A Jewish feast rooted in the seminomadic religious practices of the ancient Near East, attached to memories of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt by the historicizing interpretation of Exodus 12:12-13, 23-27, and Deuteronomy 16:1-6, and adapted to the celebration of the Christian mystery of salvation by the early Christians.
Despite modern philological proposals, the etymology and original meaning of the Hebrew word pesah, from which the Greek pascha is derived, remain obscure. Exodus 12:13, 23, and 27 provide a popular etymology by relating pesah to the Hebrew verb pasah, to limp, to skip or jump over. God, prepared to strike down the firstborn in Egypt, would limp past, or skip over, the houses of the Israelites who had performed the paschal rite. In Hellenistic Judaism, the word pascha was explained either as hyperbasia or hyperbasis, a passing-over, with reference to God’s passing over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, or as diabasis or diabateria, a passing-through, with reference to the Israelites passing through the Red Sea.
Of these two Hellenistic Jewish explanations, the first was not easily transferable to the Christian pascha, but Christians used the second by taking the passage through the Red Sea as a type of Christ’s passage from death to life or of the Christian’s passage to new life in baptism (ideally at the time of the paschal celebration), or even by taking the passage through the Red Sea as an allegory of the Christian’s passage from sin, ignorance, and falsehood to virtue, knowledge, and truth. In a specifically Christian etymology popular in early Christian centuries but infrequently used by learned writers, pascha was taken as a word related to paschein, to suffer, and thus referred to Christ’s suffering and death.
In the earliest years of Christianity, Jews, in celebrating Passover on the night of the full moon, the fourteenth-fifteenth of the lunar month of Nisan, joyfully and thankfully commemorated the past deliverance of their people from bondage in Egypt, looked upon that deliverance as represented in the present, and to some extent looked forward to a new liberation in a future age. Until the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in A.D. 70, the killing and eating of the paschal lamb and the blood rites performed with the lamb’s blood were important parts of the celebration, as they are to this day in the paschal observance of the Samaritans.
In nascent Christianity, the passion and resurrection of Jesus at the time of the Jewish Pasch (Passover) determined the nature of the Christian Pasch. The paschal lamb was taken as a type of Christ (1 Cor. 5:7; Jn. 1:29, 36; 19:33, 36; 1 Pt. 1:19; Rev. 5:6, 9, 12; 12:11), although its killing and eating were quickly replaced by the Christian agape and Eucharist in the early morning, after a vigil and a fast. The earliest Christians observed their Pasch on the date of the Jewish Passover, in the night of 14-15 Nisan, a practice continued in the Quartodeciman observance in Asia Minor into the late second century and among heterodox Christian groups as late as the fourth.
Their interpretation depended above all on the dating of the Passion and death of Jesus on 14 Nisan, evident in the chronology of the Gospel According to John (Jn. 19:14). The passion and death of Jesus were at the center of the earliest Christians’ understanding of their Pasch. This by no means necessarily excluded His Resurrection as motive for the joy and hope that characterized the paschal celebration, but from the extant sources, it is impossible to reconstruct with certitude a complete and authentic Quartodeciman interpretation of the early Christian Pasch.
The practice of celebrating the Christian Pasch not in the night of 14-15 Nisan but in the vigil leading into the Sunday following 14-15 Nisan arose early, perhaps in the church of Jerusalem, and spread rapidly, so that by the end of the second century it was the common practice throughout Christendom. The choice was made in view of Christ’s Resurrection on the Sunday following the Jewish Pasch, and it entailed a shift of emphasis from his passion and death to his Resurrection in Christians’ interpretation of their Pasch. In the early centuries of the Christian era, however, Christ’s passion, death, Resurrection, and Ascension were seen as integral moments of a single paschal mystery.
Christian use of typology and allegory to adapt elements inherited from the Jewish Pasch (the killing and eating of the paschal lamb, the propitiatory value of its blood, commemoration of the deliverance of the firstborn in a new age) to those various moments of Christ’s saving action, in a single paschal celebration, satisfied the needs of the occasion. Roughly in the course of the fourth century, as the development of the Christian calendar reflected an increasing concern with temporal distinctions, the sense of unity in the aspects of the Christian Pasch was weakened.
The commemoration of Christ’s passion and death was concentrated on Good Friday, that of His Ascension was moved to a new feast forty days after Easter, in accordance with the chronology of Acts 1:3, and Easter Sunday became more exclusively the commemoration of His Resurrection. It was Easter Sunday, not Good Friday, that retained the name pascha in Greek-speaking Christendom, but the concept of Holy Thursday and Good Friday as days of the Christian paschal meal and of the immolation of the “Paschal Lamb” was not lost. The East and West Syrian and Maronite churches continue to use the Syriac form of pascha to designate Holy Thursday, and the East Syrian church, to designate Good Friday as well. In the Coptic church all of Holy Week is often called the Week of pascha.
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AELRED CODY, O. S. B