Christian celebrations of Easter are closely bound to the exodus story.
Many people have been struck by the many uncanny parallels between the Easter story and the widespread pagan myths about a dying and rising god. It raises the question: Is there a connection between the two? More especially, did the pagan myths give rise to the Christian belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus? Many today believe that is the case.
But when we turn to those first centuries of Christianity when the distinctive Christian understanding of Easter takes shape, we find a surprising phenomenon. We would expect to find allusions to those ancient fertility cults in the earliest accounts of Easter in the church. However, we find no allusions to the fertility cults at all in our earliest accounts. That is strange if Christians were drawing their Easter beliefs from the fertility cults or shaping their Easter traditions along the lines of the common fertility cults to appeal to pagans.
…the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus comes clothed to us in the imagery, symbolism, and language of the Jewish Passover.
What we find instead is that Christians associate their Easter celebrations not with the pagan fertility cults, but with the Jewish festival of Passover. In those early years, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus comes clothed to us in the imagery and symbolism and language of the Jewish Passover.
In fact, the name these early Christians give to their Easter festival is the Greek word pascha. Pascha is a Greek translation of the Hebrew Pesach, which is the Hebrew name for Passover. The Latin church picks up this usage and calls Easter in Latin as pascha as well. And from that Latin origin, modern European romance languages get their name for Easter:
- French: Paques
- Spanish: Pascua
- Italian: Pasqua
New Testament Antecedents
We see this linkage between Passover and Easter already in the New Testament. Probably the earliest reference of all is a verse in the apostle Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians.
In Corinth Paul is dealing with a church undergoing intense conflict. He seeks to guide this church into living harmoniously with one another, by counseling them to give up their fights and petty bickering, and the intellectual or spiritual pride that lie behind them.
As a part of his advice, he strangely says this:
Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us, therefore, celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (1 Corinthians 5:6-8)
Unleavened bread forms a part of the Jewish Passover meal, and Paul is alluding to this in what he says. But what is most interesting is his describing the crucifixion of Jesus as a Passover sacrifice, with Christ forming the sacrificial lamb. Here the link between the crucifixion and Passover is already assumed. Paul does not introduce it as a new concept, but one that the Corinthian Christians are well aware of. Keep in mind that this passage was probably written no more than 25 years after the death of Jesus.
We find other New Testament passages making this same link between the Jewish Passover and the death and resurrection of Jesus. In the Gospel of John, Jesus dies on the cross on the day of 14 Nisan. This is the day each year when the lambs served at the Passover dinner are sacrificed in the Jewish temple. According to John, Jesus dies at the same hour as the Passover lambs.
In John the Last Supper is not a Passover dinner, but in Matthew, Mark, and Luke it clearly is. There when Jesus breaks the bread and shares the cup of wine with his disciples, it is important to note the words he uses with the cup of wine.
In all three accounts, Jesus links the wine to his death, describing it as the blood of the covenant or of the new covenant. This wording links what is happening in this last supper and the upcoming crucifixion with the spilling of blood that sealed God’s covenant with Israel, as described in Exodus 24. We are not only remembering the exodus, but also re-experiencing it.
The Linkage of Passover and Easter in the Patristic Church
In the years following the New Testament, this linkage between Easter and the Jewish Passover becomes well-established. The first Easter sermon to survive from the early church is a sermon given by a bishop named Melito of Sardis about the year 170 A.D. It’s a longish sermon. Strikingly it is almost completely a long meditation on the Jewish Exodus events which are interpreted as symbolic of the reality that has now occurred in the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus.
What we find in Melito is that the Jewish Passover is seen as a type of the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. This is a technical way of talking about the linkage. A type is a symbol of its antitype, which is the reality to which the type points. The type foreshadows the reality to come.
The type serves as a kind of symbolic prophecy of the antitype, which is the reality to which the type points and its fulfillment. In this way of thinking, the Jewish Passover lamb is the type or the foreshadowed symbol for the crucified Jesus. There is a hint that this understanding of the Passover as a type for the death of Jesus was already operative when the evangelist John describes Jesus dying on the cross at the very hour when the Passover lambs were being sacrificed.
Likewise the crossing of the Red Sea in the Jewish Exodus is a symbolic foreshadowing of the Christian sacrament of baptism.
The Pascal Vigil: the Chief Easter Celebration
By about the 4th century, this understanding of Easter as the Christian Passover is so well established that it is the core of what became the primary liturgical celebration of Easter in the early church. This was the service known as the Paschal Vigil. This service was celebrated on the night before Easter Sunday.
It began with the lighting of the new Easter fire about midnight. From this fire a priest lit the Paschal candle which represented the risen Jesus in the service. And from this one candle all the worshippers present lit their personal candles or torches until the church was filled with light.
Following that the deacon led the congregation in the singing of the distinctive Easter hymn/acclamation, known to us by its Latin name Exultet.* After that came a series of readings from the Bible, with many of them drawn from the Old Testament dealing with the Jewish Exodus story. After the readings and sermon came the baptism of new converts to Christianity. After their baptism they were dressed in white robes and led into the church for their first Eucharist.
The service could last for several hours into the night, and was the Easter service of the early church. It has been largely preserved in the Eastern Orthodox churches. It has been revived as a strong liturgical tradition in the Roman Catholic and many Protestant churches in the last 50 years.
We should note a number of things about this service. One, it was called the Paschal Vigil, or the Christian Passover Vigil.
The language of the service is heavily soaked in the language of the Jewish Passover. This is very clear in the wording of the distinctive Easter hymn, the Exultet. The Old Testament readings chosen for the service dwell upon the Jewish exodus experience.
Baptism is seen as a Christian form of passing through the Red Sea. Baptism leads the new convert out of spiritual Egypt and introduces him or her into the Promised Land, which is the church. One sign of this is that at some vigils, new converts were served not only bread and wine at their first Eucharist, but also milk and honey.
In this early period, you had the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus celebrated all in one festival service rather than in three separate festivals as today. The Christian Passover was not just Easter morning alone but included Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Ascension Day as well. Together they formed the Christian Passover.
Another example of this linkage between Easter and the Jewish Passover is an example of an early Easter hymn from the 7th century. It is a hymn composed by the Eastern Orthodox church father John of Damascus. Most Protestants will know it best from the English translation made by the 19th century Anglican translator John Mason Neale.
The first two stanzas read:
Come, you faithful, raise the strain of triumphant gladness!
God has brought forth Israel into joy from sadness,
Loosed from Pharaoh’s bitter yoke Jacob’s sons and daughters;
Led them with unmoistened foot through the Red Sea waters.
‘Tis the spring of souls today: Christ has burst his prison,
And from three days’ sleep in death as a sun has risen.
All the winter of our sins, long and dark, is flying
From the Light, to whom we give laud and praise undying.**
Someone uninformed about early church liturgics might be puzzled by John’s bringing a reference to the Exodus into an Easter hymn. What’s going on here, they might ask. But if we have some knowledge of how early Christians thought of Easter as the Christian Passover, it all makes sense. Like Melito, John sees the exodus as a type of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
When Christians describe the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus as another Passover, they are also signaling how they regard those events. The death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus are seen as events of liberation, in this case, not from Egyptian slavery but from slavery to sin, the devil and death. Easter then becomes another Passover festival celebrating God’s salvation, salvation seen as God liberating humanity from a kind of spiritual enslavement. The Christian Pascha is a celebration of an event and of an experience of liberation.
I lead this posting with a reproduction of the Eastern Orthodox image for the resurrection, a mural on the walls of the Byzantine Church of the Chora in Istanbul, Turkey. Orthodoxy does not picture Jesus rising from his tomb as does most Western art. Instead it focuses on the theological significance of the resurrection as that moment when Christ shatters the gate of Hell and releases imprisoned humanity. The symbol of Christ leading humanity into freedom is the image of Christ lifting Adam and Eve by the hand out of the abyss. The shattered gate of Hell lies in ruins beneath him. It is an image–and understanding–of Christ’s resurrection as a liberation event. It owes much to the early church’s linkage of Easter to the exodus event.
* The Exultet contains a striking understanding of the original sin of Adam and Eve. The hymn calls it a “truly necessary sin” and a “happy fault (felix culpa)”. It suggests that in a paradoxical way the sin of Adam has turned into an occasion of great happiness and rejoicing for humanity, because it was the prelude to the great redemption that is Christ’s resurrection.
** In the second stanza of the hymn we find John bearing witness to the Christian linking of Easter to the seasonal return of spring. Through this linkage some elements of the old pagan fertility cults seeped into Easter celebrations, like eggs and bunnies. But this linkage is a later development in Christianity. It is not a feature of the earliest celebrations, as we see in the Easter Vigil. There the link is entirely to the exodus story.