery, institutes a new Passover; a new covenant with his people.

As we celebrate the paschal mysteries this year, keep a sharp eye out for connections to the Jewish feast of the Passover, and as you do you’ll grow in a deeper appreciation not only for what Jesus was doing within the context of his time, but how God gradually prepared his people for the sacrificial offering of Jesus upon the cross on Good Friday.  The New Passover, the new deliverance, the new covenant.