Jesus the Passover Lamb
Passover in New Testament times
As I explained in session one, Jesus came from a particularly devout Jewish family, and probably went up to Jerusalem for Passover every year of his life (Luke 2:41). The population of the city at that time would have been about 100,000. At Passover this would have more than doubled. It was the custom for people to open their homes to visitors but not to accept payment. Instead, the skins of the sacrificed animals would usually be given to them.1 Jesus would undoubtedly have had many friends and possibly relatives in the city with whom he would have stayed. For Jewish people living beyond Israel, the journey up to Jerusalem may have been a rare, or even a once in a lifetime, experience. These pilgrims would be less likely to know people in Jerusalem. Many would still find accommodation amongst the hospitable Judeans, and others would come with tents that they would erect outside the city walls. These pilgrims were Jews and converts to Judaism from all over the ancient world. Some would primarily come as merchants with things to sell over the holiday. The Roman Procurator would journey up from Caesarea and be quartered at Herod's Palace. There would be extra Roman troops as this was a key time when they feared that a revolt would break out.
The permanent residents of Jerusalem had spent many days or weeks preparing their homes. They had to be swept out, prepared for all the visitors and in particular cleaned of all leaven. Anything that had yeast within it had to be removed from the house. On the morning before Passover the final scrap of leaven from every home was burnt. The head of the house would have had to procure a Paschal lamb. These had to be year-old males without defect. Perhaps a relative from the country might bring one or more lambs with them, which would then need to be taken to the Temple to confirm their suitability. Alternatively, a Paschal lamb may have been purchased from the Temple. On the day before the festival, at midday, the lambs were taken to the Temple to sacrifice. The owner of the lamb himself killed the animal while the priests sang the Hallel. This comprised Psalms 113 - 118 and Psalm 136 and was also sung on Pentecost and at the Feast of Tabernacles. The Talmud describes the priest as wearing scarlet robes and holding basins of gold and silver. When a sacrifice was made, the nearest priest would catch the blood. This was passed back along the row to be poured out at the base of the altar. The men returned with their slain lambs and in the evening would roast them in clay stoves that stood in the courtyards of their homes. All the family would dress in white festive garments. Those leading a Passover Seder still sometimes wear a `Kittel' or white ceremonial garment.
For many, the cost of a Paschal Lamb was beyond them. Households would come together and share a lamb between them. There was a minimum amount of lamb that you had to eat to say that you had taken part in the Passover, but this was only the size of an olive. This meant that one Paschal lamb could be used for a very large number of people, but it would not be sufficient for the meal itself. For this reason other lambs could be slaughtered as additional food for the meal. These would be considerably cheaper than the Paschal lamb, and did not have to be totally consumed on Passover night. Presumably large amounts of extra meat would have been needed for an extended Passover family gathering.
The Passover Seder
It is impossible to reconstruct exactly what happened in a first century Passover celebration. We can look at the oldest Jewish sources, however, and gain a few clues as to the Passover nights that would have been experienced by Jesus throughout his life.
Hillel, the famous rabbi of Jesus' childhood, said that there were three things that were essential to a Passover celebration. These were the Paschal lamb, unleavened bread (matzah) and bitter herbs. He suggested that these were eaten (`bound') together, making a kind of sandwich. It is thought that this might have been the method used to eat the very small piece of Paschal lamb. Each of these things was to remind the descendants of those who came out of Egypt what God had done for Israel. The lamb would remind them that God had passed over their homes; the unleavened bread would remind Israel that God had redeemed them; and the bitter herbs would remind them of the bitterness of slavery under the Egyptians.
It became traditional for the leader of the Passover to give this sandwich, as a special privilege, to someone on whom he wanted to confer a blessing and show his regard. We cannot be certain if this tradition was established in Jesus' day, but it is thought by some to be the origins of the sop given to Judas.6 If this were the case it would reveal the deep unconditional love of Jesus even to the one whom he knew would betray him.
By the first century, it had become traditional for the youngest son to ask four questions at the Passover. He would begin by asking why this night was different from all other nights. Then he would ask why on this night the family ate unleavened bread, bitter herbs, dip their food twice and ate the special Paschal lamb. After the destruction of the Temple, the question about the Paschal lamb was changed to ask about reclining to eat. The Romans reclined to eat their banquets and this became the custom for wealthier Jewish people. The rabbis declared that all Jews should recline for the Passover since all should celebrate freedom on that night. This may have been practised in Jesus' day, since we know that Jesus `reclined at table' on that night (Luke 22:14). These four questions are still a central part of the modern Passover.
In a modern Passover there are four cups of wine to drink, two before the meal and two after the meal. These are to remember the events of Exodus 6:6-7: I will bring you out; I will free you; I will redeem you; and I will take you as my people. In the time of Jesus we cannot be clear that this tradition had already begun, though two cups of wine would have certainly been drunk as they were traditional in all Jewish ceremonial meals. In a modern Passover, a piece of unleavened bread is broken and hidden at the start of the meal. This is known as the afikomen. It is found and eaten at the end of the meal, just before the Redemption cup is drunk. This piece of hidden bread has been linked to the Messiah. Many Christians believe it was the afikomen and the Redemption cup that were taken by Jesus to institute the Lord's Supper.
At the end of the Passover meal, the participants would remain and sing the Hallel Psalms. Many would make their way to the Temple where they would pray until late into the night in the hope and expectation that the Messiah would come. In the account of the Last Supper the disciples first sang a hymn before going up to the Mount of Olives. This was probably the Hallel. Jesus asked them to pray with him into the night.
The First Fruits
On the second morning of Passover, the priests would go out to the Kidron Valley and cut the first sheaf of the newly ripened barley harvest. This was brought in to the Temple and presented as a wave offering. If we follow the timetable of John's Gospel, this first fruits offering was being presented at the Temple early on Easter Sunday morning and would have coincided with the Resurrection of Jesus as first fruits from the grave.
A Haggadah for believers in Jesus
Lighting the festival candles
Mother Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us by your commandments and commanded us to kindle the festival lights.
The first cup - I will bring you out
All glasses are filled but we do not drink yet. For each cup it is traditional to lean on one elbow.
Father Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, creator of the fruit of the vine. Let us give thanks for this Passover feast, which commemorates the departure from Egypt and freedom of the children of Israel from slavery. Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has kept us alive, sustained us and enabled us to reach this season.
All drink from the first cup.
Reading 1: Luke 22:14-16
Washing of hands
Only the father washes his hands at this point. He should hold his hands over the bowl and another participant should pour water over them.
Ritual dipping of parsley
Father As we take this parsley and dip it into the salted water let us remember the tears of the Hebrews in bondage; and let us remember the suffering of Jesus on our behalf. We dare not take for granted what God has done for us. Let us remember the hyssop that was dipped in the lamb's blood for wiping on the doorposts and lintels; and let us remember Jesus' blood shed for us. Let tears of repentance never be far from us.15
Each person takes a piece of parsley and dips it in salt water.
Father Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, creator of the fruit of the earth.
Everyone eats parsley.
Reading 2: Exodus 6:6-7
Breaking the middle piece of matzah
The father takes the middle piece and breaks it in two. One half is put back between the other two pieces, while the other half is wrapped in a napkin and placed to one side. This second half, now called the afikomen, is hidden.
Father This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt; let all those who are hungry enter and eat thereof and all who are in want come and celebrate the Passover. At present we celebrate it here, but next year we hope to celebrate it in the land of Israel. This year we are servants here, but next year we hope to be free in the land of Israel.
Telling the story
All glasses are filled a second time, but we do not drink yet.
The children ask their questions
There are several parts for children in the Passover Seder, reflecting their different personalities. There is a wise son, a wicked son, a simple son and one who is two young to ask a question. The most important is the youngest son who asks the question `Why?' The adults then recount the story of the Exodus, so passing on the story to the next generation.
Why is this night different from all other nights? On all other nights we may eat leavened or unleavened bread, but on this night why do we only eat unleavened bread? On all other nights we may eat any kind of herbs, but on this night why only bitter herbs? On all other nights we do not dip even once, but on this night why twice? On all other nights we eat and drink either sitting or leaning, but on this night why do we all lean?
Why? To remember that we were all slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt and that if the Lord had not brought our fathers out, they and we and all our children would still be there in bondage.
Reading 3: Exodus 12:1-14
Father Our own hard hearts can separate us from God's rich blessings - though not from his love - if we refuse to submit to him in love and obedience. The Lord comes in judgement on people, as he did on Pharaoh and the Egyptians.16
As we remember the ten plagues, for each plague mentioned we dip a finger into our wine and spill that drop of wine on our plates. Why? Because even the suffering of our enemies pains us. God himself is grieved at the wickedness of, and therefore the need for judgement on, those who oppose him.
These are the ten plagues that God brought on the Egyptians: blood, frogs, gnats, flies, pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, slaying of the firstborn.
At this point Psalms 113 and 114 would be recited to a traditional melody. Either read from these Psalms or choose a suitable song that you are familiar with.
The second cup - I will set you free.
Lift your glass with your right hand and lean on your left elbow.
Father Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, creator of the fruit of the vine.
All drink the second cup.
Ritual washing before food
It is traditional for the father of the household to wash the hands of his family by pouring water over their wrists and palms.
Reading 4: John 13:1,4-5
Father Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with your commandments and commanded us to wash hands.
The father washes hands of others.
The next section concerns the three essential elements of Passover.
A blessing for daily bread and unleavened bread.
The father takes the matzah and holds it high.
Father Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with your commandments and commanded us to eat unleavened bread. Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.
A small piece of matzah is eaten from the top and the middle piece.
The father takes pieces of bitter herbs and dips them in the haroset. He gives them to each person though they are not eaten yet.
Father Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with your commandments and commanded us to eat bitter herbs.
All eat bitter herbs.
Binding - the sandwich
Father Rabbi Hillel took the unleavened bread and bitter herbs and ate them together with the Paschal lamb that he might perform what is said, `With unleavened bread and with bitter herbs shall they eat it'.
Each person should take two pieces of matzah and put bitter herbs between them to make a sandwich, which they eat.
Father Let us eat together the eggs to begin our meal. In this way we celebrate the feast of life. And then let us enjoy our meal.
The meal is now served.
Towards the end of the meal the children are asked to go and search for the afikomen, the piece of matzah which was hidden. The adults may like to have a present for the one who finds it
Grace after the meal
Father When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord our God (Deuteronomy 8:10).
The third cup - I will redeem you.
All glasses are filled but do not drink yet.
Father Traditionally this cup is known as the `Cup of Redemption'. We move into this part of the Seder aware that at about this stage Jesus began to move into the deepest mystery of all. He must have shocked his disciples with his interpretation of this third cup and the afikomen. Let us move forward with him.17
Reading 5: Corinthians 11:23-26
Father Let us eat together from the matzah, which was hidden, the last piece of the meal to be eaten. Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the Universe who gives us Jesus to be the bread of life.
Everyone eats a small piece of matzah.
Father Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who gives us Jesus to be the true vine.
All drink the third cup.
Traditionally Psalms 115-118 and 136 would now be sung. This would be an appropriate time for prayer and worship.
An extra cup is now filled to overflowing for the prophet Elijah and a place has been set for him. The door is left ajar so that he can enter the room easily.
The children can search for Elijah.
The fourth cup - I will take you as my people
All glasses are filled but do not drink yet.
Father This is known as the cup of completion. Passover ends with the words `Next year in Jerusalem'. May our greater hope be that Jesus will return to Jerusalem and reveal himself to all nations.
Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, Creator of the fruit of the vine.
All drink the fourth cup.
Father Accomplished is the Passover Service according to its laws and statutes. Let us end with words from Scripture.
Reading 6: Hebrews 13:20-21
All Next year in Jerusalem!
1. Schauss, H., The Jewish festivals (Jewish Chronicle Publications: London, 1986), p.48ff.