In 1 Corinthians 5:7, St. Paul states that Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us. Though St. Paul’s identification is incredibly clear and straightforward, the identification of Christ as Passover lamb and of his death and resurrection as a new Passover are ubiquitous in the scriptures. In Orthodox liturgical practice in English, we tend not to translate the word Pascha. Pascha is simply the Greek word for Passover wherever it occurs liturgically. Therefore, we call our festal celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection ‘Passover’ on a regular basis. The Old Testament establishes patterns of God’s working with humanity and in his creation, including our redemption. These patterns are then taken up and fulfilled, i.e. filled to overflowing, by Christ. Though Christ’s death and resurrection, in contemporary theological discussion in the West, are most commonly discussed with reference to atonement, it is the Passover which is the primary pattern which the scriptures and Christian liturgical tradition see these events in Christ’s life as filling with meaning and salvific power.
Besides St. Paul’s clear identification, Christ is clearly identified with the Passover in other ways. He is repeatedly identified as the ‘Lamb of God,’ especially by St. John the Forerunner and in the Apocalypse of St. John (John 1:29, 36; Rev 5:1-7; 21:14). Notably, the Day of Atonement ritual involved two goats, not a lamb. All four Gospels describe Christ coming to Jerusalem in order to suffer crucifixion and to rise again overlapping the Passover which fell on the day in which Christ rested in the tomb. In Exodus 12, when Yahweh the God of Israel announces the coming of the first Passover at the culmination of the plagues upon Egypt, he describes the way in which the festal, sacrificial commemoration of the event should be kept in the future before the event actually happens (Ex 12:14-20). In the same way, Christ institutes the Eucharist before his death and resurrection actually take place, and in the context of a meal related to the Passover celebration. St. Paul describes Christian baptism in terms of the crossing of the sea and the Christian life centered around the Eucharist in terms of the wandering in the wilderness, which are of course brought about subsequent to the Passover as a salvific event (1 Cor 10:1-4). Many more examples could be given.
The overarching theme of the Passover is manumission from slavery. It is quite obvious in the case of the first Passover that the Israelites were slaves in Egypt and that the Passover was the key event in their release from that slavery. But it may be assumed then that they were slaves, broadly, to the Egyptian people. This envisions the slavery under which they suffered as parallel to the slavery practiced by the Greeks and Romans or later chattel slavery in the Western world. This would then lead to an understanding that the plagues, culminating in the Passover, represent God’s wrath and judgment against the Egyptian people. This is not, however, the way in which the text of Exodus presents Israel’s deliverance. Yahweh, the God of Israel, is quite clear that he is executing judgment not against human persons, but against the gods of Egypt (Ex 12:12). Pharaoh considered himself to be one of these gods in bodily form (specifically Horus). The Biblical text does not dispute this, seeing Pharaoh as indeed being the embodiment of the spiritual powers of evil in Egypt. It is for this reason that the Paschal canon refers to Pharaoh as ‘the persecuting giant.’
The Israelites, and all of the Egyptians for that matter, have been enslaved to powers and principalities in the heavenly places who desire evil through being enslaved by and to Pharaoh as their agent. It is Pharaoh who was utilizing the Israelites as slave labor in building cities and monuments to his own greatness. The power by which these dark powers, acting through Pharaoh, carried out this enslavement was the power of death. Only Yahweh can create and give life. At the opening of the book of Exodus, creational language is used regarding the people of Israel. Their ‘becoming numerous’ utilizes the same verb used for the lives which teemed in the waters and the sky during the Genesis account of creation (Ex 1:7). God’s commandment to newly created humanity, reiterated after the expulsion from Paradise and again after the flood of Noah, was to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth. The Israelites are fulfilling this commandment faithfully, but are opposed by rebellious spiritual powers who stand behind Pharaoh. Pharaoh’s response is to use death to prolong and reinforce their enslavement. First, he orders all of the male Israelites to be aborted in the womb (Ex 1:16). When this plan fails to work because the Egyptian midwives won’t participate, he gives a blanket order for male Israelite children to be drowned in the Nile (1:22).
The Passover event, vis a vis the final plague, the death of the firstborn, responds to this along several trajectories. The first is simple distributive justice. Pharaoh has murdered the male children of the Israelites with the Egyptians as willing accomplices. Pharaoh and the Egyptians, therefore, experience the death of their firstborn sons as a balancing of the scales. All of the plagues including the 10th have exhibited the powerlessness of Pharaoh and the other gods of Egypt. Every one of the plagues has brought death. For a few of them, Egyptian magicians have been able to partially mimic the plague, bringing more death. But in no case have any of the gods of Egypt been able to, as they claimed to be able to, bring life to counter the plague and the death which it brought to Egypt. Pharaoh and the other gods do not have the power of life and death. Yahweh, the God of Israel, brings judgment and wrath upon the gods of Egypt, and out of it brings new life, the newborn nation of Israel.
While this describes what God is doing in the Passover event, there is also the question of the ritual, both at the original event and in its subsequent annual practice. It must be noted immediately that there is very clearly no element of substitution in the Passover ritual. There is no indication that the lamb is being killed instead of a firstborn human losing their life. This is clear for several reasons when the text is read carefully. No attention is paid by the ritual text to the killing of the lamb. This means that its death is incidental to, and not part of the ritual. Rather, all of the attention is paid to how the lamb is to be cooked and eaten (Ex 12:3-11). This is in keeping with the norm for sacrificial ritual. Many sacrifices, such as grain and drink offerings, did not involve killing anything. All of them, however, involve a meal. Further, the lambs are not apportioned according to the lives which are going to be spared. It is not ‘one lamb per firstborn male in a household’ such that some households would need to offer several lambs and others would not have to offer any. Rather, the lambs are apportioned one per household (Ex 12:3). Importantly, however, a very small household which cannot eat an entire lamb in one night can share that lamb with another small household (12:4). So the apportionment is according to what a given household is able to eat, not based on firstborn children’s lives spared.
Finally, any sort of substitution would assume that God in his judgment and wrath required the death of the firstborn not only of Pharaoh and the Egyptians but also of the Israelites. There is no indication that this was some sort of requirement, rather it was an action taken by Yahweh the God of Israel to publically defeat his enemies, the gods of Egypt, and free for himself a people. There is further no intimation that this plague was aimed at Israelite and Egyptian indiscriminately. A major part of the nature of this plague is the establishment of justice for the Hebrew children murdered by Pharaoh and his people. Yahweh taking the lives of more Hebrew children makes no sense in this context. The previous plagues fell upon the land of Egypt, but left the Israelites untouched (Ex 8:27; 9:4, 26; 10:23). Why would one assume that this one would fall indiscriminately? This is not only not implied by the text, but runs counter to what the text actually states.
Rather, Yahweh the God of Israel himself reveals what the ritual in its practice will do. To the contrary of the previous assumption, he states that the Passover ritual will make a distinction between Israel and Egypt (Ex 11:4-7). The previous plagues fell upon all the land of Egypt, but not upon the land of Goshen where the Israelites dwelt. But the distinction which Yahweh made was not based on the region in which people dwelt or upon ethnicity, but between his faithful people and those who wished to remain in slavery to the Egyptian gods. The Passover enacts this distinction through sacrificial ritual and through the marking with the blood of the lamb on the household’s door. Israel was constituted, and the people living in Egypt became Israelites, through worship and obedience to Yahweh’s command regardless of ethnicity. The faithless, regardless of ethnicity, became Egyptians that day. The faithful, regardless of ethnicity, became part of God’s people Israel on that day and in subsequent generations through participation in the Passover.
Christ’s death and resurrection fulfill, fill to overflowing, the first Passover. In the Passover, the people of Israel were set free from enslavement to spiritual powers of wickedness and from death in a provisional way on a small scale. Through Christ’s death and resurrection, the new Passover, those spiritual powers are defeated and thrown down once and for all and the power of death is made powerless. Just as to be an Israelite meant to participate through ritual and obedience in the first Passover, to be a Christian is to participate in the death and resurrection of Christ through sacramental worship and a life of obedience. “Today a sacred Passover is revealed to us, a new and holy Passover, a mystical Passover, a Passover worthy of veneration, a Passover which is Christ the Redeemer.”