The Sacrifice of the lamb, the celebration of the Passover, and the regulations of the law have been fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Under the ancient law, and still more under the new dispensation, everything pointed towards Christ. Both the law and the Word came forth from Zion and Jerusalem, but now the law has given place to the Word, the ancient to the new. The commandment has become grace, the figure a reality. The lamb has become a Son, the sheep a human being, and humanity has become divine.
Melito, Bishop of Sardis from his Paschal Homily.
He was led forth like a lamb; he was slaughtered like a sheep. He ransomed us from servitude to the world, as he had ransomed Israel from the hand of Egypt; he freed us from our slavery to the devil, as he had freed Israel from the hand of Pharaoh. He sealed our souls with own Spirit, and the members of our body with his blood.
He is the One who covered death with shame and cast the devil into mourning, as Moses cast Pharaoh into mourning. He is the One that smote sin and robbed iniquity of offspring, as Moses robbed the Egyptians of their offspring. He is the One who brought us out of slavery into freedom, out of darkness into light, out of death into life, out of tyranny into an eternal kingdom; who made us a new priesthood, a people chosen to be his own for ever. He is the Passover that is our salvation.
It is he who endured every kind of suffering in all those who foreshadowed him. In Abel he was slain, in Isaac bound, in Jacob exiled, in Joseph sold, in Moses exposed to die. He was sacrificed in the Passover lamb, persecuted in David, dishonoured in the prophets.
It is he who was made man of the Virgin, he who was hung on the tree; it is he who was buried in the earth, raised from the dead, and taken up to the height of heaven. He is the mute lamb, the slain lamb born of Mary, the fair ewe. He was seized from the flock, dragged off to be slaughtered, sacrificed in the evening, and buried at night. On the tree no bone of his was broken; in the earth his body knew no decay. He is the One who rose from the dear, and who raised man from the depths of the tomb.
One of the crucial features of the Jewish Passover is the transitus the crossing over from slavery to freedom, and from death to life, symbolised by the Red Sea passage. It is a movement of deliverance from slavery through the shedding of blood, through water and a journey to the Promised Land by God's mercy. This Mosaic Exodus is a prototype in the history of salvation, which reaches its conclusion at Calvary and the Easter Garden. It is in the death and resurrection of Our Lord that lead to His transitus to the Father that fulfils the Old Testament Passover and the proclamation of the Prophets. This passage was well manifested in an early Paschal homily delivered by Melito, bishop of Sardis in the 2nd C.: .
There was much proclaimed by the prophets about the mystery of the Passover: that mystery is Christ, and to him be glory.
For the sake of suffering humanity he came down from heaven to earth, clothed himself in that humanity in the Virgin's womb, and was born a man. Having then a body capable of suffering, he took the pain of fallen man upon himself; he triumphed over the diseases of soul and body that were its cause, and by his Spirit, which was incapable of dying, he dealt man's destroyer, death, a fatal blow.
Melito was not the only bishop in the early Church to emphasise Our Lord as fulfilling the old Passover. Two centuries later we see it in the extant Catechesis lectures of Cyril of Jerusalem and John Chrysostom. Cyril informed his catechesis :
Now turn from the old to the new, from the figure to the reality. There we have Moses sent from God to Egypt; here, Christ, sent forth from His Father into the world: there, that Moses might lead forth an afflicted people out of Egypt; here, that Christ might rescue those who are oppressed in the world under sin: there, the blood of a lamb was the spell against the destroyer; here, the blood of the Lamb without blemish Jesus Chirst is made the charm to scare evil spirits;
What do the Gospels tell us of Christ's teaching on His Pascha? Most of it is concentrated in His last week, what we call Holy Week, which began to be observed in the 4thC. However with Luke there is a sustained emphasis. Over ten chapters are given to Our Lord's final journey to the holy city of Jerusalem as compared with Mark's pithy 10.1-52, and Matthew's two chapters 19&20. Indeed Luke takes our Lord's last journey to Jerusalem very seriously. He begins it in 9.51 when he stated, "He stedfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem" (cp., with Is. 50.7, where the servant "sets his face like a solid rock"), and it ends in 19.38. On this journey Luke makes clear there are four distinct stages, beginning with that verse of 9.51. The second comes in 13.22 "And Jesus went through the cities and villages, reaching and journeying towards Jerusalem." The third mentions of the journey to Jerusalem is in 17.11. "And it came to pass, as he went to Jerusalem that he passed through the midst of Samaria and Galilee." The last is 19.28 "And when he had thus spoken, he went before, as ascending up to Jerusalem." Luke is emphatic that Jesus knows that Jerusalem is his goal and there He will undergo His Pascha.
Nevetheless I must walk to-day, and to tomorrow, and the day following: for it cannot be that a prophet perish out of Jerusalem (Luke 13.33).
Behold, we go up to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets, concerning the Son of man shall be accomplished.
For he shall be delivered unto the Gentiles, and shall be mocked, and spitefully entreated, and spitted on:
And they shall scourge him, and put him to death: and the third day he shall rise again. (Luke 18.31-33).
Jerusalem was always significant for Luke who saw it as the location for God's action. It does have some parallel in both Matthew (20.18-9) and Mark (10.33) but with not the same impact. Luke's infant narratives are intertwined with visits to the Holy City and with the Mosaic law, the Presentation in the Temple when Christ was an infant and then when twelve years old attending the Passover with his family and people from Nazareth (Luke 2.22, 41). Significant too Luke concluded the Temptation episode as happening in Jerusalem (Luke 3.8) where Christ is victorious over the devil at the onset of His ministry. This has its counterpart in the Baptismal Rite at the Vigil.
Matthew and Mark do have significant utterance by Our Lord before Jerusalem is reached for the last time where He predicted His death and resurrection.
Behold we go up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man shall be delivered unto the chief priests, and unto the scribes; and they shall condemn him to death, and shall deliver him to death, and shall deliver him to the Gentiles;
And they shall mock him, and shall scourge him, and shall spit upon him, and shall kill him: and the third day he shall rise again. (Mark. 10: 33-34; also Matthew 20.18-19).
This prediction is immediately followed by the request by James and John to sit at the right and left hand of Christ in His glory. Our Lord's reply to this is important.
You do not know what you ask: can you drink of the cup that I drink of? and be baptized with the baptism that with the baptism that I am baptised?
They replied, "We can."
Jesus responded to their answer this way.
Ye shall indeed drink of the cup that I drink of; and with the baptism that am baptized withal shall you be baptised. (Mark 10.35-40, Matt. 20.22)
Their baptism of course will be into Christ's passion and death. Luke is more explicit on the journey to Jerusalem to accentuate to Our Lord's anticipation of His new baptism.
I am come to send fire on the earth, and how I wish it were blazing already!
But I have a baptism to be baptised with; and how am I constrained till be accomplished! (Luke 12.49-50).
That baptism is into His passion and death, decent into hell followed by his passage (transitus) after His resurrection to the right hand of the Father. To understand the real meaning of this baptism we have to realise that in Hebrew cosmology there was a three-tiered world - heaven, earth and the sub-earth, sometimes referred to as sheol. The last of these was equated with the element of water. The sea or deep waters was always seen as God's enemy, and bringing destruction and death, well illustrated in the Old Testament and especially the psalms. For example in psalm 69.1 we read, "Save me O God: for the waters have come up in unto my soul I am come into deep waters, where the floods overflows me." And in Psalm 124.3, "Then the waters had overwhelmed us, the stream had gone over our soul: then had the proud waters had gone over our soul." Jonah's cry of distress from the whale's belly also echoed this:
For thou had cast me into the deep, in the midst of the seas; and the floods compassed me about: all thy billows and thy waves passed over me.
The waters compassed me about, even to the soul: the depth closed me round about, the weeds were wrapped about my head.
I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars was about me for ever: yet has thou brought up my life from corruption, O Lord my God. (Jonah 2:3-7)
Jonah's three days in the bowels of the whale is used by Christ to illustrate His own transitus.
For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale's belly; so shall the Son of be three days and three nights in the hearth of the earth (Mat. 12. 40)
The climaxing of Christ's teaching on his Pascha, before His Last Week is the Transfiguration on Mt Tabor. Hear on the mount both Moses and Elijah spoke to our Lord "of his passing which he was to accomplish in Jerusalem" (Luke 9:31). The Greek word translated passing is in fact exodos and it is clear that Luke has used this rather unusual word deliberately. The Exodus from Egypt has already taken place, as had Abraham's exodus from Ur. Now after the Transfiguration the final exodus will be played our as Our Lord sets his face towards Jerusalem as He leads his disciples with Him to be the new Israel as they too will be led through the waters of death in their baptism.
In this light significant too is our Lord's conversation with Cleopas and his wife on the road to Emmaus after the Resurrection. The risen Lord chides them:
O fools, and slow of heart, to believe all that the prophets have spoken:
Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory?'
Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. (Luke 24:25 27)
It is the last week of our Lord's life that the similarities between the Old Testament Passover and our Lord's Pascha become so obvious. By our Palm Sunday Christ has arrived in Jerusalem, just as every Jew did for the Passover. He remained, in preparation for the Passover meal, which was held on what we now call Maundy or more recently Holy Thursday. The Synoptic gospels all describe the Last Supper as the Passover meal. However the Johannine account has Our Lord being crucified on the cross at the time on 14th Nissan when the lamb is slain for the Passover meal. So for John, Christ is seen as the unblemished lamb slain for the sin of the world. Yet it does not really matter whether the Last Supper was indeed the Passover meal as its main features, the breaking of bread and the thanksgiving rite over the cup of wine mixed with water, are identical to the meal at Passover. However the breaking of bread by Christ has a further manifestation it is His body, that body which is offered for His people. He is the Paschal Lamb who is slain and whose "blood is poured out for many" (Mark 14.24). In St. Paul's account of the Passover Supper, the earliest of all New Testament accounts of this event, he added the command, 'Do this in remembrance of me.' (1Cor. 11.25). If the Last Supper was indeed the Passover meal, the "remembrance" has precisely the same meaning it had for the Jewish Passover Remember all God's saving acts, and that God is saving us to-night.
Yet the institution of the Eucharist is but a small part of the whole narrative discourse on Maundy Thursday, although St. Luke makes the Institution more poignant by having Our Lord narrate it.
With desired I have desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer;
For I say unto you, I will not eat thereof, until it be fulfilled in the kingdom of God.
And took the cup, and gave thanks and said, 'Take this and divide it among yourselves:
For I say into you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine, until the kingdom of God come (22.15-18)
Luke, unlike Matthew and Mark, clearly placed the fulfillment of the Passover in the coming of the kingdom. Thus eating and drinking in joyful communion with the Lord ushers in the kingdom. This is manifested further by Luke in those meals that the Risen Lord has with His disciples at Emmaus (24.30) when He is recognized in the breaking of the bread. This has a eucharistic significance which suggests that Luke is presenting the death and resurrection of Christ as inaugurating the kingdom. Taken to its logical conclusion this mean that the celebration of the Eucharist is a sign of the presence of God's kingdom within the Church.
Now let us look at the Johannine chronology. As already mentioned John has Christ dying at that precise moment when the paschal lamb was slaughtered for the Passover feast. Significantly too the 4th Gospel recorded that "all this happened to fullfil the words of scripture: 'a bone of him shall not be broken.' (John 19.36).
This quotation is taken from the regulations for the serving and eating of the paschal lamb in Exodus 12.46 and Numbers 9.12. If the Synoptic writers were correct in their dating, it would thus seem that John was more concerned with the theological implication that Jesus died as the true Passover lamb. This view becomes more feasible when the above quotation 'not one bone of his will be broken.' is juxtaposed with the beginning of his Gospel. Here John Baptist heralds Christ as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (1.19)
Furthermore John's gospel holds passages of our Lord that clearly express His transitus, that is passage to the Father. For example in the Good Shepherd parable, Christ spoke of His destiny in this way:
My Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. (John 10.17)
Before the sharing of the last Meal John's Gospel makes clear that Our Lord knew "that his hour was come that he should depart out of this world unto the Father (13.1)
In the High Priestly prayer there are many references of this passage to the Father. "I go to the Father." (14.28, 16.16, 28).
Before crossing the Kedron, Jesus knows that the night's events do not lead so much to His death but unto His Father. "Father, the hour is come: glorify your Son so that your Son may glorify you."
Earlier in John's Gospel there is a wider paschal background. The Word sets his tabernacle amongst us (1.14) just as God encamped among the Jews (Numbers ch.2); Christ must be lifted up like the serpent (3.14) just as the serpent was in the desert; (Numbers 21.8). He has come down from heaven like manna, and will become our food (6.48ff) just as God sent manna to the Hebrews on their journey; (Deut. 8.3, 16) Christ's followers will be refreshed by him (7.37) as the Hebrews were by the rock in the desert (Numbers 20.11); the disciples will follow Christ (8.12) as the Israelites followed the pillar of fire (Ex. 13.21). And lastly Christ is the true unblemished paschal lamb (19.36).
It would seem that John saw the paschal mystery of the Exodus as being perfected in the incarnate Son of God, the Word made flesh. Furthermore John mentions the Passover six times during our Lord's public life: the cleansing of the temple (2.13), those believing in His miracles (2.23), the feeding of the five thousand (6.4), Christ going to Jerusalem for the last time (11.55), in the home of Mary and Martha and Lazarus (12.1), the washing of the disciples' feet (13.1).
There are also references to Christ's pascha in other New Testament material. Paul in his account of the Eucharistic celebration to the Corinthians, after outlining Our Lord's words at the institution, informed them that each time they 'eat the bread, and drink this cup,' they proclaim the Lord's death until He shall come again (1Cor.11.25-6). Earlier in this letter there is another explicit reference to Pascha.
Know you not that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?
Purge out therefore the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, as you are unleavened. For even Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.
Therefore let us keep the feast, not with the old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (1Cor. 5.6-8).
Thus Christ both fulfils the whole Passover story, transforming its meaning and significance for the Christian. As the deacon proclaims in the Exsultet in the Paschal Vigil:
For this is the Passover of the true Lamb of God, by whose blood the homes of all the faithful are hallowed and protected.
One of the features of the Paschal Vigil is the ceremony around the lighting of the Paschal Candle, the symbol of Christ's triumphing over death the passing from darkness into light, as well as signifying the Word as being the Alpha and Omega. As the year is marked on the candle, the celebrant announces, "Christ yesterday and to-day, the beginning and the end, all time belongs to him, and all the ages; to him be glory and power, through every age and for ever." As he places the five grains of incense into the candle, he states, "By His holy and glorious wounds may Christ our Lord guard and keep us. Amen." The candle is then lit with the words, "May the light of Christ, rising in glory, dispel the darkness of our hearts and minds." The deacon takes this lighted candle into the darkened and empty church where he trice solemnly raises the candle and chants "The light of Christ. This new light is then passed to the small candles held by the clergy, servers and congregation.
The ceremony of this solemn entry of light looks back to the Exodus narrative as it re-enacts the pilgrim procession of the Israelites from the land of slavery through the Red Sea. The Exultet, chanted by the deacon proclaims this deliverance.
This is the night when of old you saved our fathers, delivering the people of Israel from their slavery, and leading them dry-shod through the sea. This is the night when the pillar of cloud and of fire destroyed the darkness of sin."
As the pillar of cloud and of fire was for the Hebrews a sign of the glory and presence of Yahweh, so for us Christ is the sign, the Sacrament, of God's presence and of God's glory. "The Word became flesh, he lived among us, and we saw his glory, the glory he has from the Father as only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth." (John 1:14). Christ is "the light of the world," the true light that gives light to everyone" (John 8.12, 1.9). So also the symbol of light communicated from the paschal candle manifests the Resurrection as expressed in the Vigil collect, "Lord God, you have brightened this night with the radiance of the Risen Christ" and the sacramental communication of the power of the Resurrection in baptism.
The Letter to the Hebrews spoke of the baptized as those who have been "enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift." (6:4), whilst in Ephesians there is a fragment of one of the earliest Christian hymns, assuredly connected with baptism:
Awake, you who sleep, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light. (5.14).
This is why the newly baptised receive their candle lit from the Paschal candle.
The Easter Vigil proclaims then that Christ is the light of the world, guiding His people on their pilgrimage (John 8.12), providing them with heavenly manna and living water (John 6.28-58, 4.13-4, 7.32-9). He is the new Joshua (Jesus is the Greek word for Joshua, meaning Yahweh saves) effecting their entrance to the Promised Land.
In speaking of Christ's transitus, from His life here on earth to His Father, via the Cross and Resurrection, it is important that we see these as a unity. Cross, Resurrection and yes the Ascension and Pentecost must never be separated - what we call the great Fifty Days. Christ because of man's sinfulness had to die, but without His resurrection, and the outpouring of the Spirit this would have been in vain. Life, eternal life could only come from death and to be born again in the Spirit. In His victorious passage Christ exclaims:
Who will contend with me? Let them confront me.
I have freed those who were condemned;
I have given life to those who were dead;
I have raised up the dead from their graves.
Who will dispute my cause? I am the Christ.
I have abolished death;
I have triumphed over the enemy;
I have trampled hell underfoot;
I have bound the strong one, and I have raised humanity up to the heights of heaven: Yes, I am the Christ.
Come, then, all you nations, receive forgiveness for the sins that defile you.
For I am your forgiveness.
I am the Passover that brings salvation.
I am the lamb who was slain for you.
I am your ransom, your life, your resurrection, your light.