How was last night different from all other nights? It was the first time in a long time that Jewish families all over the world could not gather with relatives and friends for the annual celebration of Passover. To all my Jewish friends, despite the disruption to normal life, I say “shalom, and chag Pesach sameach!”
On our boat, we are often just the seven of us at the table for Passover—we are a bit of an oddity as a Christian family celebrating the Jewish holiday instead of observing Easter. Our problem with “Christian” holidays like Easter, Christmas, and Halloween is that they are a conglomeration of pagan practices—basically, a small Jewish sect from the first century rolled like a snowball down the hill of history, collecting gods and traditions from every culture it passed through. But at its heart, Christianity is the offshoot of one of the world’s oldest religions.
While the word Easter originates with Eostre, a pagan goddess connected with the spring solstice and the season of fertility, Passover is a Biblical holiday fraught with meaning, symbolism, and fulfilled prophecy. Why shouldn’t those who claim as their Messiah (mashiach) a Jewish carpenter embrace a holiday he celebrated? As a student of the Bible, my curiosity has always drawn me toward the Jewish roots of Christianity; after all, the first students of the Rabbi Yeshua (Jesus) continued to hold sacred Jewish law and practice, while adding “grace” to their understanding of “redemption” and claiming that the promises of the prophets had been fulfilled. I argue that you can’t understand the gospel of a Jewish tax-collector (Mattityahu/Matthew) or the letters of a Pharisee convert (Sha’ul/Paul) in the New Testament without attempting to grasp the history and culture of the Old Testament (the Tanach: the Law/Torah, the prophets, and the writings).
My personal connection to Passover started when I was a kid. I have always had Jewish friends and been exposed to their traditions and holy days (and did I mention the food? Who doesn’t love latkes?). I even felt solidarity with Jewish classmates required to go to religious services every Saturday—I was raised Seventh-Day Adventist. Though I no longer identify with that denomination, keeping the Sabbath (Shabbat) sunset Friday to sunset Saturday has become pivotal to my weekly routine (God said, “take a 24-hour vacation once a week” and I said, “OK, sounds great!”). I even have Jewish ancestors on my mother’s side (the Stearman family), though I’m not sure it counts for much.
I had celebrated Passover with Jewish friends, but it wasn’t until I attended a Messianic Seder at Congregation Beth Adonai in Atlanta (with Rabbi Scott Sekulow presiding) that I began to understand the significance of the holiday in relation to Holy Week. While I was working as a water aerobics instructor at the Jewish Community Center in Atlanta, I came across a children’s Seder in the library and decided to teach my young children the significance of the holiday. I combined a simplified service for families with the messianic service, and voilà—the goyim began to celebrate Passover!
These are the main elements of Passover, and how they relate to Christianity:
Slavery: The twelve tribes of Israel were once slaves in Egypt, but God promised to free them and bring the people back to the land he had promised them (Exodus 6:6-8). Humans have a natural tendency towards sin (an archery term that means “to miss the mark”) or the breaking of God’s laws, a moral code for human behavior. He gave the Ten Commandments to Moshe (Moses) as basic guidelines for loving God and loving one’s neighbor—but without divine help, we humans are hopelessly inept at keeping them. God’s promise in prophetic writings to send a savior—Yeshua—extends the hope of freedom to everyone, not just the descendants of Israelite slaves. “Everyone who sins is a slave to sin…if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (Gospel of John 8:34-36).
Miracles: This part requires some willing suspension of disbelief (a.k.a. faith). The story of the Exodus is recounted during the meal, the way God commissioned Moses from a burning bush, the way He sent ten plagues to convince Pharaoh to give up his cheap labor force, the way He brought the Israelites out of Egypt and to the shore of the Red Sea, and the way He saved them from Pharaoh’s army (after he regretted freeing his cheap labor force and went after them). The ministry of Yeshua is reliant on miracles as well: on his healings, his control over the elements, his ability to reverse death: “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor” (Gospel of Matthew 11:5).
Sacrifice: The Passover lamb forms the centerpiece of the meal (or, in our case this year, the Passover chicken…). At the time of the exodus each household slaughtered a lamb and marked their doorway with its blood, as a sign of faith so that the Angel of Death (the tenth plague) would “pass over” their home. In every house without this mark, the first-born died (chiefly among the Egyptians, thus prompting them to let the people go). In Christian observance, Yeshua himself is the Passover lamb, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Gospel of John 1:29). His sacrifice is the once-and-for-all payment for the collective mistakes of humanity, his blood spilled so that God’s wrath at our wrong-doing would “pass over” us. This is how the most degenerate among us can find redemption and relationship with God (though not necessarily release from legal and relational consequences). This “blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Gospel of Matthew 26:28) is symbolized during the meal as wine.
Deliverance: On Passover, we eat unleavened bread to commemorate the Israelites coming out of Egypt in such haste that they didn’t have time to let their dough rise. It is eaten with bitter herbs and a sweet mixture of apples and honey to symbolize the bitterness of slavery sweetened by the hope of redemption. In Messianic traditions it is said that the matzo, the traditional flatbread eaten during the meal, is bruised, striped, and pierced, like Yeshua at his death: “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). This is the bread that was broken at the last Passover which Yeshua shared with his disciples, a symbol of his sacrifice now celebrated as the rite of communion: “this is my body broken for you” (Gospel of Luke 22:19, Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians 11:24). There are three matzos on the plate; a Christian interpretation is that they symbolize the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, with the middle matzo broken—part of it hidden away, and brought back at the end of the meal. It is the “afikomen,” Greek for “that which is to come,” reminiscent of the way that Yeshua was broken, resurrected, and returned to the Father, where he awaits the “end of the age”(Gospel of Matthew 24) to come back and usher in a kingdom of peace without end.
The first night of Passover is an evening of story-telling, laughter (the Seder requires the drinking of four glasses of wine…), delicious food, and good news (something we could really use at the moment). Paul sums up a gospel truth hidden in the Passover in a letter to the Romans, “For it makes no difference whether one is a Jew or a Gentile, since all have sinned and come short of earning God’s praise. By God’s grace, without earning it, all are granted the status of being considered righteous before him, through the act redeeming us from our enslavement to sin that was accomplished by the Messiah Yeshua.” (The Complete Jewish Bible, Romans 3:22-24).
For the kids, Dreamworks’ Prince of Egypt is a succinct retelling of the Exodus story.
For more about the history of Easter: https://theconversation.com/why-easter-is-called-easter-and-other-little-known-facts-about-the-holiday-75025
For more about a Messianic celebration of Passover:: https://www.jewishvoice.org/read/blog/how-celebrate-passover-messianic-jew
For more about how archeology supports a historical exodus from Egypt: https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-topics/exodus/exodus-fact-or-fiction/