The Book of Exodus is a story of liberation and salvation accomplished through God’s “mighty acts” on behalf of His people Israel. Beginning with the Lord’s self-revelation to Moses, it constitutes a remarkable epic, not merely of “deliverance,” the meaning of the Book’s title, but of oppression, faith, covenant fidelity between God and His people, the giving of Torah or Law, the establishment and abandonment of true worship, and finally, restoration and ultimate salvation, celebrated though cultic observance. Scholars have noted that what the Incarnation is to Christian tradition, the Exodus is to its Hebrew counterpart.
The passage selected by the Church as the third Old Testament reading on Holy Saturday morning stands apart from its surrounding context. There we find a vivid description of the plagues visited upon the Egyptians to convince them to release the captive Israelites. Here, in these few verses (Ex 12:1-28), God prescribes for Moses and his brother Aaron the way the Passover festival is to be kept, with the slaughtering of the lamb and the eating of the meal in haste, to facilitate a rapid escape from the bondage they had known for so many generations.
In a Christian perspective, this passage we read liturgically (12:1-11) preserves a dual theme. On the one hand, it prescribes ritual gestures, centered on the sacrifice of a pure and spotless lamb, that constitute the Passover meal, a commemorative celebration kept by faithful Jews down to the present day. On the other hand, it is read “typologically.” Its various elements constitute prophetic images or “types” of God’s redeeming work in Christ, the Lamb of God, slain for the world’s salvation (Rev 5 and passim).
At some early, pre-Exodus period in Israel’s history, a shepherd’s festival took shape, focused about the nighttime consumption of a yearling lamb. In Exodus 12, this is combined with the originally separate feast of Mazzoth or Unleavened Bread. Drawn together in a single “Passover” celebration, these unified rituals, celebrated annually by the Hebrew people, enable them to relive, to “reactualize,” their deliverance from bondage under Pharaoh and their pilgrimage through the wilderness to the land “flowing with milk and honey.” Significantly, the ritual included as well the smearing of blood on the lintels of the Hebrew’s doorways. Originally, this was performed as a kind of ritual magic, to ward off the destroying angel of death that came as the final plague upon the Egyptians, to take the life of their firstborn.
This brief narrative is filled with images or types that Christians would later seize upon as symbolic of the saving death of Christ, whose blood upon the wood of the Cross offers liberation and life, not only to the people of God, but to all of humankind. That blood, however, also foretells the “massacre of the innocents.” Once the Jewish king Herod learned from the Magi (Zoroastrian sages who represent the nations of the earth) that a potential rival had been born in Bethlehem, he ordered his soldiers to kill throughout that region every male child less than two years of age. Trying thereby to rid himself of a political rival, Herod unwittingly caused Joseph and Mary to flee into Egypt. From there, Jesus the Messiah, who recapitulated in Himself the true Israel, made His own “exodus.” He returned to the Promised Land, as did his forebears, to accomplish what the people of Israel were unable to do: proclaim salvation to the nations, and lead all peoples, Jews and Gentiles, into the “kingdom,” the sphere of God’s redeeming love.
The origins of the word “Passover” are obscure. It could refer to the “passing over” of the Red Sea, as the children of Israel fled before Pharaoh’s pursuing army. More likely it is derived from a term for “suffering,” related to the notion of “passion,” from which comes the Gospel image of Christ’s own passion: the anguish and agony He experienced from Gethsemane to Golgotha. In any event, it has been received in Christian tradition as “Pascha,” the celebration of Resurrection: of light out of darkness, of life out of death. In the ongoing experience of the Church, it is relived, reactualized, in the mystery of the Holy Eucharist.
As Israel took a pure and spotless lamb, then slaughtered and consumed it, so the Church receives the eternal Lamb of God, sacrificed once and for all on the cross and repeatedly consumed in the sacrament. In Orthodox practice the bread consecrated at the Eucharistic celebration is called “the Lamb,” linking these liturgical gestures with Christ’s ultimate sacrifice. As the people under Moses smeared blood on the lintels of their dwellings, so in Christian practice Christ’s sacrificial blood is symbolized by wine, consecrated and consumed as the second of the ritual’s basic elements. And as the people ate in haste, prepared to depart at any moment toward the land of promise, so Christians receive the Holy Eucharist “in haste,” in vibrant anticipation of their own “exodus” from this world and their journey toward the Kingdom of Heaven. (At the Transfiguration, with the appearance of Moses and Elijah, the evangelist Luke depicts Jesus speaking of His “departure,” his “exodus,” which would include both His crucifixion and His resurrection.)
In the silence of Holy Saturday, we remember and lament the death and burial of the Lamb of God, the pure and spotless One, slain for our salvation. We receive Him, we welcome Him, in the form of Eucharistic gifts of bread and wine, which are transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit into His Body and Blood. In this celebration we not only repeat the ritual He gave His disciples on the night of His betrayal. We also commemorate the liberation of God’s people Israel. We remember, with them, that crucial moment in ancient history when the Lord stretched forth His hand to set free from bondage the people whom He had elected. We journey with them through the parted waters of the Sea, we sojourn with them at the foot of Sinai in anticipation of a theophany, and we enter with them into the Promised Land.
These symbolic images from the Old Testament, the former Covenant, we relive and fulfill in our celebration of the Holy Eucharist. We receive the slaughtered Lamb, we consume His Body and Blood, and we dwell with Him in blessed anticipation of the coming salvation, the coming glory, when we shall finally enter into the fullness of His resurrected life.
That Eucharistic celebration finds its most sublime expression on Holy Saturday, a day of stillness, grief and anticipation. In the tomb with the body, the Liturgy declares, and in hell with the soul as God, Christ, the eternal Son, accomplishes for all of creation His work of salvation and restoration. On this new and glorious Sabbath, His tomb becomes the fountain of our resurrection.
We celebrate on this day, and we wait in silence. And in that silence, anticipating the glad news of His resurrection, we rejoice and give thanks. For this is the Pascha of the Lord.