Christ and the Passover

On Thursday night of Holy Week, Jesus celebrated the Seder (the Passover meal) with his disciples in a borrowed room. The next night, the priests and all the citizens of Jerusalem celebrated their Seder. I have not been able to fact-check this statement, but I have read that at that time thousands of Jews did what Jesus and his disciples did: they came to Jerusalem for the Passover and celebrated the Seder a night early, while the citizens of Jerusalem celebrated on the night of the full moon.

The Seder and the week of Passover commemorated an event that had taken place twelve to fourteen centuries earlier. The Israelites were slaves in Egypt, but God sent Moses to command the pharaoh to release them. When the pharaoh refused, God sent a series of plagues against Egypt, showing that his power was greater than that of the Egyptian gods. The tenth plague was the death of the oldest son in every family, except that God spared those families that trusted him. They were told to kill a lamb, to paint the blood around the doors of their houses, and to roast and eat the lamb. They were to eat quickly, prepared to travel, because freedom was just around the corner. They were to bake bread without waiting for it to rise. That night the Israelites began their journey toward freedom, a journey which would take them to Mount Sinai where the Lord would say to them, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.”

Among the instructions God gave the Israelites through Moses was a command to observe the week of Passover every spring. During the week of Passover they would eat bread made without yeast, remembering the bread made during their hurried escape from Egypt, and also representing a life lived without sin. They would eat bitter herbs to remember the bitterness of slavery. They would kill and eat a lamb (without, however, painting the lamb’s blood on their houses), remembering the lamb of the Passover in Egypt and the way God rescued them both from slavery and from death.

God wanted his people to remember how he had rescued them in the past. He also wanted them to know how he would rescue them in the future. He killed the oldest son in every family among the Egyptians but spared the oldest son in every family marked by the blood of the lamb. In the same way, God spares all sinners marked by the blood of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (as John the Baptist described Jesus). Jesus is also the only-begotten Son of God, but he is the first-born son in a family that is filled with adopted children. The sacrifice of Jesus is the price paid to adopt all those children into the family of his Father. Like the bread made without yeast, Jesus lived a life without sin, yet he was broken on the cross so he could make whole the lives that have been broken by sin.

Jesus and his disciples came to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. They had their Seder meal on Thursday night. Later that night Jesus was arrested, tried, and convicted of blasphemy. Friday morning he would be handed over to the Romans, who would mock him, torture him, and crucify him. As the Passover lambs were being slaughtered for the Seder meals of the citizens of Jerusalem, the Lamb of God was shedding his blood and giving his life for all the sinners of history.

Through Moses, God commanded his people to celebrate the Passover every year. Some people continue to do so this year. On the other hand, Jesus fulfilled the meaning of the Passover celebration by his sacrifice and by his victory. The Israelites were led out of Egypt across the Red Sea toward the promised land the third day from the Passover. So also Jesus, on the third day, blazed a trail across the valley of the shadow of death to bring his people to a promised land—eternal life in a new and perfect creation that will have no end. J.

Palm Sunday and Holy Week

Most weeks consist of seven days, but Holy Week—the most important time in the Christian calendar—is eight days long. The first day of Holy Week is Palm Sunday, and the eighth day of Holy Week is Easter Sunday. The Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John each devote at least one-third of their volume to these eight days.

As he was approaching Jerusalem to celebrate the holiday called Passover, Jesus sent two of his disciples into the suburbs to get a young donkey that had never been ridden. The donkey was so young that, according to Matthew and Mark, the disciples also brought its mother to Jesus. A donkey is a simple beast of burden, hardly fit for a king, but the privilege of being first to ride an animal is indeed the prerogative of kings. The prophet Zechariah had foretold that Jesus would enter Jerusalem in this way. He wrote, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

Thousands of other people had come from Galilee to Jerusalem for Passover. Some of these people had heard Jesus preach and had seen some of the miracles he performed. Maybe the Galilean crowd included some who had eaten bread and fish when one boy provided his lunch and Jesus used the food to feed five thousand people. Maybe some of these Galileans had been healed by Jesus and others had friends or relatives who had been healed by Jesus.

The crowd gave Jesus a red-carpet treatment. They lined the road with their cloaks so the donkey would not get its feet dirty. Others cut branches from the trees to line the road, and still others waved branches in the air. John reports that some of the people waved palm branches, which is why the commemoration is called Palm Sunday. Palms do not grow in the hills of Jerusalem, but their branches can be obtained in the Jordan River valley near Jericho, and many of these travelers had passed through Jericho on the way to Jerusalem. The palm branch is a symbol of Israel, so waving a palm branch is like waving a flag at a parade today for the people of Israel.

The crowd also sang as Jesus entered Jerusalem in their midst. They sang “Hosanna,” a Hebrew word that means “Save us.” It had become a word of praise, since only the mighty can save others. The people sang, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” a quote from Psalm 118 that their teachers said refers to the Messiah. They sang about the King, the Son of David, other labels given to the Messiah. They openly declared their belief that Jesus was going to keep the promises God had made to Moses and the prophets, that he was going to redeem and rule the people of God. Some of the Pharisees in the crowd objected to the parade and the words the people were singing, but when the citizens of Jerusalem asked who was causing all this fuss, the Galileans told them, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.”

Jesus chose to enter the city of the Lord on a special day. He entered on the tenth day of the month of Nissan, a day of preparation for the coming Passover celebration. On this day, every family among God’s people was to take a lamb into their household and treat it as a pet for half a week. Then they would kill, cook, and eat this lamb. The death of this lamb would remind these families of the cost of their sins, but it would also remind them how God rescued his people from slavery and death in Egypt at the time of the first Passover. Jesus now began to fulfill the promise John the Baptist made when John pointed to Jesus and said, “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” This is what Jesus came to Jerusalem to accomplish that week. J.