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In Jesus' time, the Jewish Passover brought the faithful of Moses together to Jerusalem for the purpose of offering and consuming the paschal lamb. This commemorated the Exodus which liberated the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery.

Today the Christian Passover unites Christ's disciples in communion with their Lord, the true Lamb of God. It associates them with His death and resurrection which have freed them from sin and death.

There is an obvious continuity from one festival to the other, but the perspective has been changed in passing from the old to the new covenant through the intermediary of Jesus' Passover.

The Israelite Passover

The Early Passover - Nomadic and Domestic

At the outset, the Passover was a family festival. It was celebrated at night, at the full moon of the vernal equinox, the 14th of the month of Abib or of the corn (called Nisan after the exile). A young animal, born that year, was offered to Yahweh in order to draw down divine blessings upon the flocks. The victim was a lamb or kid, male, without blemish;[1] not a bone of him must be broken.[2] His blood was placed, as a sign of preservation, on the entrance of each dwelling.[3] His flesh was eaten during the course of a rapid meal, taken in the manner of guests about to go on a journey.[4] These nomadic and domestic traits suggest a very ancient origin for the Passover: it could have been the sacrifice which the Israelites asked of Pharoah to celebrate in the desert.[5] It thus goes back beyond Moses and the departure from Egypt. But it is the Exodus which gave it its definitive meaning.

Passover and Exodus

The great springtime of Israel occurred when God liberated His people from the Egyptian yoke by a series of providential interventions, the most striking of which is expressed in the tenth plague: the killing of the first-born of the Egyptians.[6] To this event, tradition later joined the offering of the first-born of the flock and the redeeming of the first-born Israelite.[7] But this parallel comparison remains secondary. What matters is that the Passover coincides with the deliverance of the Israelites: it became the memorial of the Exodus, the greatest event of their history. It recalled that God had struck Egypt and spared His faithful.[8] From now on such will be the meaning of the Passover and the new meaning of its name.

Pasch is the equivalent of the Greek Pascha, derived from the Aramaic Pasha and the Hebrew Pesah. The origin of this name is disputed. Some give it a foreign etymology, Assyrian (pasahu, to appease) or Egyptian (pa-sh, the remembrance; pe-sah, the blow); but none of these hypotheses is compelling. The Bible associates pesah with the verb pasah, which mean either to limp, or perform a ritual dance around a sacrifice,[9] or figuratively, "to jump", "to pass", "to spare". The Passover is the Passage of Yahweh who passed over the Israelite houses while He struck those of the Egyptians.[10]

Passover and Unleavened Bread

In time, another feast was fused with the Passover. This feast of the Unleavened Bread was originally distinct but became associated because of its springtime date.[11] The Passover was celebrated on the 14th of the month; the Unleavened Bread was finally fixed from the 15th to the 21st. These unleavened loaves accompanied the offering of the first-fruits of the harvest.[12] The removal of the old leaven was a rite of purity and of annual renewal, whose origin is thought to be either nomadic or agricultural. Whatever it may be, Israelite tradition also associated this rite with the departure from Egypt.[13] It recalled the haste of the departure, so swift that the Israelites had to carry off their dough before it was leavened.[14] In the liturgical calendars, the feasts of the Passover and Unleavened Bread are sometimes distinguished[15] and sometimes confused.[16]

At any rate, it is the deliverance of the Exodus which is made present in the annual passovers, and this profound meaning of the festival is felt with more intensity at the important stages of Israelite history: that of Sinai[17] and of the entrance into Canaan;[18]; that of the reforms of Hezekiah around 716,[19] and of Josiah around 622;[20] that of the post-exilic re-establishment in 515.[21] The return from the exile is presented by Second Isaiah as a new Exodus,[22] and the reunion of the dispersed[23] is seen as the work of the Lamb-Servant[24] who must become the light of the nations and who, with the paschal lamb, will serve as a figure of the Messiah to come.

The Passover - Festival of the Temple

Thus, the Passover has evolved through the centuries. Some qualifications, some modifications took place. The most important was the innovation of Deuteronomy which transformed the old family celebration into a feast of the temple.[25] Perhaps this legislation saw a beginning of realization under Hezekiah.[26] In any case, it is established as a fact under Josiah.[27] The Passover thus takes its place within the general centralization of worship. Its rite is adapted: blood is poured out over the altar[28] and priests and Levites and the principal ministers in the ceremony.

After the exile, the Passover became the festival par excellence; its omission entailed a veritable excommunication for the Jews.[29] All the circumcised, and they alone, must take part in it;[30] in case of necessity, it can be put off for a month.[31] These qualifications of priestly legislation fixed a jurisprudence henceforth unchangeable. Outside the holy city, the Passover was doubtless celebrated here and there in family style, as was certainly the case with the Jewish colony at Elephantine in Egypt, according to a document of the year 419. But the sacrificing of the lamb was progressively eliminated from these private celebrations, which from now on were eclipsed by the solemnity in Jerusalem.

The Passover became one of the great pilgrimages, one of the culminating points of the liturgical year. By means of the recall of the deliverance from Egypt, the feast sustained the hope of the liberation to come. There was here a risk of awakening nationalism: it was frequently at the time of the Passover that political movements came to the fore[32] or religious passions were inflamed.[33] In the Roman period, the administration took care to maintain order during the paschal festivities, and each year at that time the procurator went up to Jerusalem. But religious faith could also see beyond this agitation and keep itself free from compromise. The Passover was a feast of hope, since, as it was currently said, it was during this night that the Messiah would come.

The Passover of Jesus

Indeed the Messiah did come. To begin with, Jesus took part in the Jewish Passover; His aim was to perfect it. He would finally supplant and fulfill it.

At the time of the Passover, Jesus uttered words and performed actions which little by little changed its meaning. Thus we have the Passover of the only Son, who stays behind close to the Holy of Holies because He knows that there He is close to His Father;[34] the Passover of the new temple, where Jesus purified the temporary sanctuary and announced the definitive sanctuary, His risen body;[35] the Passover of the multiplied bread, which will be His body offered in sacrifice;[36] finally, and above all the Passover of the new Lamb, in which Jesus takes the place of the paschal victim, institutes the new paschal meal, and effects His own exodus, the "passage" from this sinful world to the kingdom of the Father.<John 13:1.</ref>

The evangelists understood well Jesus' intentions and, with various nuances, cast light upon them. The synoptics describe the last meal of Jesus (even if it was consumed on the eve of the Passover) as a paschal meal: the supper is taken within the walls of Jerusalem and it is set in a liturgy which includes, among other things, the recitation of the Hallel.[37] But it is the meal of a new Passover: onto the ritual blessings intended for bread and wine, Jesus grafts the institution of the Eucharist. In giving His body to eat and His blood poured out to drink, He describes His death as the sacrifice of the Passover of which He is the new Lamb.[38] John prefers to emphasize this fact by inserting several allusions to Jesus the Lamb into his gospel,[39] and in making coincide, on the afternoon of the 14th Nisan, the sacrificing of the lamb[40] and the death on the cross of the true paschal victim.[41]

The Christian Passover

The Sunday Passover

The Annual Passover

The Eschatological Passover

See also

Further reading


  1. Exodus 12:3-6.
  2. 12:46; Numbers 9:12.
  3. Exodus 12:7-22.
  4. 12:8-11.
  5. 3:18; 5:1.
  6. Exodus 11:5; 12:12-29.
  7. 13:1,11-15; Numbers 3:13; 8:17.
  8. 12:26; 13:8.
  9. 1 Kings 18:21-26.
  10. Exodus 12:13,23-27; Isaiah 31:5.
  11. Exodus 12:15-20.
  12. Leviticus 23:5-14; Deuteronomy 26:1.
  13. Exodus 23:15; 34:18.
  14. Exodus 12:34,39.
  15. Leviticus 23:5-8; Ezra 6:19-22; 2 Chronicles 35:17.
  16. Deuteronomy 16:1-8; 2 Chronicles 30:1-13.
  17. Numbers 9.
  18. Joshua 5.
  19. 2Chronicles 30.
  20. 2 Kings 23:21.
  21. Ezra 6:19-22.
  22. Isaiah 63:7-64:11.
  23. Isaiah 49:6.
  24. Isaiah 53:7.
  25. Deuteronomy 16:1-8.
  26. 2 Chronicles 30; Isaiah 30:29.
  27. 2 Kings 23:21; 2 Chronicles 35.
  28. 2 Chronicles 35:11.
  29. Numbers 9:13.
  30. Exodus 12:43-49.
  31. Numbers 9:9-13; 2 Chronicles 30:2.
  32. Luke 13:1.
  33. Acts 12:1-4.
  34. Luke 2:41-51.
  35. John 2:13-23; 1:14,51; 4:21-24.
  36. John 6.
  37. Mark 14:26.
  38. Mark 14:22-24.
  39. John 1:29,36.
  40. 18:28; 19:14,31,42.
  41. 19:36.

External Links



  • Pierre-Emile Bonnard. "Passover". Transl.: Patrick H. McNamara. In: Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Ed.: Fr. Xavier Léon-Dufour (S.J.). 1st English Edition, translated from the 1962 French editon Vocabulaire de Théologie Biblique, under the direction of Fr. P. Joseph Cahill (S.J.). Palm Publishers: Montreal, 1967. pp.360-362.