The church fathers called Easter, “Pascha,” a word derived from the Hebrew word, Pesach, which means Passover, a name pointing to Jewish origins for this Christian festival. Therefore, to better understand the nature and practice of Easter, it is helpful to look at the Jewish Passover as it was practiced when the Christian church began.

Passover commemorated Israel’s redemption out of slavery in Egypt—a dramatic display of God’s saving action in history. Israel was commanded to preserve the memory of this action forever by means of an annual feast. Quite likely, by the first century A.D. the Passover meal had a set form to follow. Certain things had to be done in order that the Passover might be celebrated properly, for every action had its special meaning. Everyone, even the servant, was to eat reclining, as this was the Roman custom for free men. They ate the feast in the night, because it was in the night that the Lord passed over his people. The food included a Passover lamb that had been sacrificed, unleavened bread, and bitter herbs. When the food was brought in, the son would ask his father why this night was different from all other nights. The father would then instruct his son, reading and explaining the Passover story from Deuteronomy. Rabbi Gamaliel is quoted as saying that in order to fulfill the Passover, the verses concerning three things must be explained: “ ‘Passover’—because God passed over the houses of our fathers in Egypt; unleavened bread—because our fathers were redeemed from Egypt; bitter herbs—because the Egyptians embittered the lives of our fathers in Egypt” (Mishna, Pesahim 10.5).

The meaning of the Passover was more than a simple commemoration of God’s past deliverance of Israel from Egypt. It ...

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