Column: Paschal sacrifice brings death, then new life

Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.
Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.

by Father Mike Stubbs

What menu are you planning for your Easter dinner?

In our family, we would usually eat ham, but in many cultures lamb is traditionally served. The second choice reinforces the strong link between the Christian feast of Easter and the Jewish feast of Passover.

The Seder meal, an elaborate and ceremonial event, begins the sevenday-long feast of Passover. In his First Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul refers to the two principal dishes on the menu for the Seder meal: roasted lamb and unleavened bread. The lamb figures so prominently that the name for the feast doubles as the name also for the lamb itself. Our Lectionary reading translates it as “paschal lamb,” but other translations have sometimes rendered it as “Passover.”

The Scriptures instructed that the lamb be roasted, not stewed or fried, and its bones not be broken (Ex 12:9). That specification reflects the origins of the feast, when the nomadic Hebrews would gather around a campfire to celebrate the springtime births of livestock, the renewal of their herds. Roasting was the simplest way to prepare the meat, since it did not require any pots or pans.

In the earliest days of Israel’s history, the slaughter of the lambs took place at home. But by the time of St. Paul, the location for the slaughter had shifted to the temple in Jerusalem. It was no longer simply looked upon as a household chore necessary for the preparation of a meal, but rather as a religious sacrifice.

The various New Testament writings link Jesus’ death to the feast of Passover, but they disagree slightly in the details. For example, the synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke present the Last Supper the evening before Jesus died as a Seder meal. That means that the lambs for the Seder meal would have already been slaughtered that afternoon. In contrast, John’s Gospel insists that Jesus died the day before Passover, exactly when the lambs for the Seder meal were being sacrificed in the Temple. According to John, then, Jesus himself dies as a sacrificial lamb, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (Jn 1:29).

When St. Paul calls Jesus “our paschal lamb,” it suggests that he might agree with John’s chronology concerning Jesus’ death. It certainly shows that St. Paul viewed Jesus’ death as a sacrifice.

But both John and St. Paul go a step further in recognizing Jesus’ death as a sacrifice. While the slaughter of the paschal lambs was considered a sacrifice, it was not looked upon as a sacrifice which took away sin. There were other sacrifices that could fulfill that function, but not this particular one.

In contrast, Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” By his sacrifice, he brings us God’s mercy and forgiveness. That is why St. Paul adds, “Therefore, let us celebrate the feast.” By his sacrifice, Jesus has brought us the new life of God’s grace.

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