Jesus and the Passover

Exodus 12 lays out the requirements of the Passover meal in great depth. It’s divided into two parts: (1) you sacrifice the lamb, and (2) you eat it. So, for example, Exodus 12:5-6 says that:

The lamb must be a year-old male and without blemish. You may take it from either the sheep or the goats.You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month, and then, with the whole assembly of Israel present, it shall be slaughtered during the evening twilight.

A spotless Lamb slaughtered publicly, in the presence of all of Israel, on Passover. So Christological. And obviously so.

I. The Terminology
The Gospel writers include plenty of details which would have absolutely screamed Passover to Jewish readers. The would-be sacrifice of Isaac involves Isaac being substituted for a ram (which represents sin); the Passover includes the sins being “passed over” until a later time, a mercy brought about by obeying God’s commandment to slay an unblemished lamb (Malachi 1, which I mentioned in my last post, is His anger at their slacking on this part, and giving sacrifices they didn’t particularly want to keep: and this chapter prefigures Christ, as discussed Monday).

Jesus is the perfect Lamb of God, who becomes Sin for us to take our place. Jesus’ ministry begins with John the Baptist heralding Him as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,” (John 1:29), and this continues all through the New Testament. John the Revelator describes a vision of Jesus, glorified in Heaven, as “a Lamb, standing as though slain” (Revelation 5:6). From start to finish, His earthly ministry is marked by His being the prophesied Lamb.

Exodus 12:22 specifies a hyssop branch for the Passover lamb, and that’s the very branch used in John 19:29 to give Jesus His final drink. And even this drink is of extremely important significance, which I’ll explain in more depth later: suffice it to say now that it’s the fourth cup of the Passover meal. Jesus is the spotless Lamb, whose death atones for the sins of the faithful, just as the Passover lamb’s death saved those who partook in it. I’m leaving this section short, precisely because if I talked about all of the Passover parallels, it’d be easily long enough to be a stand-alone post. If anyone is interested in hearing some of those parallels, just say something in the comments, and I’ll get to it. Otherwise, just recognize that Jesus is called the Lamb of God for a reason.

II. The Timing
And, of course, there’s the date of Jesus’ Passion. The Synoptics describe the Last Supper as occurring on Passover (Matthew 26:19, Mark 14:16, and Luke 22:15), while John 19:14 has the Passion as occurring on the Preparation Day of the Passover – the day which the Lambs were slaughtered.

At first brush, this is a strange contradiction. Fortunately, I’ve got a great priest. Fr. De Celles, in a homily he gave during Holy Week a couple years ago, explained in some depth the precise chronology. Passover fell on a Saturday the year that Jesus died — we know this explicitly from John 19:31. Some Jews celebrated it as it fell; others (typically, the more pious), observed the Sabbath, and moved the celebration of the Passover up a day. And, of course, the Jewish day starts at sundown. So the chronology goes like this:

  • Wednesday night – Thursday day: Preparation Day for the pious
  • Thursday night – Friday day: Passover for the pious; Preparation day for the rest — the day the lambs are slain. The Last Supper is celebrated Thursday night, and the Passion occurs Friday day: a single day, a single action, within the Jewish calendar.
  • Friday night – Saturday day: Passover for the rest; the Sabbath. The day Jesus rests in the Tomb.

So there’s no contradiction at all. John uses the common calendar (since he’s talking about why the Jews don’t want Jesus left on the Cross, and it’s likely that those who are complaining are celebrating on Saturday), while it’s clear that Jesus and His Disciples celebrated the previous night, as way traditional amongst pious Jews.

The timing is absolutely perfect. It means that the Last Supper, the Passover meal, which normally occurs on the evening after the Preparation Day, is able to be celebrated on the evening before. It also means that the Last Supper and the Passion are on the same day, something only possible on the Jewish calendar: a midnight-to-midnight day would make it virtually impossible to have a Last Supper and a midday Crucifixion in the same day.

When I see things like this, I’m struck at how much pre-planning went into this singular action. And it’s the timing of the Passover which ensures that Jesus will have an identifiable Tomb (John 19:31 explains this, it’s sort of an aside). This Tomb will become very important later, when Peter, in Jerusalem itself, proclaims that the Tomb of Christ is empty mere weeks after the Resurrection (Acts 2:31-32).

III. The Eucharist
Like I said up top, the Passover consists of two parts, divided into two Jewish days (although only one day in how we measure days). Preparation Day was the day of slaying the Lamb. That’s the Passion. The Passover is the day you eat the Lamb. And just as Exodus 12 was very specific on the first point, it’s very specific on the second. Picking up where we left off above, here’s Exodus 12:7-11 –

Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the doorframes of the houses where they eat the lambs. That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast. Do not eat the meat raw or cooked in water, but roast it over the fireā€”head, legs and inner parts. Do not leave any of it till morning; if some is left till morning, you must burn it. This is how you are to eat it: with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste; it is the LORD’s Passover.

Later, in the same chapter (Exodus 12:43-49), there are more restrictions:

The LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “These are the regulations for the Passover: “No foreigner is to eat of it. Any slave you have bought may eat of it after you have circumcised him, but a temporary resident and a hired worker may not eat of it.

It must be eaten inside one house; take none of the meat outside the house. Do not break any of the bones. The whole community of Israel must celebrate it. An alien living among you who wants to celebrate the LORD’s Passover must have all the males in his household circumcised; then he may take part like one born in the land. No uncircumcised male may eat of it. The same law applies to the native-born and to the alien living among you.”

Scott Hahn pointed out in a lecture I listened to that if you sacrifice the lamb, cover your door with its blood, and go to bed, you wake up to a dead son. The Passover requires that you eat of the sacrificed lamb. The implications for the New Covenant are obvious.

Non-Catholics often accuse Catholics of re-sacrificing Christ. But that’s obviously untrue. We’re not repeating Preparation Day. We’re repeating Passover. Just as Christians (Protestants and Catholics alike) who sin repeatedly cover themselves in the Blood of the Lamb without re-sacrificing Him, Catholics eat His Flesh and drink His Blood without re-sacrificing Him.

It’s also interesting that this is a closed communion. Visitors and the uncircumcised aren’t welcome. Again, the implications are significant. I know that a number of Christians are annoyed with the Catholic Church’s stance, and find it uncharitable. In fact, it’s extremely charitable, by diminishing the likelihood of eating and drinking damnation upon one’s self by receiving unworthily (1 Corinthians 11:29). It’s also, as you can see, extremely Biblical. It wasn’t enough to simply believe in the efficaciousness of the Passover. You had to be circumcised. In contrast, we just make you go through RCIA and get Baptized. RCIA doesn’t seem so bad, given the alternative.

Finally, here’s something I found really eerie. This is from a Jewish vegetarian site:

“Today there is no need to cook or eat meat on Passover. The eating of the Paschal lamb is no longer required now that the Temple is not standing. One is required to commemorate this act, not participate in it.”

If this site is correct, once the Jews lost the Real Presence of God in the Holiest of Holies, they went from having a real meal to a mere commemoration.


  1. Joe this is very interesting. Good research. One question: If the Passover requirements are symbolic for the Eucharist, which I believe they are, What do you make of the verse: “It must be eaten inside one house; take none of the meat outside the house. “?

  2. I’ve got two theories.

    The first is that it’s another prefigurement of closed Communion. It isn’t enough simply to believe that eating the lamb/Lamb will do what God says it will. You also have to be in the House, and in the Family.

    The second, which is related to the first, is that it’s emphasizing the Passover (and, of course, the Eucharist) as family-oriented. In Baptism, we become brothers and sisters in Christ, with both Mary and the Church as as our Mother, and with God as our Father. We’ve got various spiritual “fathers” and “sons/daughters” and so forth through the Gospel. It’s one ginormous family, under one roof.

    A sort of “Passover to go” meal is detrimental to the family, as numerous meal-on-the-go families are realizing. So that’s another possibility. There’s no reason it couldn’t be some combination of the above, also.

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