Apr 29, 2011

Pascua, Passover or Easter?


Feliz Pascua to everyone! I could say "Pascua" is Spanish for "Easter", because it is, but it literally means"Passover." In Spanish Bibles, the word used for the Jewish Passover festival is "Pascua", starting with Exodus 12:11 and continuing into the New Testament accounts. However, this is not a peculiarity of Spanish, according to an article by Anthony McRoy, posted on Christianity Today magazine's Christian History blog. In most of the languages of the world, the same word is used for the Jewish feast of Passover and the Christian celebration of Christ's Resurrection. The major exceptions are English and German, which use the words "Easter" and "Ostern" for the Christian holy day.

According to the Venerable Bede, an English monk who lived from 673 to 735 A.D. and who is a major source of information for modern historians about early Anglo-Saxon culture, the month of April was once dedicated to worship of the goddess Eostre. Anglo-Saxon language and culture was closely related to that of the Germanic tribes on the European continent, and 1,000 years after the Venerable Bede, Jakob Grimm (one half of the Brothers Grimm), wrote in his 1835 book, Deutsche Mythologie, that the festival of Ostern was derived from the worship of the goddess Ostara (an Old High German form of Easter).

These claims are often used to bolster the assertion that Christians copied existing pagan customs to accomodate new converts and that the church's liturgy and calendar are not truly Biblical, or even reflect early Christian belief.

One problem with this assertion, at least in the case of Easter, is that there is very little evidence outside of works of the Venerable Bede and Jakob Grimm that anyone ever worshipped a goddess called Eostre or Ostara. But there is an even bigger difficulty. McRoy writes:

"The Nordic/Germanic peoples (including the Anglo-Saxons) were comparative latecomers to Christianity. Pope Gregory I sent a missionary enterprise led by Augustine of Canterbury to the Anglo-Saxons in 596/7. The forcible conversion of the Saxons in Europe began under Charlemagne in 772. Hence, if "Easter" (i.e. the Christian Passover festival) was celebrated prior to those dates, any supposed pagan Anglo-Saxon festival of "Eostre" can have no significance. And there is, in fact, clear evidence that Christians celebrated an Easter/Passover festival by the second century, if not earlier. It follows that the Christian Easter/Passover celebration, which originated in the Mediterranean basin, was not influenced by any Germanic pagan festival."

Likewise, there is a popular notion that Christians celebrate Christmas on December 25 (or January 6 in Eastern Orthodox tradition) because pagans were celebrating the rebirth of the sun-god on that date and converts felt slighted that they did not have anything to celebrate. (The winter solstice, the longest night of the year, generally falls around December 21. Following the solstice, daylight hours gradually increase, thus the sun has been reborn.)

Of course, the Bible does not give a specific date for Christ's birth. Writing for Biblical Archaeology Review, Andrew McGowan notes that Clement of Alexandria in 200 A.D. listed several dates on which different groups of Christians celebrated His birth: March 21; April 15, 20 or 21; or May 20. It was not until 274 A.D. that the Emperor Aurelian declared December 25 a pagan holiday dedicated to worship of the sun (with little evidence that the date had special significance to anyone before the Christian era). By that time Christians in the western half of the Roman Empire had settled on December 25 as the day of Christ's birth, while in the eastern empire, January 6 had become the accepted date.

Why those dates? McGowan writes: "Strange as it may seem, the key to dating Jesus’ birth may lie in the dating of Jesus’ death at Passover...Around 200 C.E. Tertullian of Carthage reported the calculation that the 14th of Nisan (the day of the crucifixion according to the Gospel of John) in the year Jesus died was equivalent to March 25 in the Roman (solar) calendar. March 25 is, of course, nine months before December 25; it was later recognized as the Feast of the Annunciation -— the commemoration of Jesus’ conception. Thus, Jesus was believed to have been conceived and crucified on the same day of the year."

As for the eastern church: "In the East, too, the dates of Jesus’ conception and death were linked. But instead of working from the 14th of Nisan in the Hebrew calendar, the easterners used the 14th of the first spring month (Artemisios) in their local Greek calendar -— April 6 to us. April 6 is, of course, exactly nine months before January 6 -— the eastern date for Christmas."

Some of our holiday customs, such as Christmas trees, Easter eggs (maybe), holly and mistletoe, may have prechristian origins. But McGowan notes that prior to the fourth century A.D., Christians took great pains to distinguish Christian worship from the idolatry that surrounded them. "From the mid-fourth century on, we do find Christians deliberately adapting and Christianizing pagan festivals.

A famous proponent of this practice was Pope Gregory the Great, who, in a letter written in 601 C.E. to a Christian missionary in Britain, recommended that local pagan temples not be destroyed but be converted into churches, and that pagan festivals be celebrated as feasts of Christian martyrs. At this late point, Christmas may well have acquired some pagan trappings."

But the true roots of Christian worship and the church year are in the highly liturgical worship of the Old Testament, with its annual cycle of Scripture readings, sacrifices and sacred meals. This is not the result of human habit or whim.

Our Lord Himself knew exactly what He was doing when He instituted the sacrament of the Lord's Supper during the Passover meal. God Himself commanded the Israelites to observe Passover every year in Exodus 12:1-14, to remember how they were saved from divine wrath in Egypt (the tenth plague which claimed the life of every firstborn son) by the blood of a lamb without blemish. “Then they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. They shall eat the flesh that night, roasted on the fire; with unleavened bread and bitter herbs they shall eat it...The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt."

Divine judgment falling upon the firstborn son foreshadows the Passion of Christ as does the offering of an unblemished lamb. We also find this foreshadowing in Genesis 22, where God calls upon Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, his only begotten son. Abraham follows God's command, firm in the hope that at the last moment, God would provide a lamb for the sacrifice in place of Isaac. And so that particular story ends, but the longer-term significance is that the real sacrificial lamb would be One Who was both the only begotten Son of God and a descendant of Abraham.

Jesus knew that after His last supper with His 12 disciples, there would be no more need to sacrifice animals for the atonement of sins. He Himself would atone for the sins of all people once and for all. The old Passover would be replaced by a new one in which God's wrath would "pass over" all who believe because of the "sign" of Jesus' blood.

Thus, "the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me" (1 Corinthians 11:23-25). Instead of offering up a lamb from our flocks in hope of placating God's wrath, we receive the body and blood of the Divine Lamb, Who has already redeemed us from our sins. In case anyone misunderstands this part, St. Paul writes in the verses following, "Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself." And likewise, in 1 Corinthians 10:16, "The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?"

The new covenant in Christ's blood was not intended as a negation of the old, but rather a fulfillment and an amplification of it. We no longer sacrifice animals because Christ's sacrifice on the cross is all-sufficient. We do not observe the ritual purity laws of the Old Testament because we may approach God covered in the purity of Christ. We are adopted as members of God's people not through circumcision, but through baptism, also commanded by our Lord (Matthew 28:19-29), foreshadowed by the deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and linked to the Lord's Supper.

"I want you to know, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.
In other words, life in Christ means participating in an exodus from slavery with others who have passed through the waters of baptism and who receive the same spiritual food and drink, that is, the body and blood of Christ. We only need to be baptized once, because Christ only needed to die on the cross once. But we continue to receive His body and blood, not just once a year, but as many times as we have the opportunity to partake of it, to sustain us in the wilderness of this world until His return in glory. It is then that we will enter our Promised Land.

But if we may freely approach God in worship and prayer with Christ as our Mediator, we still approach the same holy and righteous God of Abraham, Moses and the patriarchs. "Therefore," St. Paul writes, "my beloved, flee from idolatry." All of the Israelites passed through the Red Sea and were sustained by spiritual food and drink in the wilderness. "Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased...Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” 8 We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day."

This is a reference to the story of the golden calf in Exodus 32. How could the Israelites have fallen into idolatry so quickly after witnessing the miracles that Moses performed in the name of their God, and God Himself leading them in the form of pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night? Because they adopted a form of worship in imitation of the popular religiosity of the day. They made a golden image of the God that brought them out of Egypt as they imagined Him (no pun intended). They worshipped this image in the sensual and emotionally wanton way the pagans worshipped their gods. Soon what could not be distinguished from idolatry became idolatry and sexual immorality. As St. Paul writes, this stands as a lesson for us, that our worship should center on the preaching of the Word of God and the administration of the sacraments, as our Lord Himself commanded, with due reverence for the divine mysteries with which we have been entrusted and respect for the Biblically sound traditions of the church of the ages, not modeled on the idolatry of our time.

Draw nigh and take the body of the Lord
And drink the holy blood for you outpoured.
Offered was He for greatest and for least,
Himself the Victim and Himself the Priest.

He that His saints in this world rules and shields
To all believers life eternal yields,
With heavenly bread makes them that hunger whole,
Gives living waters to the thirsting soul.

Approach ye, then, with faithful hearts sincere
And take the pledges of salvation here.
O Judge of all, our only Savior Thou,
In this Thy feast of love be with us now.

Hymn #307
The Lutheran Hymnal
Text: Ps. 34:8
Author: Latin author unknown, c. 680
Translated by: John M. Neale, 1851, cento, alt.
Titled: "Sancti, venite, corpus Christi sumite"
Tune: "Old 124th"
1st Published in: Genevan Psalter, 1551

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