By Chor-Episcopos Dr. Kyriakos of Chicago, Chief Editor
In Orthodox Christian Theology the most meaningful word after Christ or Jesus is Pascha, which is a Greek rendering of the Aramaic word Pesacha, from which during the very apostolic times Pascha became part of the spoken Greek of the first century. Etymologically, Pesacha comes from the Hebrew word, Pesach, which literally means passing over or Passover.
There is a biblical history behind the event of Passover.
For four hundred years the Hebrews, the chosen people of God, had been in Egypt under the Pharaoh. The earlier period of their self-inflicted exile was very constructive for their growth in population and physical and material wealth. The Hebrews flourished in a foreign land, but they always retained their identity as a monotheistic ethnic group with their own unique worshipping and living customs; and their hosts were happy and comfortable with their new neighbors, who had been brought there from Canaan during a great famine and drought period long ago by one of their prime ministers who happened to be the first Hebrew to enter Egypt as a slave first and later to become their prime minister by God’s providential care. After a few centuries these new immigrants became the most prospering communities around Egypt, because they were very industrious and hardworking. Gradually, the Egyptians began to dislike these growing communities of Hebrews; they thought that their wealth and riches would finally end up in the possession of their guests. They, with their Pharaoh, began to oppress the Hebrews in many ways. They were brutally treated at work places. They were sent to forced labor and inhumane conditions. Animals began to be treated better than the Hebrews. Their children were tormented. The miseries of their slavery were unfathomable. To reduce their manpower and to impede their growth as a distinct and prospering ethnic group, the Pharaoh even ordered to kill the male babies of Hebrew women; and the order was executed and the Hebrew communities were buried in unending tears and fear.
But there was one baby that miraculously escaped this terror due to the kindness of a princess from the palace of the Pharaoh; the baby’s name was Moses. It was him that God later chose for the deliverance His chosen people out of the land of Egypt. Many years later, it took ten plagues by the hand of God to liberate the Israelites. The last one was the death of all the first-born in Egypt; an angel of death would go to all the Egyptian homes and kill the firs-born. Moses, who had escaped to the Sinai for fear of his own life, was chosen by God to be a prophet and priest to lead his people out of Egypt. Through the instrumentality of Moses, God had inflicted nine plagues one after another to change the mind of the Pharaoh so that he could let the Israelites leave the country. The pharaoh changed his mind repeatedly, and so the ultimate weapon directed by God against the Pharaoh and Egypt was the death of all the Egyptian first-born. God instructed Moses to prepare His chosen people for two emergencies, first to avert the angel of death getting into the Hebrew homes, and then to get ready for their exodus next day morning.
In order to save all the Israeli first-born from death and to get ready for the exodus out of Egypt God demanded Moses that every household should observe a Pesach. The children of Israel should sacrifice a blameless lamb. And the blood of the lamb should be sprinkled on the door posts of every Hebrew house, so that the angel of death may pass over to the Egyptian house to do his job. Thus the blood of the blameless lamb would redeem them from the imminent death. They should cook the lamb and eat a meal with five items which would signify their different sufferings in Egypt. Since there was no time to prepare the regular leavened bread, the bread that was to be used in this meal must be unleavened. Every Israeli household obeyed Moses, and sprinkled the blood of the blameless lamb on the door posts of their houses, and observed their meal in Egypt as Moses had commanded. The angel of death passed over their houses and the death of their first-born was averted. The first-born of the Egyptians were all killed by the angel of death in the same night. Next day morning the children of Israel set out for Canaan, when the entire Egyptian population was grieving over the death of their first-born. The slaughter of the lamb and the ritual consumption of that lamb in a ceremonial meal are together called the Passover event or Pesach, ort Pascha.
In this event the sacrifice of the lamb is the most crucial. It is the blood of the lamb that redeems the believer from death. In fact the liberation of the Israelites was not just a physical liberation. It was an exodus from the land of idolatry, where the Pharaoh himself was considered a god, and even an eternal being, which was the reason why the Egyptians constructed those huge pyramids to immortalize their monarchs through the sweat and blood and the slave labor of the Hebrews. The children of God had lost their freedom to worship the one and only God, Yahweh. In this sense the deliverance of the children of Israel from Egypt meant both physical and spiritual emancipation. Even the very crossing over the Red Sea to the Sinai Peninsula was tumultuous, because it took an unnatural event of splitting the sea and unrolling a dry land on the sea bed right in front of their eyes through the wondrous instrumentality of Moses and of crossing the bottom terrain of the sea to the desert. They were yet very fearful; for the Egyptian army was catching up with them. But once they all stepped in the desert land of Sinai, the entire Egyptian army that had entered the dry sea bed following the Israelites was swallowed up by the roaring waves of Red Sea that had been restored to their natural position!
This is the true prefiguration of our true Pascha! The very event that took place about 1500 years before Christ in Egypt is a prototype of the slaughter of the Lamb of God.
Sin has its inevitable consequence. St Paul calls it ‘death’. For the sin of the Egyptians every first-born in Egypt had to die according to God’s plan. However God decided that a lamb could die in the place of every Hebrew family that needed to avert death. The blood of the lamb could avoid death. God wanted the blood of the lamb to be sprinkled over the door posts, which indicated the household being in observance of God’s command and the angel of death could not inflict the punishment of death on that family.
Actually this story did not start in Egypt; it started in the Garden of Eden. After sin had crept into the human race, God promised that the seed of the women (watch the phrase, not the seed of man) would come and crush the head of Satan who dragged the woman into sin, a violation or disobedience against God’s direct command. About 750 years before the Messiah’s incarnation, Prophet Isaiah the Glorious predicted about this seed of the woman appearing from a virgin as the Messiah and suffering in the form of a Servant! The whole bible is pointing to the great event of God’s direct intervention into humanity through His Messiah in order to liberate mankind from the bondage of sin enwrapped by a cunning Satan in order to sabotage the divine plan in the act of human creation. Prefiguratively, the Egyptian Passover is just a learning model for us to fully comprehend the mysteries behind redemptive actions, behind the new Pascha; and in fact the very word, Pascha, was coined for us in Egypt; had it not been coined 1500 years before Christ, it would have been very difficult for us to internalize the mystical underpinnings of the sufferings and slaughter of the Lamb of God, Who, with His blood sprinkled on the door posts of every new Israelite home that believes in Him, wiped out the wages of sin, which is death.
We read in the Book of Exodus that those Israelites had to struggle through the Sinai for forty years. Liberation from Egypt did not mean a thing to them. WE realize that none, including the deliverer Moses, except Joshua, had a chance to get inside Canaan, the land promised to the children of Abraham. There were many reasons for this struggle. First, the deliverance from Egypt was just a physical occurrence for most of them. Most of them did not properly understand the miraculous plan of God. A number of them really thought it would be impossible to get out of Egypt. They did not trust what Moses had told them. Even if they could get out, they definitely thought that they all would perish in the long desert terrain of Sinai, where there was no water or food. Some of them must have thought that Moses would have been joking! However, the mandating leadership of Moses they could not resist, and hence had to follow him out of Egypt. The entire episode of the exodus was a test on their fidelity to their Yahweh. Even Moses, the mighty leader, was not immune from suspecting God’s caring for His people. The result was a lengthy sojourn that took forty years to complete. The price of their lack of trust was terrible; even Moses, could not step inside the Promised Land. Joshua was just retained without harm in order to maintain the continuity of the entire saga of transplantation of the people of God from Egypt to the land of Canaan. Why did it take forty years? God wanted to create a brand new generation of Israelites who were not tainted by the disbelief and distrust of the generation that had started from Egypt.
Another very important juncture during their sojourn was the granting of the Decalogue. Every nation is to be ruled with a constitution; so on the fiftieth day after their departure from Egypt God gave His children a set of laws that bind them with Him and to themselves in the most just and righteous manner. Laws are supposed to provide discipline to a people, and they regulate their behavior. Yes, these Ten Commandments were burdensome for the Israelites as their later history tells us; and God heavily punished them when they deviated from them as a people. Even after receiving a code of conduct, their journey back to Canaan and their life in Canaan were not entirely comfortable.
We have a great spiritual lesson to learn from this part pf the paschal and post-paschal experience of the Hebrews.
Actually the Passover, or Pascha, was eventful, but the crossover was even more eventful. The crossing over to Canaan after reaching the Sinai required forty years of intense and excruciating hardship. Not all that crossed over the Red Sea to Sinai reached their destination! This should not discourage us, though.
Christ is the heavenly paschal lamb, whose blood averted the direct consequence of sin. His incarnation, ministry, betrayal, suffering, crucifixion and resurrection are all one event in the new Passover; although the resurrection of Christ is the culminating event that sealed the new Passover. If you compare this event with the first Passover in Egypt, we are also liberated with the blood of Christ like those Israelites who were liberated from death and the bondage of persecuting Egypt. Like the Israelites whose journey to Canaan started immediately after the sacrifice of the lamb and their first Passover meal, the journey of every Christian to the heavenly Canaan is only starting immediately after accepting Jesus the Christ and His suffering for our sins, and every believer in Christ has to go through the Red Sea and the Sinai desert, which is even more difficult.
The Israelites that were liberated from death and from the bondage of the Pharaoh, did not prove themselves worthy of entering the Promised Land, and although they were emancipated physically from Egypt, only one of them could become heir to the land of Canaan; even Moses the greatest of the prophets, who directly heard God’s voice and talked with God, could only gaze at the Promised Land from the top of Mount Nebo.
This is the course of every Christian believed to have been saved by Christ’s blood. Every Christian has to live a life, which is very similar to what Jesus Himself tasted. His life on earth started in the virgin womb of Mary; He lowered Himself to the level of His own creation, which is the lowliest one can think about the Sovereign God of the universe. If one studies the Gospels, they tell us His humiliation as a human being, the way the Jews treated Him, the way the Roman soldiers treated Him, and the worst form of execution that a criminal could get in the Roman Empire.
Jesus Himself demanded us to take up our crosses and follow Him up to the top of Golgotha and die with Him. Like Jesus completed His Passover with His subjugation of death by His own resurrection, our Passover will be also complete only with our resurrection in Christ, which He guaranteed for every believer in Him.
Our resurrection has two phases. One is in our own life time on earth. A Christian’s life must be a resurrected life, resurrected from our fleshly nature, resurrected from our sinful nature which we inherited from our first parents. Every individual Christian has to realize this experience if he is a believer in Christ, and claims to have been saved by the blood of Christ. This is not achieved just by showing off a Christian culture, such as going to Church every Sunday, attending Liturgies during the Holy Week, giving alms to the poor, donating money to bishops, or conducting prayer meetings in our home. They are good spiritual exercises if the Spirit of God dwells in us; otherwise such activities are not only futile, but also inviting condemnation. The Spirit of God lives in us only if we do not separate us from God by our sin. Think about ourselves: Are we keeping our body and soul pure without indulging in sexual sins, are we giving pain to our priests if they do not approve our own selfish agenda (and we sometimes bribe a bishop to punish a law-abiding priest or to get the former on our side!), are we plotting snares for our own brothers and sisters; are we cheating our spouses, are we stealing the property of others, are we doing a good job for our employer, are we raising our children faithful to God and His precepts, are we creating feud in communities or churches,….? The list of sins goes on, and still we pretend to be “good” Christians by going to Church every Sunday and supporting the bishops and their projects. If you are a person being guilty of any of these or other sins, you are one of those Pharisees condemned by our Lord. You have no righteousness in you; Satan, not the Holy Spirit, lives in you. You do not live the life of a resurrected person.
If every Christian has a resurrected life, his family has a resurrected experience. If all the families have such a resurrected life, that community, that state or country definitely enjoys the peace of resurrection brought to the creation by Christ. The Syrian Orthodox Liturgy on Pascha loudly announcers this Peace brought down by the resurrection of Christ. The tragedy is that we do not have this peace on earth. Why? Our kind of Christianity is nothing but hypocrisy! Enjoying a resurrected life does not come to us without our effort. From the moment one is in Christ, his stormy life begins, and his life in the wilderness begins. But the most comfortable aspect of this Christian journey is that Christ is with him to share his burdens, to carry his cross, to dress his wounds, to satiate his thirst, and wipe his tears. The crossover to the heavenly Canaan is not fun; it is sometimes more painful for some people; some may smoothly move without many events; but the course is on a rough terrain. Once we cross this rough terrain with total fidelity to our Savior, a resurrected experience is guaranteed.
Another very important juncture in the life of the Israelites in the desert took place on the fiftieth day after their departure from Egypt; it was on that day they received the Decalogue, the Ten Laws, which established openly their existential relationship with their Yahweh, the Creator, Who by imposing those laws over them forged His authority over them. Thus they were bound by God’s laws. The case is different in the New Covenant, in which on the fiftieth day God filled them with His Holy Spirit, which ultimately is mercy and grace. WE are no more under law now, but are in grace, which is totally free for us. However we have to merit His grace by walking with Him on this earthly terrain carrying our crosses. Every day of our life on earth is mixed with sufferings, tensions, frustrations, abuses, discriminations, injustices, rejections, sicknesses, disabilities, weaknesses, and all the earthly problems. If we were under law, none of these uncomfortable encounters would have brought us grace of purification and communion with God; but the second Pentecost definitely granted us the indwelling of the Comforter. Thus the most encouraging truth about our crossover is that we have a Comforter with us to provide us with divine fortitude. Thanks be to Jesus Who had promised Comforter for us and sent Him on the day of the New Pentecost after His resurrection!
The next phase of our resurrection is our reward for being faithful to the One Who saved us with His blood, which is God’s gift for us. We become worthy of this resurrection at His second coming in order to judge the living and the dead. We sing this everyday in the Symbol of faith, the Creed.
Yes, the Pascha, Passover, which we celebrate immediately after the Great Lent, is antecedent to a crossing over the Red Sea and the Sinai to the Promised Land, the heavenly Canaan, which is the kingdom of God.
For those of us who are still struggling on earth, the Pascha or Passover is not complete until we are prepared for a crossover. Indeed, the Passover is crossover; and it is after a successful crossover that the heavenly Canaan is realized for us.
May all of our readers have blessed Paschal Season and all the blessings of the Spring Season! +TVOO