Easter in connection with the Passover
By Fr. Tirso Villaverde
St. Thomas of Canterbury, Chicago
At the beginning of next month, Christians will again celebrate the Resurrection of the Lord. In the west, the feast of Easter is still very much connected to the Jewish feast of Passover which is why the date changes every year. In case anyone has ever wondered, the date of Easter is calculated as the first Sunday after the first full moon in the spring equinox. For the eastern churches (Orthodox Churches), they follow a different calendar which usually causes the date of Easter for the Orthodox Christians to be at least a week or more later. Either way, the significance of the Lord's Resurrection remains the same.
It should be noted, though, that in virtually every other part of the world, the feast of the Lord's Resurrection is referred to by a word that is derived from the word "Passover." In Spanish, the word that is used is "Pascua." In liturgical Tagalog, the feast is known as "Pasko ng Pagkabuhay." The English word "Easter" may have come from a misunderstanding of a Latin phrase. Referring to the white garments of the newly baptized, the word "albis" was misinterpreted as being the plural for the Latin word "alba" which means "dawn." Using the Old High German word for dawn, the name of the feast was translated as "eostarun." In English, it became Easter. This is one of the theories but whatever the history might be, the ancient feast of Passover is still essential to understanding the true significance of the Lord's Resurrection and its impact on the lives of Christians to this day.
The Jewish feast of Passover commemorates the moment when God sent the last and final plague against the Pharaoh of Egypt. The story is well known even to the Christian mind. Moses was sent by God to demand of Pharaoh the liberation of God's People. In his stubbornness, the ruler of Egypt refused and upon his land was inflicted several plagues. The last of which was the death of every first born son. In virtually all of the ancient cultures as it is to this day, the oldest son is seen as the fulfillment of a promise of long life. He is the one destined to continue his father's name and inherit everything that the father owns. The death of every first born son in Egypt was felt as a destructive blow to its future existence which made this particular plague the most severe of all the plagues.
As the story of Moses and Pharaoh is told, the night the last plague was to be inflicted upon the land of Egypt, the ancient Jews were instructed by God to gather in their homes and prepare a lamb for a meal. The food was to be prepared in a manner that made it easy to pack up and taken with them at a moment's notice. This was on purpose because God had promised to grant the liberation of His People on that night and His People were expected to leave at any time. But, prior to eating the meal, the followers of God were to take the blood of the lamb and smear it on the doorposts and lintel of every household. The blood would mark the places where God's People were gathered and God's angel would then "pass over" those houses delivering its inhabitants from the destructive plague. The story of the first Passover became a powerful message of God's fidelity to His People.
Since ancient times, the Jewish people have celebrated this feast as a perpetual reminder of God's actions that led them to liberation. To this day, at the celebration of Passover, the youngest male in the family is expected to ask the oldest male in the family the question, "What makes this night different from all others?" The oldest male then begins to retell the story of God's fidelity to His People and the night becomes a way not only to make real what happened in the past but also point believers to the promise that is still to come.
Christians have celebrated Easter in connection with the Passover because we have seen in Jesus the very fulfillment of the Passover story. Christians have come to believe that Jesus is the true sacrificial lamb who was sacrificed so that God's People could now live in the freedom of God's sons and daughters who have been liberated from the powers of sin. For Christians, the night before the Lord's Resurrection is different from all others because it anticipates the dawning of a new era where all those who believe in Jesus can and do become a light of hope to the entire world. Prior to Jesus, all of humanity was held in the grip of the devil. As a result of his victory, Jesus has become the Passover Lamb whose blood offers redemption and freedom from the devil's grasp.
Whether we use the word "Easter" or a derivative of the Latin word "Pascua," the day of the Lord's Resurrection remains a powerful statement of faith and trust that God has liberated His People. For those who believe, this liberation offers a completely new way of living and loving. May all of us who believe in Jesus as Savior once again anticipate the great gift that he has given us in rising from the dead on that first Easter Sunday morning.