Passover and Easter
Celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the Church’s original observance, predating any commemoration of Christ’s birth or even his death. Celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the observance which creates and defines the Church.

This celebration takes shape in two great sacraments and two great feasts.

The Two Great Sacraments are, of course, Baptism and Eucharist, both of which are not only commemorations of the resurrection of Christ, but also means by which the believer participates in that resurrection and makes the story his own story.

The Two Great Feasts are the weekly and annual, Sunday and Easter.

There is a hint in John 20 that the observance of the first day of the week as the day of the resurrection – and thus the first day in the creation of a new and more perfect world – goes back to the very earliest times. By the time of the ministry of St. Paul, it appears that “Sunday service” had become the standard in the Church (Acts 20:7, I Corinthians 16:2); and by the end of the New Testament period, the term “The Lord’s Day” had become current (Revelation 1:10).

Easter is of course a Christian interpretation of the old Jewish feast of Passover. The English language obscures the connection between the two by using quite different words – “Passover”, a translation of the Hebrew “Pesach”, and “Easter”, which is actually the name of a pagan (Anglo-Saxon) goddess of the spring. In most other languages, the names are the same, both some form of the word “Pascha”, which is originally the Greek transliteration of a late Aramaic form of the word “Pesach”. (The similarity to the Greek verb “pascho”, “I suffer” is purely accidental but neatly appropriate.)

As I was saying in a recent sermon, there are three elements to the story of the Jewish Passover…

Firstly, there was the shepherds’ rite, of the sacrifice of the passover lamb, an offering to God of a first-born lamb of the flock.

Secondly, there was the farmers’ rite, of the feast of unleavened bread, an offering to God of the first-fruits of the barley harvest (desert farming – the spring harvest after the winter rains!)

Thirdly, these two rites are combined into one, and become associated with the commemoration of a specific historical event, the escape of the Hebrews under Moses from bondage in Egypt. A very similar re-interpretation of an agricultural rite as an historical commemoration has occurred with the American observance of Thanksgiving: what was originally a Harvest Festival, an annual thanksgiving for God’s bounty, becomes a celebration of a particular historical event, the arrival of the Pilgrim Fathers in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1621.

The “Passover Story” in Exodus has again the theme of an offering to God of the first-fruits, although the story is a much more sombre one: it is the first-born of Egypt – “from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sitteth upon his throne, even unto the firstborn of the maid servant that is behind the mill, and all the firstborn of beasts” – that are the sacrificial victims. The name “Pesach” or “Passover” is given a new and probably fanciful etymology – the Lord “passing over” the homes of the children of Israel in his campaign of destruction.

Christian Easter is a further re-interpretation of the rite of Passover. Again, the theme of the offering of the first-fruits is central, but this time it is the offering to God of his own first-born son. The escape from slavery and the crossing of the Red Sea on the way to the Promised Land become images of the Christian People freed from the bondage of death and sin and making their way home to Paradise…


- Fr Richard Bowyer, April 2007