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Passover meal and Paschal mystery

Let me depart for some time from reflecting on contemporary theological models of the Paschal Mystery. Since it is Holy Thursday, I would like to think about its relationship with the Passover, a Jewish celebration that is also celebrated more or less on the time of the Holy Week.

One may wonder why is there no fixed date for Easter. From the first two centuries, the first Christians commemorated the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus on the same days as the Jewish feast of the Passover which is determined by the Jewish calendar, not the Roman calendars posted on our walls.

The original word for Easter is from the Greek word, “Pascha” or “Pesach” (to pass over). The Filipino word is “Pasko” ng Pagkabuhay (Easter) — a counterpart to “Pasko” ng Pagsilang (Christmas). The first Holy Week and Easter celebrations were done on the Jewish Passover. Later, Christians moved it to the Sunday after Passover to commemorate the resurrection of Jesus.

Three things to remember: (1) the Passover of the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt; (2) the Passover of the Jews in the time of Jesus, and (3) the Passover of Jesus himself as we celebrate it today.

The first Passover of the Israelites from Pharoah’s wrath is a founding story of the Jewish people. The story is well known to us: they were hardly oppressed by the Egyptian ruler. Moses, an Israelite, was born, took a special position in the empire’s leadership, and later pleaded with the Pharaoh to let go of the Egyptians. The Pharaoh refused and God sent plagues to Egypt, the last punishment was the killing of the firstborn in all families by the angel of death.

To escape from this death, the Israelites were instructed to take a lamb, slaughter it, eat it, and sprinkle the blood on doorposts. When the Angel of Death, passes, he would see the blood of the lamb and spare them. It so happened. All firstborn Egyptians died but not with the Israelites. The Pharaoh relented and let them go. But he changed his mind right away and sent all his army to chase them. But God’s power drowned the Egyptian forces as they passed through the Red Sea.

God later told them not to forget it. They should commemorate this event every year. It became one of the three great Jewish feasts until the time of Jesus — the Passover.

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When Jesus was growing up, he must have gone to the Temple in Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. In one of those trips, we still remember that the young boy Jesus was left behind.

Two things are required of the Passover ritual: the offering of the lamb in the Temple and the eating of the Passover meal with lamb, unleavened bread, bitter herbs, and some wine — all to commemorate the journey from Egypt to the desert to the Promised Land. Unleavened bread signifies that they are in a hurry; there is no time to wait for the bread to rise. They have to eat it with their loins girded, that is, they should be ready to go. The bitter herbs are the same herbs in the desert.

So, when Jesus was about to enter Jerusalem that fateful year, he asked his disciples to find a room to celebrate the Passover meal. And there, what we now call the Last Supper happened. All the symbols of the Passover were present in that narrative. There was wine, of course, and there was bread. But the Lamb was Jesus himself. “Take this all of you and eat it. For this is my body which will be given for you.”

This is the new Passover: Jesus is the new lamb to be slaughtered on the cross the next day, and his blood will save us from the Angel of Death. This is what the church calls “paschal mystery” (in Hebrew “pesach” = to pass over).

But the story is not yet over. The Passover of Jesus is replayed in endless times among the millions of “crucified peoples” today. The suffering people in our times are like the slaves of the new Egypt. Their misery is unfathomable and indescribable.

Think of the millions starving and dying in Gaza — children, mothers, old people. It is ironic that the Israelite (Zionist) narrative has been used with military might to oppress others. Think also of the victims of war in Ukraine. They do not appear on our TV screens anymore but the bombing continues. Think of human trafficking in the borders of Asian countries, or refugees crossing vast seas from Africa to Europe, or the economic migrants from Mexico trying to cross the US border.

Think of indigenous peoples harassed by politicians with funding from mining companies. Think of the children left behind by extrajudicial killings. Think of the millions of suffering people carrying emotional burdens and economic hardships. Many of these faces we actually know. The suffering is endless.

Today more than ever, God wants to liberate God’s people.

Today more than ever, God tells Moses: “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and spacious land, to a land flowing with milk and honey…” (Ex 3: 7-8).

Today more than ever, we need to celebrate the Passover meal for these “crucified peoples”. Ironically, their slavery is also the symbol of liberation. The crucified people has a twofold thrust,” the theologian Ignacio Ellacuria writes, “it is the victim of the sin of the world, and it is ironically also the bearer of the world’s salvation.”

This same crucified people, besides being the main object of the effort of salvation, might also “in its very crucified situation be the principle of salvation for the whole world.”

There is a twofold dialectical movement. First, as the cross of Jesus points to the meaning of our crosses today, the crucified people also become the privileged hermeneutical location to understand Jesus’ own death.

Second, as we need to fight for justice, work for social transformation, and alleviate their poverty—that is, to “take down the crucified peoples from their crosses”, it is only through their witness that the Christian community fully understands the meaning of the paschal mystery. In short, the “crucified peoples” is a privileged location where Jesus is fully present in our times.

Unnoticeably, the Passover meal ushers in the crucifixion: “This is my body which will be given up for you… this is my blood shed for you.” The victim is himself the source of our liberation… in Jesus and in the crucified peoples of our times.

Father Daniel Franklin Pilario, C.M., is the President of Adamson University in Manila. He is a theologian, professor, and pastor of an urban poor community on the outskirts of the Philippine capital. He is also Vincentian Chair for Social Justice at St. John’s University in New York.

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