The Passover Lamb

In another essay, we learned about the daily sacrifice offered by the Israelite priests twice daily. We saw how that daily sacrifice (Heb: Tamid) of the lamb plus flour and wine imaged our Lord’s Eucharistic sacrifice – the immolation of the Lamb of God amid a backdrop of bread and wine.

Now, let’s look at an extremely similar OT sacrifice, the annual commemoration of the Passover. This was a feast held each year, usually beginning on the 14th day of Nisan, according to the Hebrew calendar. The 14th of Nisan roughly corresponds to a full moon near the Spring equinox in the northern hemisphere. This feast is called Passover in English, but is called Pesach in Hebrew. In Greek and Latin, that Hebrew word is transliterated to Pascha, from which we get the English liturgical word paschal, as in “Paschal Mysteries.” This word, Pascha, is the traditional name for the Solemnity of the Resurrection of the Lord, which we Americans call Easter. That is, Christian Easter is more correctly called Passover. (The word “Easter” is from ancient Anglo-Saxon language and may refer to ancient goddess of Spring, or may be derivative of the their words for “east,” “dawn,” or “resurrection.” Only English and German speaking peoples call Pascha by this name.)

Passover commemorated the great miracle of Israel’s freedom from Egyptian slavery, which we call the Exodus; it is described in the book of the Bible that bears that name. It was instituted on the night of the 10th plague: the death of the first-borns. Every family of the Chosen People participated by slaughtering a lamb, marking the door with its blood, roasting and eating the lamb, along with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. The lambs were sacrificed, though not by any priest; they were sacrificed by each household. After that historic night of institution, the annual Passover commemoration followed the same recipe, except for marking the door with lamb’s blood. On that historic night, the Egyptians were so filled with fear that they released the Israelite slaves; if fact, they pushed them out of their land.

The Pesach sacrificial feast required each household to kill and eat a sacrificial lamb. Like the Tamid lambs, the Passover lamb must be a one year old male and unblemished. Unlike the Tamid lambs, there is an option to use a kid (baby goat) instead of a lamb.

3 Tell all the congregation of Israel that on the tenth day of this month they shall take every man a lamb according to their fathers' houses, a lamb for a household;… 5 Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male a year old; you shall take it from the sheep or from the goats; 6 and you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month, when the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill their lambs in the evening. (Ex 12:3,5-6)

As we noted in the essay on the Tamid Sacrifices, the lamb is a type of Christ who was sacrificed for us. As Jesus was male, so were the sacrificial lambs. And, as Jesus was innocent, so the lambs were to be unblemished – no spotting or discolorations.

Another requirement was the lamb to have no broken bones:

46 In one house shall it be eaten; you shall not carry forth any of the flesh outside the house; and you shall not break a bone of it. (Ex 12:46)

This also pointed to Jesus, who had no broken bones during His crucifixion:

31 Since it was the day of Preparation, in order to prevent the bodies from remaining 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. 32 So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first, and of the other who had been crucified with him; 33 but when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs… 36 For these things took place that the scripture might be fulfilled, "Not a bone of him shall be broken." (Jn 19:31-33, 36)

As the Tamid sacrifices involved flour and wine, so the Passover sacrifice also involves bread.

14 "This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the LORD; throughout your generations you shall observe it as an ordinance for ever. 15 Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread; on the first day you shall put away leaven out of your houses, for if any one eats what is leavened, from the first day until the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel. 16 On the first day you shall hold a holy assembly, and on the seventh day a holy assembly; no work shall be done on those days; but what every one must eat, that only may be prepared by you. 17 And you shall observe the feast of unleavened bread, for on this very day I brought your hosts out of the land of Egypt: therefore you shall observe this day, throughout your generations, as an ordinance for ever. 18 In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at evening, you shall eat unleavened bread, and so until the twenty-first day of the month at evening. 19 For seven days no leaven shall be found in your houses; for if any one eats what is leavened, that person shall be cut off from the congregation of Israel, whether he is a sojourner or a native of the land. 20 You shall eat nothing leavened; in all your dwellings you shall eat unleavened bread." (Ex 12:14-20)

Passover was a festival lasting seven days; on the eve of Day 1, the lamb was sacrificed and eaten in every household, along with unleavened bread. For the remainder of the festival, through Day 7, unleavened bread was eaten. Why was it necessary for the bread to be unleavened? The answer lies in the first Passover, that night when the angel of death went throughout Egypt killing all the first-born as a plague, but Passing-Over the homes of the Israelites. It was that brutal plague that led the Egyptians to release the Israelites; as previously mentioned, they hurried them out of Egypt out of fright.

25 And when you come to the land which the LORD will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this service. 26 And when your children say to you, 'What do you mean by this service?' 27 you shall say, 'It is the sacrifice of the LORD's passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he slew the Egyptians but spared our houses.'"… 33 And the Egyptians were urgent with the people, to send them out of the land in haste; for they said, "We are all dead men." 34 So the people took their dough before it was leavened, their kneading bowls being bound up in their mantles on their shoulders… 39 And they baked unleavened cakes of the dough which they had brought out of Egypt, for it was not leavened, because they were thrust out of Egypt and could not tarry, neither had they prepared for themselves any provisions. (Ex 12:25-27, 33-34, 39)

They did not even have time to wait for their dough to leaven and rise, so anxious were the Egyptians to push Israel and their powerful God out of their land. So we see the ancient Passover regulation required a lamb plus unleavened bread, the same as our Eucharistic sacrifice.

It is worth noting that our Eucharistic sacrifice was instituted at the Last Supper, which was a Passover meal. Jesus and the Apostles ate the unleavened bread, as required. It seems, though, that they did not sacrifice or eat a lamb. Why not? Because the Lamb of God was reclining there at their table, and they did eat that Lamb when they ate the bread, which He had transformed into His body. His Passover would take not seven days, but three days – those three days we call the Pascal Mystery where the Lamb of God endured His immolation, death and triumphant resurrection. You can read more about that in this essay.

How about the wine? We see no instruction in the Passover regulation for wine. However, ritual evolved in the Passover celebration of Israel. The meal of the first night is called the seder and includes drinking four cups of wine. These cups are to commemoratively celebrate what the Jewish people saw as the four great promises of God to Moses:

6 Say therefore to the people of Israel, 'I am the LORD, and (1) I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and (2) I will deliver you from their bondage, and (3) I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment, 7 and (4) I will take you for my people, and I will be your God; and you shall know that I am the LORD your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. (Ex 6-7)

So wine was added to the annual Passover feast, not by way of commandment, but by way of celebratory gratitude. At the Last Supper, it seems Jesus got through the first three cups of wine, the third called the “cup of Thanksgiving” which was the Eucharistic cup of His blood. The fourth and final cup of wine, called the “cup of Consummation,” He drank from the cross, offered to Him on a hyssop branch (cf Jn 19:29); after tasting it, He said, “It is consummated,” and gave up His spirit. We see that the Last Supper plus the passion and death of our Lord was a kind of cosmic Passover, the immolation of the Divine Passover Lamb, of which all prior Passovers were images.

It is interesting that that last taste of sour wine was offered on a hyssop branch, as that branch was also mentioned in the first Passover:

21 Then Moses called all the elders of Israel, and said to them, "Select lambs for yourselves according to your families, and kill the passover lamb. 22 Take a bunch of hyssop and dip it in the blood which is in the basin, and touch the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood which is in the basin; and none of you shall go out of the door of his house until the morning. 23 For the LORD will pass through to slay the Egyptians; and when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the LORD will pass over the door, and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to slay you. (Ex 12:21-23)

The Lord passed-over any home that had lamb’s blood painted on the lintel (horizontal beam of the door frame) and two doorposts (horizontal beams of the door frame) by means of a “bunch of hyssop” used as a paintbrush. So we see the significance of offering wine to Jesus on a hyssop branch (consider that He just transformed the Passover wine into His blood). Note the lamb’s blood marked on vertical and horizontal wooden beams, which image the two beams of the cross that Christ marked with His own blood.

A final note: In Luke’s narrative of Jesus’ Transfiguration on the Mount, he notes the topic of conversation between the glorified Jesus and Moses & Elijah:

28 Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 And as he was praying, the appearance of his countenance was altered, and his raiment became dazzling white. 30 And behold, two men talked with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem. (Lk 9:28-30)

They “spoke of his departure” which He would accomplish at Jerusalem. The word here translated as “departure” in English was, in the original Greek, the word, exodos, which we recognize as a form of the English word “Exodus” – the exodus from Egypt, which is the foundation of the Passover commemoration. It seems Jesus had His own “exodus,” from Jerusalem rather than from Egypt. We understand this comment to mean Jesus making His exodus from this world to the next, a new Moses leading His people (the Church) to the ultimate Promised Land (heaven). Of note is mention of “eight days,” that beautiful number referring to the New Covenant (see another essay). The old Passover was seven days long, in reference to the number seven that symbolized the covenant. Here, though, Luke is making a statement about a New Covenant, where Jesus is a new Moses, leading a new Exodus, with a new chosen people to a new Promise; and so he mentions that number of the New Covenant.

7 Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed. 8 Let us, therefore, celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (1 Cor 5:7-8)