Pessah/Passover – 16th April 2022 (5782)
Week of 16-23 April 2022
From the Jewish Pessah to the Christian Passover
The celebration of Passover, in the Christian tradition, contains the fundamental principle of faith in Jesus who died and rose and who becomes the source of salvation for humanity. Its meaning is based on the biblical Passover, that is, on the Passover of the Jewish people, of the people to which Jesus belongs.
The texts of the Gospels describe the end of Jesus’ ministry and the process of his death as He was preparing to celebrate the Passover: “On the first day of unleavened bread, when the Passover was sacrificed, his disciples said to him: where do you want us to prepare for you to eat the Passover?” (Mk 14, 12=Mt 26, 17); “He dawned the day of unleavened bread, on which the Passover was to be sacrificed. Jesus sent Peter and John, saying: “Go and prepare a Passover meal for us” (Lk, 22, 7); “Before the feast of the Passover, knowing that his time had come to pass from this world to the Father, as he loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (Jn, 13 1). According to recent studies, the account of the Gospel of John is more coherent with the death of Jesus on the eve of Easter and it is in this context, therefore, that his death and resurrection assume or are interpreted according to the symbology that Easter bears. However, it is only through the experience of the resurrection of Jesus, lived by the group of his followers, that the proclamation of faith in him as the expected Messiah according to the tradition of his people, as taught by the Scriptures and their interpretation, is demonstrated. Therefore, faith in Jesus, the Man-Jew, as the Messiah, God made man, is born in the celebration of the Passover of Jesus with his death and resurrection; faith in Jesus is a post-Passover faith.
The understanding of this mystery – the death and resurrection of Jesus – is anchored in the context of biblical tradition (text and interpretation) as a constitutive part of the identity of the Jewish people throughout its history. There are the essential elements to the understanding of the meaning of Easter that we celebrate, as Christians. The complex Jewish reality, with its religious tradition founded on the texts of the Scriptures and on its interpretive oral tradition, is like a sounding board that allows us to correctly capture the teachings in the name of Jesus as well as the affirmation that He is the Messiah, the Lamb of God, according to the Scriptures. Paul, for example, among the first writings of the New Testament, writing a few years after the experience of the Risen One by the followers of Jesus, justifies the content of his teachings, not with arguments according to the events that happened with Jesus, but, according to him, it is the interpretive reading of the Scriptures that illuminates the life, death and resurrection of Jesus: “I handed on to you first of all what I myself had received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures; he was buried, resurrected on the third day, according to the Scriptures” (I Cor 15:3-4).
The Church, since the Second Vatican Council, has been insisting in its documents and teachings on the need for an in-depth knowledge of biblical Judaism, the Judaism of the period of Jesus Christ and the same Judaism alive until our days, as an essential source for the knowledge of faith.
Firstly, the expression comes from the Hebrew Pessah which means to pass or to jump. It can also be understood as moving from one situation to another. The fundamental text on the origin of the Passover is in the book of Exodus chapter 12 in which it describes the celebration of the Passover of the Hebrew people as they prepare to be taken out of Egypt by God, guided by Moses. The Jewish People lived a reality of slavery, dominated by Pharaoh. God intervenes to free his people from this reality of suffering, from death to freedom and to life. Here are some of the most important verses for understanding the topic, but the entire chapter must be kept in mind:
1 “The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron in the country of Egypt. 2 He said, ‘This month will be the first month of each year for you. 3 Tell all the Israelite people to do this on the tenth day of this month: Each man must choose a lamb to kill as a sacrifice for his family. That will be one lamb for each home… 7 They must take some of its blood. They must put the blood on the wood that is round the door of their house. They must put it on each side of the door and above the door. They must do this in every house where they will eat a lamb. 8 That night, they must cook the meat over the fire. They must eat it immediately, with bitter herbs and with bread that has no yeast in it. … 13 When you put the blood round the doors of your houses, that will be a sign to show that you live there. When I see the blood on your house, I will pass over you. No trouble will hurt you, when I attack the people of Egypt. 14 In future years, you must remember this day as a special day every year. It will be a festival when you worship me, the Lord. You and your descendants must do this every year, for all time… 17 This will be the Feast of Flat Bread, when you eat bread with no yeast in it. You will remember that I brought you all out of the country of Egypt on this day. You marched out like an army, family by family! That is why you must enjoy this day as a special day, for all time. This is a rule that you must always obey… 20 Eat nothing that has yeast in it. Whatever country you live in, you must eat bread without yeast in it … 24 You must obey these rules always, both you and your descendants, for all time … 26 Your children may say to you, “What does this feast mean?” 27 Then you must say to them, “It is the Lord’s Passover sacrifice. The Lord passed over the houses of the Israelites when they were in Egypt. He killed the Egyptians but he saved our families … 47 All the Israelites must enjoy the feast together.”
Secondly, the feast of Passover is celebrated on the 14th of Nissan, the first month of the year which corresponds to the beginning of the spring season in the region of Israel. It’s time for abundance, flowers and the beginning of harvests, so it’s time for blessings and new life. The Bible did not invent this practice; the people of Israel assumed a widespread practice among the surrounding peoples and gave it its own theological and monotheistic meaning. The biblical text sets some principles for the celebration of the feast: on the 14th of Nissan, for 7 days; offer the lamb as a sacrifice; do not eat anything that contains yeast, Matzah, bread without yeast; it is a feast to be celebrated from generation to generation. On the 14th of Nissan, the days become longer than the nights; light conquers darkness. The 14th of Nissan is also the day of the full moon, symbolically it is understood that the light of God illuminates all creation, there is no more darkness. There is a new creation, without darkness. As Zechariah says: “There will be one day – the Lord knows – without day and without night, but in the evening, there will be light” (Zac 14:7).
Thirdly, the commandment not to eat fermented foods is an invitation to recognise the creature before God and refers to suffering, the misery of existence. On the other hand, leaven means pride; the leaven makes it grow, it is the attitude of pride. That’s the reason for cleaning the house completely to get rid of yeast. It is a pedagogical exercise in preparation for the feast of the Lord, without arrogance, malice, but celebrating it like unleavened bread.
Paul makes reference to this in his letter to the Corinthians when he interprets Christ as Passover and asks his followers to be like Matzah: “The reason for your boasting is not beautiful! Know ye not that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse yourselves from the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, for you are unleavened bread, because Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and corruption, but with the unfermented bread of purity and truth” (I Cor 5:6-8).
Fourthly, the Passover lamb takes on a special meaning. God asks the people to separate one lamb per family. To separate means sacred (Kadosh), set apart for God. The lamb will be consumed in the family and its blood must be pasted on the doorposts of each family of Hebrews. In the tenth plague, when God will pass by to smite the firstborn in Egypt and see the blood on the gates He will jump (Pessah): “But the blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are: when I see the blood, I will pass on and there will be no destructive scourge among you when I strike the land of Egypt” (Ex 12:13). The sacrifice of the lamb, therefore, saves the people from death. This account will be the basis of the practice introduced in the Temple period; it was certainly a practice in the Second Temple. On the occasion of the pilgrimage feast of Pessah, every year, the act of saving the people through the sacrifice of the lamb was commemorated, thus symbolising the victory over death. All these elements and requirements mentioned in the book of Exodus will be celebrated from generation to generation, they are perpetual decrees.
This act of making the memory is well exposed in the text of the Haggadah of Pessah, which is the text (narrative) used for the liturgy of the night of Pessah, containing the reading of the story of the liberation of the people of Israel from Egypt as described in the book of Exodus. The text reads: “At all times, each of us has the duty to consider himself as if he had come out of Egypt, as it is said: ‘In that day thus shalt thou say to thy son, behold what the Lord did for me, when I left Egypt’. It is in this vision that the Lord acted for me when I came out of Egypt’ (Ex 13:8). That is why we have a duty to thank, sing, praise, glorify, extol, celebrate and bless the One who did, for our ancestors and for us, all these miracles. He led us from slavery to freedom, from anguish to joy, from mourning to celebration, from darkness to light, from slavery to freedom. Let’s sing in his honour, hallelujah.”
This means that Israel throughout history will remember, update all these gestures, making them present and alive in each celebration. The Gospel of Luke confirms this practice when it mentions that Jesus and his parents did this every year: “His parents went to Jerusalem every year for the Passover feast” (Lk 2:41). Jesus is part of this practice of making the memory, that is, of updating events, assuming the meaning of the sacrifice of the lamb (of God) that is set apart for God, as a source of new life.
Another important element must be mentioned about the lamb. In the institution of Easter, when eating the lamb, the text says: “You shall not break a bone” (Ex 12:46). The tradition of Israel will interpret this commandment as the symbol of the lamb that remains intact, the perfect victim to be immolated, being a model of the Messiah who will come at the end of time and whose sacrifice will be definitive of the final Redemption.
As seen earlier, the texts of the New Testament place the event of Jesus’ death at the time of the celebration of Pessah and it is understood from this that Jesus died the moment that precedes the beginning of the celebration of Pessah, given that in the Pessah days the judgment process as it is presented would not be possible, as well as the required care would not be possible during Pessah. John says: “He who has seen bears witness, and his witness is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you also may believe, for this happened to fulfil the scripture: ‘No bone will be broken in him’” (19:35-36).
The context describes precisely the celebration of the Pessah that Jesus was preparing to celebrate and the quotation for its fulfilment and Scripture are precisely from the founding text of the feast of the Pessah: Exodus 12, 46. John, therefore, interprets the lamb that was sacrificed at Pessah as being Jesus himself and Jesus’ death takes place at the moment of the immolation of the lamb on the Pessah feast. His statement that ‘no bone was broken in him‘ means that the victim for the sacrifice is perfect, is the slain Lamb of God, He is the awaited true Messiah. That is why the (last) Pessah that Jesus celebrated according to the tradition of his people, signifying the passage from death to life, from sadness to joy, from slavery to freedom, will be fully assumed in the death and resurrection of Jesus as the definitive Pessah, the eschatological Pessah.
The blood of the lamb that saves the Hebrews from death in Egypt is now the blood of the lamb of God that extends salvation to all mankind. The experience of Pessah lived by the people of Israel, as freedom, new life, new time, now, through Jesus death and risen, is offered to all humanity; in Jesus all humanity makes the transition from death to life. Therefore, the definitive Pessah proclaimed from the experience of faith in the risen Jesus lived by his disciples does not invalidate or replace the Jewish Pessah, on the contrary, the Christian Passover can assume its full meaning only when understood from within the meaning of Jewish Pessah.
May the life that comes from God and that continues with Him be celebrated by all humanity!
Hag Pessah Sameah!
This week’s Parasha Commentary was prepared by
Br. Elio Passeto, NDS, Israel, Bat kol Director