“WHAT’S IN A NAME?” This question, which Shakespeare put in the mouth of Juliet, has become something of a cliché ever since. Nevertheless, it is certainly a valid question when we look at our name for the Feast of Christ’s Resurrection.
In AD 725 St Bede the Venerable, an English monk and scholar, addressed this question in his work, The Reckoning of Time. He tells us that the word “Easter” was the Old English term for the month which we call April and which, in turn “was once called after a goddess of theirs named Ēostre, in whose honor feasts were celebrated in that month.”
In most cultures with a Christian heritage the feast is called Pascha, a Greek term which itself was a transliteration of the Hebrew Pesach. While the term Easter has pagan associations, the term Pascha is rooted in the New Testament and, ultimately, the Old Testament understanding of God’s work among us.
Pesach: The Old Testament Passover
The term Pesach refers to both the determining event in Jewish history and the festival which celebrates it. Sometime in the second millennium bc Joseph, the eleventh son of Jacob, was sold into slavery as a teenager by his own half-brothers (cf., Genesis 37). Joseph was brought to Egypt and bought by Potiphar, an officer of the Pharaoh’s guard. “The Lord was with Joseph” (Genesis 39:2) and he eventually became the chief of Potiphar’s household.
After a series of reversals, Joseph came to the attention of Pharaoh himself by correctly interpreting the king’s dreams and averting a famine. In gratitude Pharaoh made Joseph overseer over his kingdom: “You shall be over my house and all my people shall be ruled according to your word; only in regard to the throne will I be greater than you” (Genesis 41:40). Joseph eventually brought his entire tribe to Egypt (cf., Genesis 42-50) and they prospered there for several generations.
Then “there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8) and saw his tribe as a threat to Egypt. This began their period of slavery in Egypt which culminated with the call of Moses to deliver his people from Egypt in the thirteenth century bc (cf. Exodus 1-11). According to the Book of Exodus, “Now the sojourn of the children of Israel who lived in Egypt was four hundred and thirty years. And it came to pass at the end of the four hundred and thirty years—on that very same day—it came to pass that all the armies of the Lord went out from the land of Egypt” (Exodus 12:40-41).
In commemoration of their deliverance the first Passover was celebrated: “It is a night of solemn observance to the Lord for bringing them out of the land of Egypt. This is that night of the Lord, a solemn observance for all the children of Israel throughout their generations” (Exodus 12:42). The Passover festival recalls how the children of Israel “passed over” from slavery to freedom.
The principal observance of the Jewish Passover to this day is the Seder, the ritual meal which begins the week-long festival. Through story, song and ritual foods such as the matzoh (unleavened bread) and the bitter herbs this meal recalls the hardships the Israelites endured during the exodus as well as the protecting presence of God which delivered them. As long as the Jerusalem temple stood, the centerpiece of this meal was the Passover lamb, sacrificed in the temple and then consumed at the Seder. Ever since the temple was destroyed by the Romans, the Passover sacrifice has been symbolized by a roasted shank bone on the Seder plate.
Christ Our Passover
A few years after the death and resurrection of Christ St Paul would write from Ephesus to the Christians of Corinth, “Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us” (1 Corinthians 5:7). Paul, and perhaps others before him, saw Christ as the new Passover, the ultimate Passover delivering not one tribe but all mankind from slavery; and not from slavery to an earthly tyrant but from a universal tormentor: the power of sin and death.
We find this Passover image echoed in the First Epistle of St Peter to the Christians of Asia Minor, which contrasts Christ’s unique sacrifice of Himself with the material sacrifices that people offer: “You were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot” (1 Peter 1:18-19), qualities required in lambs destined for sacrifice at Passover.
The Gospels all express Christ’s sacrifice in terms of the Jewish Passover. They all depict the Lord Jesus and His disciples going to Jerusalem for this festival. The Synoptic Gospels (Mattew, Mark and Luke) depict their meal in the “upper room” as the Passover Seder. This emphasizes the Eucharist as the new Seder, the meal that connects us to the Mystical Supper and to Christ’s Passover to eternal life.
The Gospel of John, however, says that Jesus’ death occurred before the Passover. “Now it was the Preparation Day for the Passover…” (John 19:13), when Christ was sentenced to death and taken to be crucified. He hung on the cross until the ninth hour. “And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice… and breathed His last” (Mark 15:33-37).
Thus, in the imagery of St John, Christ dies in the middle of the afternoon before the Seder, at precisely the time when the Passover lambs were being sacrificed in the temple. The implication is clear: Christ is the Passover Lamb whose death nourishes all mankind.
This description of Christ as our Passover recalls the witness of John the Baptist when Jesus approached him at the Jordan, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). This Lamb reappears in the Book of Revelation at the center of the author’s heavenly vision: “And I looked, and behold, in the midst of the throne and of the four living creatures, and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as though it had been slain… Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne… saying with a loud voice: ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and blessing!’” (Revelation 5:6, 11).
A glorious Passover has shone upon us, a Passover of the Lord, a Passover perfectly honorable! Let us then embrace one another with joy! O what a Passover, delivering from sorrow, for Christ – coming out of the tomb as from a nuptial chamber – fills the women with joy by telling them to bring this happy news to the disciples.
Have a good Pascha!