Image: Agnus Dei, Francisco de Zurbarán [public domain]
“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” —John 1:29
These familiar words of John the Baptist testify to Jesus’ identity and mission as the new Paschal lamb, which will be fulfilled in his Paschal sacrifice, beginning with the Last Supper.
To recognize how Jesus presents himself as the new Paschal lamb at the Last Supper, one must look through the lens of a first-century Jew in the context of Passover: Dr. Brant Pitre explains this beautifully in his book Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist, which I have summarized here.
The First Passover
We read about the first Passover in Exodus 12. Here we receive not only the account of what happened the night of the first Passover but also the instructions for how the people of Israel were supposed to keep the feast “throughout your generations… as an ordinance for ever” (Exodus 12:14). From that day onward all the way to the time of Jesus and beyond, the Passover would be celebrated each spring as a day of remembrance of their deliverance from slavery in Egypt.
The first Passover consisted of five steps:
- Choose an unblemished male lamb
- Sacrifice the lamb
- Collect and spread the blood of the lamb
- Eat the flesh of the lamb
- Keep the Passover as a day of remembrance
Passover in Jesus’ Day
By the first century AD the Passover had changed somewhat. Prior to the Golden Calf incident which we read about in Exodus 32; the priesthood was patriarchal. The father of each family sacrificed the lamb and it was consumed at home. But as a consequence of idolatrous worship of the Golden Calf, the priesthood no longer passed from father to oldest son. Instead, the Levitical priesthood was established. Sacrifice could now be made only by the Levitical priests in the Tabernacle in the wilderness and later in the Temple in Jerusalem, hence the requirement of pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Passover.
Another difference ties to the night of Passover being called a “night of watching” (Exodus 12:42). The first Passover was a night of watching for the coming of the destroying angel who would kill the first-born sons (in the 10th plague). In later Jewish tradition it became a night of watching for the coming of the Messiah and the redemption he would bring. The Jews in the time of Christ expected the Messiah to come on Passover night!
If Jesus saw himself as inaugurating a new Exodus, and if he expected the new Exodus to be preceded by a new Passover, it makes sense that this would happen at the Last Supper—the final Passover of Jesus’ life, immediately before his own “exodus” which he had come to Jerusalem to accomplish (Luke 9:31).
The New Passover
Let’s look at how Jesus fulfills the five criteria of the original Passover.
1. Choose an unblemished male lamb
Sacrificial lambs had to be without blemish. Even if a lamb was perfect, by the time the family travelled all the way to Jerusalem for Passover, it might be a little worse for the wear and unworthy to sacrifice. For this reason, shepherds began raising lambs on the hillsides near Jerusalem and bringing them into the city on the 10th of Nisan for pilgrims to purchase. To ensure they were without blemish, the lambs would be scrutinized until the time of sacrifice on the 14th of Nisan.
Jesus, the sacrificial lamb, made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the 10th of Nisan—the same day the lambs of sacrifice were brought into the city. Jesus also was questioned, scrutinized, and declared three times to be innocent (without blemish) by Pilate.
2. Sacrifice the lamb
Jesus’ death on the cross resembles St. Justin Martyr’s description of how the sacrificed Passover lambs were prepared. St. Justin Martyr states: “The Passover lamb was commanded to be wholly roasted as a symbol of the suffering of the cross which Christ would undergo. For the lamb, which is roasted, is spread out in the form of the cross. For one spit is transfixed right through from the lower parts up to the head, and one across the back, to which are attached the legs of the lamb.” (St. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho).
Furthermore, Mark 15:34 records that Jesus died at the ninth hour, which, according to the first-century Jewish historian Josephus, was the time of sacrifice of the Passover lambs in the Temple. “So, these high priests, upon the coming of their feast, which is called the Passover, slay their sacrifices, from the 9th hour to the 11th hour” (Josephus, War 6, 423-27). (See here for further discussion on the timing of Passover and the death of Christ).
3. Spread the blood of the lamb
Sacrificial lambs were slaughtered in the Temple. Their blood was collected in silver basins and poured out on the altar by the priests. Similarly, Christ’s blood was poured out for us. At the first Passover, the blood of the lamb was spread on the lintels of home, so that the angel of death would pass over the home, sparing the firstborn son. Jesus instructs all those who believe in him to drink his blood (John 6:53–56), thus marking our lips—the entrance to our bodies (temples of Christ). We are saved by drinking the blood of the lamb (often in silver or gold chalices) in the Eucharist.
4. Eat the flesh of the lamb
At the first Passover and those following, the Israelites were required to eat the flesh of the lamb to be in covenant. It was not enough just to sacrifice the lamb. We eat the body of Christ in the Eucharistic meal, placing ourselves in covenant with Christ.
5. Keep the Passover as a day of remembrance
For the Jews, to remember does not simply mean to think back fondly upon something. For Jews, to remember—specifically to celebrate a memorial (see Exodus 12:14)—is to make present again.
At the Passover meal, the father tells the significance of the Passover. He recounts what God has done for them (not just their ancestors). God has delivered them from slavery to the Egyptians. At the Last Supper, Jesus will change the language to remembering what Jesus will do for us—pour himself out in sacrifice to deliver us from our sins and open the gates of heaven which were closed by the sin of Adam and Eve. We remember this not only during Holy Week. His once and for all sacrifice is made present at every Mass in the Eucharist.
Jesus’ sacrifice as the paschal lamb of the new Exodus fulfills the requirements of the original Passover, bringing freedom from slavery to Satan, sin, and death and entrance into the Promised Land of Heaven.