Holy Saturday


Passover is a Jewish thing. It means the passing over of the Hebrew people from Egypt to the Promised Land. It means their liberation from slavery under the Egyptian empire, and their communion with one another as a people, and indeed, as the people of Yahweh, their God. This event (or process if you will) was remembered in a ritual, and both the memory and the ritual are given the name of Passover. 

Ancient times- A clan feast for protection

Exodus 12 tells us about it. We are in pre-exilic times. In those days, Israel was a cluster of clans, not yet a nation, not yet with a sanctuary or shrine. It was a fellowship of families with their flocks. In their memory and ritual of this Passover, they celebrated the protection God had given them at that time, and always. There was a general belief among ancient peoples, then, in a hostile cosmic force they called Mashhit – it was death dealing.   In the story of the exodus, God had sent an angel to destroy the firstborn of   the Egyptian households – Egypt was oppressing the Hebrew people. This was considered to be the work of Mashhit. The Egyptians had threatened to take the life of the first born male in each Hebrew family – again Mashhit was behind this. It was death dealing.     God took them out of Egypt, and in doing so protected them from Mashhit. God sent an angel to stop the destroyer from entering the homes of the Hebrews. God told the destroyer to skip over these homes. The Hebrew word pesah (from which Passover comes) means to skip over. This protection ensured their future. 

The memory of this confirms a conviction that their history does not have to be in the hands of destructive powers. There is a sense of rupture from that kind of world. There is a sense of movement (Passover) from that kind of old order to a new order in which the true God protects God’s own. 

Note: In these ancient times there is as yet no link between Passover and the feast of the unleavened bread, and there is as yet no sacrifice of a lamb or goat in the paschal ritual.

It would also be wrong to forget that in ancient times, there was a seasonal migration of nomads (all sorts of them) and this took place in the spring. The Hebrew Passover became more and more an agrarian feast, such as farmers have in the spring in all cultures.

Jerusalem Temple times – A national celebration of identity

Towards the end of the 7th century bce Jerusalem became the centre of Israel’s life, under Josiah. Pilgrims came to Jerusalem. There were three principal pilgrim feasts. They were Passover, Shavuoth (weeks), and Sukkoth (tents). The Rabbis used to say that God gave the people the Torah at Shavuoth, fifty days after Passover, and they saw Sukkoth as close of the summer pilgrim season. All these were spring/summer feasts. It was an attempt to centralise cult in the Jerusalem temple. This cult was that of Yahweh, as practised by the priests there. This suppressed regional and domestic cults, including some in honour of Yahweh. 

In this way, Passover became a celebration of the unification of the Hebrew people as a true nation, and a true religious nation. Passover had political and religious value. It was the ‘identity’ feast of a developed Israel. Practices and valued flourished around this focus. Examples would be: the weekly celebration of Sabbath; the freeing of slaves within Israel after six years; the solidarity of the people with the less well off; a due respect for non-Israelite neighbours. It was a week-long feast. Naturally it took on the contours of Canaanite farm festivals at this time of the year. Some of their rituals were fused with those of the old Hebrew rite. Before Josiah there is no witness to such a national celebration in Israel. Read Dt 16 and 2 Kings 23 in this light.

Note: It was at this time that there was a connection between Passover and the feast of Matsot (unleavened bread). At this time, too, sacrifice in the Jewish temple was linked with Passover – in fact many sacrifices, not just that of a lamb or goat. There is, as a result, an interesting twist in the myth- story of the departure from Egypt. It is told as a hasty departure. There was not enough time to eat anything except unleavened bread, etc.

Post-exilic times – A family meal in love

After the return from exile, around 520-515, the ancient stories of Passover were written up anew, this time by priests. There was no rebuilt temple as yet, and no central place for cult, and so no sacrifice and none of the usual functions of the Jewish priesthood. The stories of the Passover were read by them to assemblies of the people. 

The ritual of Passover was taken up, but as an annual family feast. It became a domestic liturgy. The father of the family, not the temple priest, was the central person in it. Children had a place, indeed a significant place, in it. On the evening of Passover, everyone came to synagogue, and returned home in late afternoon. The special meal they had then was called the Seder (it is the Hebrew equivalent for the Latin word Ordo) – there were spelt out arrangements for the way it all had to be done at home. The children had to ask questions – why are we here, what is this all about, what does Passover mean. And the father of the family had to explain and unfold the scriptures about it, in dialogue with the children. Songs, psalms, the Hallel, were sung. It is easy to sense the atmosphere in these families after the return from exile, now in their Land again, celebrating the protection of their first born sons, and the superiority of their God over the gods of Babylon (and everywhere else).

In effect, the people identified the return from Babylon with the ancient Passover from Egypt. From this time onwards, and still today, Israel’s theology is based on that identification. It conveys the sense that the original myth of Passover is validated in the continuing reality of God’s protection for the people. After disaster, always a newness. 

There were changes in the Passover ritual when it became a family meal. With the meal they ate bitter herbs – to show that they had assimilated the meaning of the bitter past, and now had matured to a new positivity. Foreigners could come to the ritual in the home, as long as they had accepted circumcision. There was a need in their presence to say, and say again and again, the meaning of the rite of Passover.

A whole vision of history emerged. From Exodus to Exile and after, there would always be Passover. Wisdom would grow around the idea. There was great freedom of interpretation. It was a freedom to apply the core ideas to present circumstances. 

And then history was changed, forever, by the Passover of Jesus…