Sometimes we use mysterious words in our worship that aren’t part of our everyday usage. The word ‘paschal’ is one of those that you may hear at various times. At its most basic, the word is a Latinized version of the Hebrew pesach, which means ‘pass over.’ The Passover is the central event in Jewish history when God directed his chosen people, oppressed as slaves in Egypt, to smear the blood of a sacrificial lamb on their doorways so that the Lord would pass over those homes and thus spare the occupants from the deaths of their firstborn sons, which was inflicted on the Egyptians. By this dreadful sign, the last and worst of ten plagues, God induced the Pharaoh to finally release the Israelites from slavery. (The full story is found in Exodus 11-12.)
God commanded annual observance of this event for all Jews, and the hasty meal of roasted lamb, unleavened bread, and bitter herbs which the Israelites were instructed to eat on the evening of the original Passover has evolved into the Seder meal, which differs in a number of respects from the original Passover meal, and which even marginally religious Jews observe as an annual remembrance of their Jewish identity. Passover for many Jews is somewhat analogous to Christmas for many Christians: a religious observance during which the family gathers to observe cherished traditions.
So why would gentile Christians be so enamored with a remembrance of Jewish ethnic heritage that its name would become embedded in the language of the Church? Well, for starters, the crucifixion of Jesus took place when Jesus and His disciples were in Jerusalem for observance of the Passover, and it was at their Seder meal that Jesus blessed the bread and wine and instituted the sacramental practice that Christians know as the Lord’s Supper (also Communion, the Eucharist, etc.) Thus, the Christian celebration of Holy Week, with its observance of Maundy Thursday (the day of the evening Seder meal), Good Friday (the day Jesus was crucified and buried), and Easter Sunday (when Jesus arose alive from the grave) are all inextricably connected to the Jewish Passover celebration.
The connection between the Jewish Passover and the Christian Easter is particularly evident in Catholic churches where the term Paschal Feast is used to refer to the entire Lenten and Easter seasons of the church year. Though our English word ‘Easter’ is unrelated (a story in itself), in most European languages the word used for Resurrection Sunday is some derivative of the Hebrew word for Passover. Thus, in Eastern churches the day and season we call ‘Easter’ is Pascha.
But it’s not just the historical connections between the Jewish Passover and the Christian Easter/Pascha that accounts for our continued use of that word paschal in our worship. Rather, the events of the original Passover, when God delivered His chosen people from physical slavery thereby anchoring His covenant with the Hebrew people, are a foreshadowing of the New Covenant whereby God delivered all the peoples of the world from bondage to sin. Most specifically, the lamb “without blemish,” whose blood smeared on the doorpost spared the Israelite’s firstborns from death, was a precursor of God’s own sinless Son in whose shed blood we are spared God’s righteous wrath for our sins, and whose body we receive in the Sacrament of Communion to nourish us on our spiritual journey out of sin’s slavery – a journey that will take us to God’s heavenly ‘promised land.’ This identification of Jesus as ‘the Lamb of God’ foretold in prophecy (Isaiah 53:7), recognized at His baptism (John 1:29), and noted by the early Christians (1 Corinthians 5:7, 1 Peter 1:19) remains at the center of what our Catholic friends refer to as “the Paschal Mystery” – God’s work of redeeming His fallen children through the sacrifice of His own Son: “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
Our identification of Jesus as the Paschal Lamb permeates our worship and liturgy in many ways. The most visible, though often overlooked, is embodied by the single large white candle on a tall brass stand, commonly called the ‘Christ Candle.’ In our congregation this candle is decorated with the Chi-Rho (an ancient monogram of Christ) and five gold studs which represent the piercings of Jesus on the cross. The connection between the crucifixion of Christ and the sacrifice of the Passover lamb is made explicit when we employ its alternate name: ‘The Paschal Candle.’