IN THE EPISCOPAL CHURCH’s Book of Common Prayer (1979), as the priest breaks the consecrated bread, is sung the Fraction Anthem. “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast.” John the Baptist, of course, refers to Christ as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29). And the New Testament is filled with references to Christ as an atoning sacrifice. (eg John 3:16, Romans 3:24, Hebrews 9:12-16, Revelation 5:9.)
But here’s where my meditations on this hit a snag: the Lamb offered every year at Passover was not offered as a sin offering. The main sin offering was, of course, Yom Kippur, and certainly Good Friday was in the Passover Season. Also the Yom Kippur offering is two goats. Not Lambs. The Passover offering does not fit the pattern of any of the other sacrifices of Leviticus. It was given by God to the people of Israel while they were still in Egypt, before the Temple or Tabernacle system was even discussed.
So it seems that there is a huge significance for this evident change in the Christian reading of the sacrificial system’s symbolism. This theological move forms the hinge by which we connect with the Jewish people. Why is our reading of Passover the way it is? Mind you these are only ruminations: I’m not really going anywhere and I have a lot more questions than answers.
As I noted this reading (of atonement as part of the Messiah’s mission) is present already in the earliest texts of Paul and the Gospels. So it’s not an aberration.
I’m not the historian that can delve into 2nd Temple Judaism. A cursory investigation on the internet shows a lot of Christian sources rather than Jewish ones. It seems the question of Why Passover and not Yom Kippur is a common one. There is a comment from Abraham ibn Ezra, writing in the 10th Century, understanding Passover as an atonement for those “in the house”. (Cited here.) That same page also has an extensive citation from Rashi which seems to hold that image as one of atonement, however I don’t think it jives totally? Both of these comments are in the 10th Century, though. Is there any earlier information? Shrug. This is a meditation, not a history paper.
Nu? Typology, maybe?
If Egypt is taken as a sign of “the world” or “sin” or as a synecdoche for all Gentiles, then Passover is a sign of leaving the worldly order (Mammon) for the Heavenly Kingdom.
If we understand sin as a bunch of rules we’ve broken, demerits, as it were, then we need a sin offering (like Yom Kippur) but if we understand sin as a breaking of the Marriage Covenant between God and his people then we need to redo the covenant, not just undo a few demerits. Passover is before the Sinai covenant and so it’s a good symbol to use for a do-over or a Mulligan.
Another clue about Egypt can be found if we loop back to the Fraction Anthem from the 1979 Prayerbook. It comes from a short passage in Paul:
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. I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with immoral men; not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But rather I wrote to you not to associate with any one who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Drive out the wicked person from among you.”1 Corinthians 5: 6-13 (RSVCE)
Paul makes a parallel with the Jewish tradition of “liturgical spring cleaning”. A Jewish family removes all leaven from their house before Passover, sweeping all the corners, wiping down all the shelves. Very pious folks – of a certain standing – even have an entirely different dishes to use, even entirely different kitchens! Paul uses the leaven to signify sin, lists a bunch of sins that he’d like to remove from the Corinthian congregation and warns them that even a little yeast will (eventually) cause the entire bread to rise – not just some of it, but all of it. Taking leavening as a symbol for evil (as it is in the OT), the Apostle urges Christians to leave behind them their lives of sin and to not even associate with those who won’t. (The word rendered “immorality” in the RSVCE refers to sexual immorality. It’s actually the Greek word pornos and it’s related to prostitution. See 1 Corinthians 5:11.) We’re leaving all this behind us in Egypt. We’re not going to let it contaminate our new loaf.
How is this at all an Atonement though? Queue up an offhanded comment from the most recent episode of Bible Project podcast. Look at Exodus:
For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will smite all the first-born in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. The blood shall be a sign for you, upon the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall fall upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt.Exodus 12:12-13 (RSVCE)
I will smite all the 1st born. So even an Israelite would have been included without the Blood. God was allowing the substitution of an innocent life (the lamb) for the life of the First Born. Even more, in the substitution, the whole family was eating the flesh of the First Born.
This is not the case in Yom Kippur where the two goats are used: one is sent out of the camp and the other is burned up on the altar and its blood is sprinkled around in the Holy of Holies. Jesus is not that offering: his offering is consumed not by God’s flames but by his family – that is us. His life is substituted for ours. Hebrews says that God did not desire sin offerings, but rather the Body of the Messiah. Through the Body and Blood of Jesus it says, we are able to enter the Holy of Holies. We could read Hebrews 10 to indicate the Yom Kippur sacrifice (where the goat’s blood is sprinkled everywhere) or we can read it as the Passover Sacrifice, where – because God now has flesh and blood – we can enter the Holy of Holies through the veil of his flesh.
The veil of the temple is torn, not because a new priest has entered the Holy Place and torn it, but because the real veil – Jesus’s Flesh – is pierced, revealing the wounded heart of God to all of us to enter into his love.
And Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us to move us out of the Egypt of our Sins to the waters of Baptism and then a lifelong journey to the Holy Land. We’ll stop at Sinai at Pentecost to have the Law Written on our Hearts, and as we wonder through the desert of this world we will (occasionally) wonder why we left Egypt at all. God will give us our Daily Bread.
And then we cross Jordan Dry-shod.