Christ Our Passover

christ-the-conqueror-of-hell1St. Paul offers the familiar words: “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us!” (1 Cor. 5:7). Most readers of the Bible will find nothing surprising about this – though they should. It is an extremely sophisticated commentary on the death and resurrection of Christ uttered at a very early date in Christian history. For what is equally as remarkable as the eye-witness accounts of the resurrection, are the primitive proclamations about what Christ’s death and resurrection mean. That Christ was raised from the dead is miraculous and wonderful, but that the crucified and risen Christ is our Passover is yet more striking. It reveals much about the Primitive Christian community and provides clarification about the meaning of Christ’s death.

The Christian gospels are more than history accounts, though their claims about certain events in history are at their core. They are carefully crafted accounts of Christ’s ministry and passion, written not only to convey what happened, but how and what it means in light of the Old Testament (John 20:31). In an extremely early piece of “tradition” (for that’s the word St. Paul uses to describe it) we hear this:

For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. (1Cor. 15:3-7)

The primitive community of the disciples not only proclaimed the remarkable facts of Christ’s ministry and passion, but thought them to be significant precisely because they were believed to be a fulfillment of the eternal plan of God (“according to the Scriptures”). This man is not just a man raised from the dead: this man is God incarnate, the meaning of every hidden mystery in the Scriptures. St. John goes so far as to call Him the Logos, the very matrix of meaning for all created things, such that He Himself is actually the ground of all that exists.

It is important to note that the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament is Christ-driven (rather than the other way around). OT verses that are used in reference to Christ need only be statements within the OT that “fit” the Church’s understanding of Christ. For there is something of a “dialog” or “conversation” between Church/Christ/OT in which the understanding of Christ/Church/OT unfolds.

Central to Christ’s Passion and Resurrection is the proclamation: “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.” This both interprets the OT Passover and interprets Christ’s death and resurrection. It is, in fact, the earliest discernible and most extensive treatment of the Passion/Resurrection. It remains the dominant basis for atonement thought in the Eastern Church.

This is truly significant. All of the gospels link Christ’s death and resurrection to the historical Feast of the Passover, though there seems to be some difference as to whether the Last Supper was the Passover Seder (Orthodox tradition does not think so).

Hebrews makes use of the imagery of the atonement sacrifice when speaking of Christ’s priesthood, though this is largely in a polemic that argues for the superiority of Christ over the priesthood of the Old Testament. But Hebrews is alone in this imagery.

That the atoning sacrifice for sin (a payment for a debt, etc.) has become a dominant manner of speaking about Christ’s death in many Christian circles is simply an accident of late Church history and a departure from the Passover-grounded account in the gospels and St. Paul (excluding Hebrews).

The death of Christ is inextricably linked to a meal in the manner of the Passover. Only the Children of Israel may partake of the Passover meal in the Old Testament: “no foreigner shall eat of it” (Ex. 12:48).  To share in the meal is to share in God’s victory – it is to belong to God.

St. John’s treatment of Christ’s crucifixion is decidedly driven by the Passover. In his gospel, Christ describes His coming crucifixion as His “glorification.” No sacrifice within the temple is ever described in such a manner. But the event of the Passover is described in precisely this manner and continues to be described in this way within the Paschal hymnography of Orthodoxy:

 “I will sing unto the Lord for gloriously has He been glorified!”

The Passover experience of the primitive community is immediately translated into the Eucharistic meal. Christ’s resurrection appearances are directly linked to these meals. Peter describes the resurrection witnesses as those who “ate and drank with [Christ] after He arose from the dead” (Acts 10:41).

The primitive community is clearly a Eucharistic community, marked by the Eucharistic feast (shared on the weekly anniversary of the resurrection) from its earliest moments. Eating this meal “proclaims the Lord’s death ‘til He comes” in St. Paul’s language. The Eucharistic community is the community of Christ’s Passover, His Pascha.

This new Pascha also sheds much light on the nature of Christ’s sacrifice. The lamb of Passover is slain and the doorposts of Israel marked with his blood as a means of defeating the “destroyer,” who kills the firstborn of Egypt. This destruction of Egypt (along with the drowning in the Red Sea) are all God’s “getting glory” over Pharoah. It is the proper context for understanding Christ’s description of His death as His glorification.

And thus, the dominant imagery, still preserved in the Eastern Church, is Christ’s atonement as victory, a triumph over death and hell, just as God triumphed over Pharoah and his horsemen. Our Baptism is an immersion in that very victory (an appropriate means of recalling that epic drowning).

Christ’s Passover – the lamb, the meal, the drowning, the victory are all hallmarks of the Church’s proclamation of the gospel. They are definitive. It is also true that Christ, as the meaning of all things, takes into Himself the whole of the Israel’s life (including the system of sacrifice). But it is good at this time of Pascha, to stand back and let the language of Passover speak to our hearts and remind us of God’s glorious victory.

An academic addendum: In this recent season, the scholar, Bart Ehrmann, has been making the rounds arguing against the historical account of the resurrection. The Eucharistic character of the primitive community (undeniable historical fact) can only be understood as an consequence of Christ being seen as a new Passover. That Passover makes little sense without a historical resurrection. The Eucharistic community of Christian disciples is a living witness of Christ’s resurrection.


About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



21 responses to “Christ Our Passover”

  1. Greg Avatar

    The use of Atonement typology for Christ’s sacrifice in Hebrews is expressly related to *purification*: it is entirely complementary to His victory over death and bears no relationship – in fact directly contradicts – the evangelical/reformed religions’ notions of “substitution”/”payment” in the face of an angry god.

    This imagery of purification is very striking in our Liturgies for Holy Week as we sing of our purification by the Blood of God.

  2. fatherstephen Avatar

    Greg. I agree. I did not want to develop a treatment of that imagery here.

  3. Lynne Avatar

    I was moved by the part of the Lamentations service…to paraphrase, “The Passover lamb was slain in secret; Christ was slain in public.”

  4. SC Avatar

    Bless, Father. Thank you for your terrific article. I couldn’t help but comment on how amazingly similar what you said in your article is to an ancient western Paschal hymn (pre 6th century), “The lamb’s high banquet we await” (ad cenam agni). This hymn speaks of the Paschal mystery in terms of baptism, the Eucharist, the Passover, the victory at the Red Sea, and Christ’s victory; further evidence of the early church’s understanding of atonement which is quite different from some current understandings of atonement.

  5. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    I’m afraid this article is going a bit over my head. Yet it is hard for me to ask for more specific clarification…I am well familiar with all of the imagery, as the RC Holy Week and Easter Vigil services are filled with stories of Passover, Egyptians drowning in the Red Sea, etc.

    Christ’s crucifixion as “glorification”…

    “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.” “It remains the dominant basis for atonement thought in the Eastern Church.”

    “The Eucharistic community is the community of Christ’s Passover, His Pascha.”

    My heart is not at odds with any of this Truth. My brain is just struggling a bit with conceptual understanding – not sure why. Appreciate any elaboration (in REAL simple terms, apparently my brain is in slow mode). Thanks.

  6. Debbie Avatar

    What an absolutely beautiful article, and very helpful to me. So is Greg’s comment. Sometime you will have to “develop that imagery” here for us readers.

  7. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I would like to suggest a future topic: confession. It seems that in North America people have either the RC confessional model in their heads – or no clue at all how to approach it in a fitting manner. Both situations fall far short.

    Could you give an example of what a confession would look like and what might bring a person to confess something to a priest? I believe there is a huge need for a good example of this sacrament.

  8. leonard nugent Avatar
    leonard nugent

    Something that I find interesting is how much 1 Corinthians 5 dwells on morality.

  9. fatherstephen Avatar

    Indeed. St. Paul’s use of the “Christ our Passover,” is in order to make a “hortatory” point. It indicates, with regard to the “Christ our Passover” that he is saying something rather common place rather than writing a big article on the point (like I did). It indicates all the more how engrained the concept was already.

  10. leonard nugent Avatar
    leonard nugent

    Father, this is true. It has always amazed me that the Apostles and the Fathers knew the whole thing from the beginning and we have to go back and relearn it over and over

  11. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    In a church that is tradtioned (handed down) from master to disciple it is not “releaning” it is growing into the fullness of the truth.

    In our culture where “learning” is often restricted to rationalistic pedagogy and restricted to what can be written down, much can be lost.

    The Apostolic teaching that Paul received was given to him as Jesus gave it to the Apostles on the road to Emmaeus.

    It is interesting that I passover link from earlier remarks here came alive for me this year in seeing the preparation for Passover in our Lenten practices of fasting and almsgiving especially.

    Thank you Father.

  12. leonard nugent Avatar
    leonard nugent

    Michael, if you only knew how often I’m bombarded by rationalistic pedagogy sometimes I just want to scream!

  13. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    We all are. It is one of the cultural realities that make Orthodoxy both attractive and difficult to really understand. I was blessed to be raised by parents a whole generation older than most of my peers who were much more attached to traditional ways of knowing, seeing and learning–a sacramental way.

    Brilliant, creative people who quite unbeknownst to them prepared my brother and me for the Church.

    God is good.

  14. Albert Avatar

    Mary, having lived long in an RC family, I think I understand your question. For me, this statement from Fr Stephen’ reflection above helps clarify some differences :

    “. . . the dominant imagery, still preserved in the Eastern Church, is Christ’s atonement as victory, a triumph over death and hell”

    as opposed to what I think I was taught; namely, that our sinfulness, my actual sins, some how caused, or required, Christ’s suffering and death. I remember feeling so bad about this on Good Friday that I finally had to stop going to church that whole week, including Easter. The visual imagery of the pierced body on a large cross has haunted me ever since.

  15. leonard nugent Avatar
    leonard nugent

    Albert, Father Reginald Garrigiou-LaGrange, OP is the 20th century’s best interpreter of Thomas Aquinas and he contradicts what you have just said. In his book “Our Saviour and His love for us” he goes into it at great length but I’ll just quote a small part. ” Luther and Calvin have sought to find in the Redemption a penal compensation, a physical torment. rather than a work of spiritual love, and they suppressed the necessity of love in our life, by saying all that is necessary is to believe”. This is just one sentence of several chapters. I have always enjoyed reading!

  16. fatherstephen Avatar

    Maybe lots of parish priests and nuns never read Fr. Reginald.

  17. Albert Avatar

    “In her Magisterial teaching of the faith and in the witness of her saints, the Church has never forgotten that “sinners were the authors and the ministers of all the sufferings that the divine Redeemer endured.”389 Taking into account the fact that our sins affect Christ himself,390 the Church does not hesitate to impute to Christians the gravest responsibility for the torments inflicted upon Jesus, a responsibility with which they have all too often burdened the Jews alone:

    We must regard as guilty all those who continue to relapse into their sins. Since our sins made the Lord Christ suffer the torment of the cross, those who plunge themselves into disorders and crimes crucify the Son of God anew in their hearts (for he is in them) and hold him up to contempt. And it can be seen that our crime in this case is greater in us than in the Jews. As for them, according to the witness of the Apostle, “None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” We, however, profess to know him. And when we deny him by our deeds, we in some way seem to lay violent hands on him.391
    Nor did demons crucify him; it is you who have crucified him and crucify him still, when you delight in your vices and sins.392″


  18. leonard nugent Avatar
    leonard nugent

    He does an outstanding job with the atonement and I would wager that not many have read him

  19. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Al, Fr. Stephen and others,

    I appreciate the comments. However, I think my trouble in grasping this article springs from another source.

    Having grown up immersed in these stories and spiritual phrases, sometimes I stop and realize, “I’m not sure I really know what that means…”

    Even the word “atonement” – just tonight I looked up its definition. Two definitions appear online: “satisfaction or reparation for a wrong or injury; amends” or, in theology, “the doctrine concerning the reconciliation of God and humankind, especially as accomplished through the life, suffering, and death of Christ”.

    Having heard the phrase, “Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us!” many times, I need to stop and consider what that means. How is Christ “my Passover”? And though I have heard the story of Passover many, many times, what really is its meaning for me?

    So as I plow through the sludge in my brain, I remember that Passover is about the Children of Israel being delivered from slavery. They are dressed and ready to flee. Because they are in a hurry, a family’s meal is different than usual (“how is this night different from all other nights?”)- their bread is unleavened, they slaughter a male lamb without blemish, taken from the sheep or the goats, roasting it whole, sharing with another family if needed, burning what remains AND using its blood to mark the doorposts and lintels of the houses where they are.

    Thus, when the last and worst of the plagues is inflicted on the Egyptians (to get Pharaoh to release the Children of Israel), i.e. the death of all of the first born males, the Spirit of the Lord will know where His children are. “Seeing the blood, I will pass over you…no destructive blow will come upon you.” (Exodus 12:13)

    The Children of Israel are allowed to leave after this plague – but then Pharaoh has second thoughts and sends out his chariots and charioteers. The sea parts for the Children of Israel, the Egyptians pursue them and drown when the sea flows back together. God is victorious over the one who enslaves, liberating His children. The Egyptians have no power over them after that.

    So, viewed together…Christ is “my Passover” because –

    – He is the Lamb that was slain – His blood marks me as one of the Children so that the destructive blow does not come upon me.

    – as a result, I am freed from slavery (to sin and death). And, though they keep trying to overtake me again (just as Pharaoh kept trying to overtake the Children of Israel), they do not succeed because God, in Christ, has won the victory.

    – in Eucharist, Christ becomes the meal through which we experience and celebrate our atonement. [As Passover became a yearly festival to celebrate this first liberation, we are given a holy meal to ever more deeply celebrate our liberation and reconciliation (atonement) with our Father.] In this sense too, He is “our Passover”.

    The question is often asked – why did Christ have to die? And yet how could He have defeated death without Himself dying in a completely human state? Without being God Incarnate, His death would not have shown us the fullness of His love – which is ultimately what wins the victory.

    (Sorry to take up so much space, sorting out my thinking and retelling Scripture, but I am leaving it here so that you can correct me if I still am missing the point.)

  20. MichaelPatrick Avatar

    Mary, thanks for your helpful retelling.

    As for “why did Christ have to die?” I’m reminded of his humanness. He is the unblemished source and archetype of humanity, the first and most proper human. When we as a gift receive his human nature and foul it, he does not stop identifying with us because he is love. It is ontologically necessary that will are always flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone, else we are not human. And as we drag humanity into death he goes before us out of love and does what the author of life does, destroying the death that held us and dared to swallow him too. His creation of us in his image constitutes our human life and our fallen human life is his glory because, in it, his divine nature (e.g. love never letting go) is revealed, lifted up for all to see.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to blog via email

Support the work

Your generous support for Glory to God for All Things will help maintain and expand the work of Fr. Stephen. This ministry continues to grow and your help is important. Thank you for your prayers and encouragement!

Latest Comments

  1. Thank you so much. This was a perfectly timed reminder for me. Also, I’ve been reading Revelation and realizing about…

  2. Fr. Stephen, thank you for this wonderful reflection on the judgment seat. I regularly pray the Orthodox morning prayers and…

  3. Matthew, I find it interesting what you say about your experience of the homily during the Divine Liturgy vs what…

  4. Thanks Fr. Stephen. Commonality as well a uniqueness. I like that very much. I simply wanted to express that as…

Read my books

Everywhere Present by Stephen Freeman

Listen to my podcast