The Jewish Feast of Passover begins this week. Many think that Passover either must coincide with or precede Pascha, however, this is a misconception. As determined at the 1st Ecumenical Council held at Nicaea in 325 AD, Pascha is celebrated on the first Sunday, after the first Full Moon after the Vernal Equinox. There is no consideration made with when Passover begins or ends. Yet, it is important to understand Passover, in order to better understand Pascha.
Passover is also known as the Feast of Unleavened Bread. It begins on the 14th of the Jewish month of Nisan at sundown. So technically, Passover begins on the 15th of Nisan, since sundown is the beginning of a new day. The Feast lasts seven days in Jerusalem and within walled cities and eight days in the diaspora.
The account of the first Passover is from the book of Exodus:
Now the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, saying, “This month shall be your beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you. Speak to all the congregation of the children of Israel, saying, ‘On the tenth day of this month every man shall take for himself a lamb, according to the family households, a lamb for each home….Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male of the first year… then you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of the same month, and the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill it at twilight. Then they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and on the lintel of the houses where they eat it. They shall eat the flesh on that night, roasted in fire; with unleavened bread and bitter herbs they shall eat it… You shall let none of it remain until morning, nor shall you break a bone of it (12:1-10).
Indeed, Christ is the lamb without blemish, a male of the first year. The previous reading from Exodus comes to fruition on the Cross:
Therefore, because it was the Preparation Day, that the bodies should not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away. Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who was crucified with Him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs…for these things were done that the Scripture should be fulfilled, “Not one of His bones shall be broken (Jn 19:31-36).
Instead of wine being offered to Jesus on a reed as the Synoptics narrate, John mentions hyssop which is a fern-like plant. Now a vessel full of sour wine was sitting there and they filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on hyssop, and put it to His mouth (ibid, 30). Likewise, hyssop was dipped in the blood of the sacrificial lamb and smeared on the doorposts and lintel of the Jewish homes, as a sign of God’s protection. Then you shall take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood in the basin, and strike the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood in the basin (Ex 12:22).
The bitter herbs (maror) that are part of the Passover Seder (meal) symbolize the bitterness of slavery in Egypt. They made their lives bitter with hard labor (Ex 1:14). Throughout the entire week of Passover, no leavened bread is permitted to be eaten or found in one’s house. On the night of the 14th of Nisan, before the Passover Seder (meal), an entire search for leaven (chametz) is done. This is to ensure that no leaven remains anywhere in sight.
Instead of leavened bread, the Jews eat unleavened bread (matzo) the entire week. The unleavened bread signifies that the Jews fled Egypt in a “hurry”, not having time to wait for the yeast in bread to rise. Yeast or leaven symbolizes corruption and/or spoiling, Instead, the unleavened bread represents simplicity. So, the three main components of the Passover Seder are a spring lamb, bitter herbs and unleavened bread.
The word Passover in Greek is Πάσχα (Pascha) and the Passover (Πάσχα) we as Orthodox Christians celebrate is a New Passover. As we hear in one of the Paschal stichera sung at both vespers and matins for the Feast:
Today a sacred Pascha has been revealed to us; a Pascha new and holy, a Pascha mystical, a Pascha all-venerable, Pascha, the Redeemer Christ himself; a Pascha that is blameless, a Pascha that is great, a Pascha of believers, a Pascha that has opened for us the gates of Paradise, a Pascha that sanctifies believers all.
Indeed, a New Passover for a New Jerusalem, Φωτίζου, Φωτίζου, η Νέα Ιερουσαλήμ (Shine, Shine, New Jerusalem). We are the New Jerusalem, the Gentiles, who believe in Christ and confess His Resurrection.
We see the fulfillment of the reading in Exodus with the Passion narratives of the four Gospels. Perhaps the one with the most accuracy, is John. He is the only Evangelist who writes that the Last Supper was not a Passover meal. The Synoptics on the other hand, depict the Last Supper as a Passover meal.
With John, Good Friday, the Lord’s Crucifixion, was on 14 Nisan. Therefore, the Last Supper was after sundown on Thursday evening which was the beginning of 14 Nisan. However, Jesus imitated the characteristics of the Passover meal with the exception of the lamb. He was the sacrificial lamb, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (Jn 1:29). John makes the correlation of the eucharistic Blood of Christ to the Exodus.
Then Moses said to the Pharaoh, “Thus says the Lord: ‘About midnight I will go out into the midst of Egypt; and all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne even to the firstborn of the female servant behind the handmill, and all the firstborn of the cattle (Ex 12:4-5).
This is why it is called “Passover” since the Lord “passed over” the homes of the Hebrews, sparing them from the death that came to the first-born in Egypt. On the 14th of Nisan, Jewish firstborn sons are commanded to observe the Fast of the Firstborn which commemorates their salvation.
The other reason the Feast is called Passover is that the Hebrews “passed over”, crossed the Red Sea, thus, crossing from bondage to freedom. Likewise, Christ “passes” from death to life with His Crucifixion, Entombment and Resurrection, taking with Him, mankind. Truly, Christ is our Passover, for He is our Redeemer.
Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord carried back the sea by a strong south wind all that night and made the sea dry ground. Thus the waters were divided…..Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea so the waters may come back upon the Egyptians, on their chariots and the riders.” So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and when the morning appeared, the sea returned to its full depth, while the Egyptians were trying to flee. But the Lord shook off the Egyptians in the midst of the sea (ibid, 14:21,26-27).
When Moses parted the Red Sea, he made the sign of the Cross over the waters. We hear in the 1st Ode of the Katavasias for the Exaltation of the Holy Cross:
Moses prefigured the Cross. Lifting up the rod, he stretched out his hand and split the Sea for Israel to cross on land. Then he stretched it out again, and the sea returned and covered Pharaoh's chariots. The Cross was thus portrayed as our invincible armor. So let us sing to the Lord, Christ our God, for He is greatly glorified.
Passover, along with other Jewish Feasts are a prefiguration of events that occurred during Jesus’ earthly ministry. For Christ is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. The blood of the sacrificed lamb that was smeared on the doorposts and lintel may have spared the Hebrew firstborns but it was the Firstborn of the dead, Christ, the Lamb of God who with His own Blood redeems all of mankind from sin and death.
A graduate of Long Island University, College of Pharmacy, and Saint Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, John works to share the richness and beauty of the Orthodox Faith with the wider community.