Easter is undoubtedly the most important holiday on the Christian calendar. What Christmas merely promises—“he shall save his people from their sins”—Easter delivers. Indeed, without the death and resurrection of Christ, there would be no Christianity.
Yet somehow, as a young mother just starting to establish holiday traditions, I always found Christmas the easier holiday to celebrate in a meaningful way. Maybe that’s because the preparatory season of Advent lends itself to family observation more easily than Lent does. Or maybe it has to do with Easter Sunday itself—always a crazy race to get the food made, kids dressed in their spring best, extra outfits packed for Grandma’s house, and all of the above in the van in time for church. It’s hard to contemplate Christ’s victory over sin and death during that frenzy.
Nine years ago, though, I stumbled onto a tradition that has enriched and transformed our family’s celebration of Holy Week. What’s more, I found it in an unexpected place: the Old Testament.
Yes, the Old Testament: that part of the Bible which, if we’re honest, many of us tend to regard a bit like the crazy uncle at the family reunion. Nobody will disown him, of course, but we all try to keep him out of the spotlight lest he embarrass us with his wacky pronouncements. “You shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed, nor shall you wear a garment of cloth made of two kinds of material.” Haha! Good old Uncle Leviticus! Why don’t you just sit right over here in the corner, where you’ll be more comfortable.
Israel’s Deliverance from Egypt
It might be surprising, then, that my favorite part of Holy Week centers on a story even older than Leviticus. It begins all the way back in Exodus chapter three: “Then the Lord said [to Moses], ‘I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. . . . Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.’”
The feast celebrating Israel’s deliverance from Egypt is, of course, the Jewish holiday of Passover. And this week will mark the tenth year that my Gentile, Christian family has gathered around our dining room table to read, pray, and taste the bread, wine, and bitter herbs of the Seder meal.
Christians celebrating Passover is far from unheard-of. While this old-covenant ritual is no longer a requirement for us, I think its celebration illuminates Good Friday and Easter in a way that nothing else does. In fact, when I see the American church with all its modern-day confusion about Jesus, I wonder if rediscovering Passover may help save Easter for us.
Here are three reasons why a Passover celebration is valuable for Christians.
1. Passover Is a Holiday God Instituted
Now, I’m not one of those Christian Grinches who frowns on all holidays the church has created (or even adapted) over the centuries. Still, there is something uniquely powerful in a ritual designed by none other than the Creator God. The Passover ceremony gives us a unique window into the heart of God, and it demonstrates His matchless understanding of His human creatures.
For a divinely-created ceremony, what strikes me most about the Seder service is how earthy it is. It’s the story of redemption represented not by paintings or stained-glass windows or choral music, but by the taste of salt water and parsley; by the sweetness of grapes and the bitterness of horseradish; by the smell of roasted lamb and freshly baked unleavened bread. It’s almost as if God knew how frail and flesh-bound we are, and how strongly taste and smell are associated with human memory. When He wanted to fix the remembrance of His salvation into the consciousness of His people, He interwove telling the story with a ritual meal.
2. Passover Is Integral to Good Friday
Anyone can read the Gospels and learn that Jesus’ crucifixion occurred during the Passover festival in Jerusalem. But it wasn’t until I began celebrating Passover myself that I fully grasped how inseparable these two stories are. It had never quite dawned on me that the Last Supper was more than just a final gathering for Jesus and His disciples: it was a Seder.
Our family Seder, then, has illuminated the Lord’s Supper for me in the same way that a reenactment illuminates American history. Admittedly, the depiction is shadowy and imperfect. But knowing that Jesus and His disciples observed something like this same ceremony—experiencing many of the same tastes, smells, recitations, and prayers—has helped that pivotal evening in Jerusalem come alive.
It has also given me a fuller theological understanding of what occurred during the Last Supper. That evening in the upper room, the old covenant between God and Israel was beautifully present, even as Jesus established a new covenant in His blood. (After all, He had not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets, but to fulfill them.) When Jesus identified His body and blood with the unleavened bread and wine of the Passover meal, the old and new covenants were brought together in stunning symmetry.
As a Christian, celebrating Passover is an opportunity to identify with the Jewish roots of my faith—to remember God’s faithfulness to His chosen people under the old covenant. But it’s also a chance to see and be amazed by how much of Jesus can be found in these rituals established centuries before His birth. Of course, I see Him in the wine and the bread—bread made without yeast as Jesus was the only human born without sin. I see him in the middle matzo (one of three, as Jesus is one of a Triune God), broken and hidden away, only to be brought back again. Perhaps most of all, I see Him in the Passover lamb—the lamb whose substitutionary death brought life and salvation to many.
3. Passover Clarifies the Purpose of Jesus’ Life and Death
Of course, the substitutionary death of Jesus is far from a universally-accepted idea. Just like in first-century Jerusalem, Jesus is still a topic of heated debate in twenty-first-century America—and it seems that most everyone is eager to claim Him for their side. Hardly an Easter season (or an ordinary day) goes by without someone asserting that the real, historical Jesus was nothing like the Christ of Christianity. Few people deny that a historical Jesus existed, but we’re told that Christians have completely misunderstood Him. Some say He wasn’t divine and never claimed to be. Others contend that He simply meant to teach people about love and justice, not to atone for anyone’s sin.
Even among Christians, I’ve noticed a growing tendency to minimize the message of atonement in favor of an emphasis on morality and social action. Two years ago, there was a bit of a ruckus when the Presbyterian Church-USA declined to add the modern hymn “In Christ Alone” to its hymnal, citing problems with the lyric “But on that cross, as Jesus died/The wrath of God was satisfied.” When asked recently about his own Christian faith, former pastor and “emerging church” leader Rob Bell responded: “If we mean Jesus’ message of God’s revolutionary love for every person, and we can surrender and give our life to acts to [sic] loving kindness, then man, sign me up.”
Of course, postmodern prophets on every online forum under the sun have embraced this message. “Jesus didn’t die for your sins,” they say. “He was just here to teach love, social justice, and non-judgment. Maybe you should try it sometime.”
There is much to question in this depiction of Jesus, but to this final charge I say: mea culpa. I will be the first to admit how unlike Jesus I can be. It’s undeniable that He preached—and lived—a message of radical self-sacrifice, personal holiness, and active concern for the poor and oppressed. I take those commands seriously and agree they are imperative for every Christian. But not a day goes by that I don’t fall short. Being like Jesus isn’t easy.
In fact, I’m always surprised that people are eager to embrace Jesus’ moral teachings while rejecting His atonement for sin. If Jesus was simply a good moral teacher rather than a divine savior, then surely His teaching is valid for everyone, regardless of faith. But have you read Jesus’ teachings lately? I don’t mean His stirring rebuke of oppressors or His beautiful parables about God forgiving the repentant. I mean His moral teachings on how to live. They’re . . . hard. Here’s just a small sampling:
“I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.”
“I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.”
“Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.”
“But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken.”
“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.”
“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Is anyone else feeling uncomfortable, or is it just me?
I’ll be honest: if Jesus’ moral teachings were all there is to the Gospel, I would be hard-pressed to call it a Gospel. This is not good news. I know I can’t do this. I can’t be perfectly righteous, perfectly forgiving of those who wrong me, perfectly selfless. I’ll never be good enough.
And that was the point all along. I believe this response—one of despair over my own sinfulness—was exactly what Jesus intended to elicit. Let’s face it: in our heart of hearts, every one of us—left-wing, right-wing, and in-between—is pretty self-righteous. We are. Jesus’ teachings shake us out of our smugness and help us see how crooked and warped we are compared to His perfectly straight plumb line.
We were meant to realize our own utter unworthiness of attaining heaven. We were meant to throw up our hands and say, with the disciples: “Who then can be saved?” And to hear His answer that points toward the coming atonement: “With man this is impossible, but not with God: all things are possible with God.”
Passover Teaches About Atonement
It’s true that Jesus, in his recorded teachings, gave only glimpses of God’s redemption plan. He didn’t clearly outline the Gospel in the way that the Apostle Paul did later. But in His final celebration of Passover, and in His clear identification of His own death with the Passover meal, we see Jesus’ Gospel message. “Take and eat; this is my body, broken for you,” And later: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for the forgiveness of sins.” By themselves, these statements sound remarkably like the words of a Savior. But in the context of the Passover, it’s unmistakable.
The Passover story could not be clearer in its portrayal of substitutionary atonement. A lamb was killed so the firstborn could live. The households sleeping under the protection of the lamb’s blood were saved; all others were doomed to grief and destruction. God’s angel of death did not look at anyone’s good works to see if they were worthy to be spared; he looked only for the blood on the doorpost. Through this redemption, God’s people were twice saved: first from death, and then from slavery. It’s a stunning foreshadowing of the way Jesus’ death would “be for sin the double cure: save from wrath and make me pure.”
Maybe what the Christian church needs is to rediscover this ancient Jewish story—written by the God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever—and see Holy Week in its true, breathtaking context. As important as it is to be kind, to help the poor, and to love others, our faltering good works are as powerless to save us as so much dirty water splashed on the doorposts. The blood of the Lamb is our only sure hope.