Easter and Passover
As we approach both Passover and Easter you may wonder if there is a connection and, if so, what it is.
We know that Jesus was a Jew; his mother, Mary, and step-father, Joseph, were Jewish. His Apostles were all Jewish. They all celebrated the
Feast of the Passover every year as Jews have done (and still do) since it was instituted by Moses (Exodus 12). The Passover is celebrated to remember the deliverance of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt.
If you have seen movie 'The Ten Commandments', you will remember the plagues that God brought upon the Egyptians in order to let the Hebrews leave Egypt. The final plague was the death of every first-born male. The Hebrews could only escape this last plague by killing an unblemished lamb, sprinkling its blood on the doorways of their houses and then roasting the lamb and eating it together as a family. They were to eat it with unleavened bread (without yeast) as they would not have time to let the bread rise before leaving. Unfortunately, the recent series The Bible, did not show the important meal of the Passover. It does show the sacrifice of the lamb, putting the blood on the lintels of the door but it does not show the people actually eating the Passover meal. We will see why this meal is important to both Jews and Christians.
The last plague was the breaking point for Pharaoh who finally let the Israelites leave Egypt(although he regretted it later and chased after them). This last plague was the death of the firstborn of every household in Egypt except those that had the blood of a sacrificed lamb on its door lintel. Moses told the Hebrews to remember this night and observe the Feast of Passover on the 14th of the month of Nisan as a perpetual ordinance for themselves and their descendants: “This is the Passover sacrifice of the Lord, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt; when he struck down the Egyptians, he spared our houses.” (Exodus 12:27)
It is Passover that Jesus and his disciples were celebrating, many years later, just before Judas betrayed Jesus and Jesus was arrested. This is what Leonardo da Vinci’s painting The Last Supper portrays. But does Passover really have anything to do with Easter?
You bet it does! The Passover was much more linked to the death and resurrection of Jesus than just occurring at the same time of year. On the first Passover, the Hebrew people chose one of their own lambs on the 10th of Nisan and killed it on the 14th of Nisan for the family meal. During the time of the prophet, Jeremiah, because the people went to the city of Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, a sacrificial flock of lambs raised for this purpose were brought into Jerusalem on the 10th of Nisan. People could then purchase a lamb for their family’s celebration of the Passover feast rather than bringing one from their hometown some distance away. The sheep were brought into the city by the Sheep Gate.
It is believed that Jesus entered into Jerusalem, riding on a donkey on the 10th of Nisan. He was greeted by cheering crowds who waved palm branches and cried, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.” Luke 19:38. Jesus is believed to have entered by the Golden Gate and came as a King but would be sacrificed like the lamb. This entry is remembered as Palm Sunday celebrated the week before Easter. The Golden Gate was sealed by the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman in 1541 possibly to prevent the return of the Messiah.
Jesus celebrated the Passover seder meal with his disciples and we read in Luke 22:14, “Then he took the cup, gave thanks, and said, ‘Take this and share it among yourselves; for I tell you from this time on I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine until the Kingdom of God comes.’ Then he took the bread, said the blessing, broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which shall be given for you; do this in memory of me.’ And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which shall be shed for you.’” (Luke 22:19-20). This was all done before Judas betrayed Jesus and before Jesus was arrested. The Apostles did not yet know that Jesus would be nailed to a cross to die. Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection were part of God’s plan to bring people out of bondage to sin. It had been foretold as far back as in the Garden of Eden after the first sin. (see Genesis 3:15)
Three years before Jesus was crucified, John the Baptist had seen Jesus walking by and pointed him out, saying, “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29) Years later, St. Peter would write to the churches, “...you were ransomed by your futile conduct, handed on by your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold but with the precious blood of Christ as of a spotless unblemished lamb.” (I Peter 1:18,19)
Why is it called 'Easter'?
Unfortunately, the English language uses the word “Easter” for the celebration when Christians remember Jesus’ death and resurrection. The word, Easter, is thought to originate from Estre, a Teutonic goddess of light and spring and so it was the feast that commemorated the pagan goddess of spring. In German, it is Ostern. The Church in Anglo-Germanic countries often ‘Christianized’ pagan feast days by using the name of the pagan feast or certain symbols of the celebration (such as the Yule tree at Christmas time) for Christian festivals. The symbol would be given a Christian meaning and so change the significance of the symbol. For example, the Christmas tree, an evergreen, came to symbolize ‘everlasting life’ which Jesus promised to his followers. In a similar manner, the eggs and young animals (chicks and rabbits) of Easter came to symbolize ‘new life in Christ’.
Other languages more correctly reflect the Aramaic form of the Hebrew pesach. So we have Greek, Pascha; Latin, Pascha; Italian Pasqua; Spanish, Pascua; French, Pâques; Scottish, Pask; Dutch, Pasen; Danish, Paaske; Swedish , Pask; Swedish , Pask. In the Lower Rhine provinces of Germany the people call the feast Paisken not Ostern.
By the way, the same ‘problem’ arises with the Anglo and Germanic languages using Sunday and Sonntag (referring to the pagan Sun god) whereas the Latinate languages use cognates of Latin, Deis Dominae ‘the day of the Lord’: Italian, Dominica; French, Dimanche; Spanish, Domingo.
Setting the date for remembering the death and resurrection of Jesus was somewhat complicated and was not settled until years later. The Jewish Passover is set following the lunar calendar whereas Rome (and later the Western Church) followed a solar calendar. The Church could have set ‘Easter’ (the time of celebrating Jesus’ death and resurrection) on the same date as the Jews celebrated Passover (the 15th of Nisan) but they desired to celebrate the Resurrection on a Sunday, the Lord’s Day, as it had originally fallen on that day. Because of the difference in the lunar calendar and the solar calendar the date of Easter would not be the same every year. Eventually the Western Church set Easter Sunday as the first Sunday which occurs after the first full moon following the 21st of March. As a result, the earliest possible date for Easter is 22 March and the latest is April 25th. The Orthodox Church sets the date differently. see http://www.zenit.org/article-32165?l=english
The Bible. History Television http://www.history.com/shows/the-bible
The Catholic Encyclopedia / New Advent http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05224d.htm
The Jewish Virtual Library http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=99&letter=P