St. Paul offers the familiar words: “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us!” (1 Cor. 5:7). Most readers of the Bible will find nothing surprising about this – though they should. It is an extremely sophisticated commentary on the death and resurrection of Christ uttered at a very early date in Christian history. For what is equally as remarkable as the eye-witness accounts of the resurrection, are the primitive proclamations about what Christ’s death and resurrection mean. That Christ was raised from the dead is miraculous and wonderful, but that the crucified and risen Christ is our Passover is yet more striking. It reveals much about the Primitive Christian community and provides clarification about the meaning of Christ’s death.
The Christian gospels are more than history accounts, though their claims about certain events in history are at their core. They are carefully crafted accounts of Christ’s ministry and passion, written not only to convey what happened, but how and what it means in light of the Old Testament (John 20:31). In an extremely early piece of “tradition” (for that’s the word St. Paul uses to describe it) we hear this:
For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. (1Cor. 15:3-7)
The primitive community of the disciples not only proclaimed the remarkable facts of Christ’s ministry and passion, but thought them to be significant precisely because they were believed to be a fulfillment of the eternal plan of God (“according to the Scriptures”). This man is not just a man raised from the dead: this man is God incarnate, the meaning of every hidden mystery in the Scriptures. St. John goes so far as to call Him the Logos, the very matrix of meaning for all created things, such that He Himself is actually the ground of all that exists.
It is important to note that the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament is Christ-driven (rather than the other way around). OT verses that are used in reference to Christ need only be statements within the OT that “fit” the Church’s understanding of Christ. For there is something of a “dialog” or “conversation” between Church/Christ/OT in which the understanding of Christ/Church/OT unfolds.
Central to Christ’s Passion and Resurrection is the proclamation: “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.” This both interprets the OT Passover and interprets Christ’s death and resurrection. It is, in fact, the earliest discernible and most extensive treatment of the Passion/Resurrection. It remains the dominant basis for atonement thought in the Eastern Church.
This is truly significant. All of the gospels link Christ’s death and resurrection to the historical Feast of the Passover, though there seems to be some difference as to whether the Last Supper was the Passover Seder (Orthodox tradition does not think so).
Hebrews makes use of the imagery of the atonement sacrifice when speaking of Christ’s priesthood, though this is largely in a polemic that argues for the superiority of Christ over the priesthood of the Old Testament. But Hebrews is alone in this imagery.
That the atoning sacrifice for sin (a payment for a debt, etc.) has become a dominant manner of speaking about Christ’s death in many Christian circles is simply an accident of late Church history and a departure from the Passover-grounded account in the gospels and St. Paul (excluding Hebrews).
The death of Christ is inextricably linked to a meal in the manner of the Passover. Only the Children of Israel may partake of the Passover meal in the Old Testament: “no foreigner shall eat of it” (Ex. 12:48). To share in the meal is to share in God’s victory – it is to belong to God.
St. John’s treatment of Christ’s crucifixion is decidedly driven by the Passover. In his gospel, Christ describes His coming crucifixion as His “glorification.” No sacrifice within the temple is ever described in such a manner. But the event of the Passover is described in precisely this manner and continues to be described in this way within the Paschal hymnography of Orthodoxy:
“I will sing unto the Lord for gloriously has He been glorified!”
The Passover experience of the primitive community is immediately translated into the Eucharistic meal. Christ’s resurrection appearances are directly linked to these meals. Peter describes the resurrection witnesses as those who “ate and drank with [Christ] after He arose from the dead” (Acts 10:41).
The primitive community is clearly a Eucharistic community, marked by the Eucharistic feast (shared on the weekly anniversary of the resurrection) from its earliest moments. Eating this meal “proclaims the Lord’s death ‘til He comes” in St. Paul’s language. The Eucharistic community is the community of Christ’s Passover, His Pascha.
This new Pascha also sheds much light on the nature of Christ’s sacrifice. The lamb of Passover is slain and the doorposts of Israel marked with his blood as a means of defeating the “destroyer,” who kills the firstborn of Egypt. This destruction of Egypt (along with the drowning in the Red Sea) are all God’s “getting glory” over Pharoah. It is the proper context for understanding Christ’s description of His death as His glorification.
And thus, the dominant imagery, still preserved in the Eastern Church, is Christ’s atonement as victory, a triumph over death and hell, just as God triumphed over Pharoah and his horsemen. Our Baptism is an immersion in that very victory (an appropriate means of recalling that epic drowning).
Christ’s Passover – the lamb, the meal, the drowning, the victory are all hallmarks of the Church’s proclamation of the gospel. They are definitive. It is also true that Christ, as the meaning of all things, takes into Himself the whole of the Israel’s life (including the system of sacrifice). But it is good at this time of Pascha, to stand back and let the language of Passover speak to our hearts and remind us of God’s glorious victory.
An academic addendum: In this recent season, the scholar, Bart Ehrmann, has been making the rounds arguing against the historical account of the resurrection. The Eucharistic character of the primitive community (undeniable historical fact) can only be understood as an consequence of Christ being seen as a new Passover. That Passover makes little sense without a historical resurrection. The Eucharistic community of Christian disciples is a living witness of Christ’s resurrection.