by David R. Maxwell
The theme of the Easter celebration in the Early Church is captured by St. Paul’s statement in 1 Cor. 5:7: “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.” But is that an appropriate theme for an Easter celebration? Wouldn’t that be more appropriate for Good Friday?
Christians in the early church did not have a separate Good Friday service. Though there was some variation about the date on which Easter was celebrated, one common pattern was to have one long service starting on the Jewish Passover and extending into the next morning, with the Lord’s Supper celebrated at dawn. This Easter Vigil presented Christ’s cross and resurrection as the fulfillment of the Passover account in the Old Testament.
A sermon from Sardis
One of the earliest Christian sermons that we have comes from this kind of Easter celebration. It was preached by a church father named Melito of Sardis around A.D. 160 or 170, and it is titled “On Pascha.” Pascha is the Greek word for the Passover, but in Christian circles it also becomes the word for Easter. That is why the Easter candle is called a “paschal” candle, and a number of our Easter hymns, such as Martin Franzmann’s “Our Paschal Lamb, That Sets Us Free” (LSB 473), have the word “paschal” in them.
If Easter is celebrated primarily as a fulfillment of Passover, then our deliverance from slavery to sin, death and the devil becomes the main theme of the celebration. We can see this in Melito’s sermon. First he mentions that the story of the Passover and Exodus was just read in church. Then he proceeds to offer a vivid summary of the Old Testament narrative of the Passover. For example, to depict the death of the first-born, Melito speaks from the perspective of one of the first-born Egyptian babies. “Who is the dark one enfolding my whole body? If it is a father, help me. If it is a mother, comfort me.” But the terrifying response comes from the Angel of Death: “You are my first-born, I am your destiny, the silence of death” (“On Pascha” ¶24–25).
The focus of his retelling is on how the blood of the Passover lamb delivers the Israelites from the Angel of Death. But at one point Melito turns to the Angel of Death and asks, “Tell me angel, what turned you away? The slaughter of the sheep or the life of the Lord?” (¶32). Indeed, it seems strange to us that the sacrifice of sheep would have the power to ward off death. But it does have this power, he says, because the Passover is a miniaturized version of the cosmic story of salvation in Christ. The Old Testament Passover account is like an architect’s model, says Melito, and its fulfillment in Christ is like the finished building: taller, stronger and better in every way (¶36).
Melito then retells the story of the Passover, but this time it is the cosmic version. He starts with creation. Then he moves to the Fall, where the human race fell captive to the true Pharaoh, the devil. He shows how Christ was prefigured by many Old Testament figures like Abel, Isaac, Joseph, Moses, David and the prophets. At last he reaches the death and resurrection of Christ, by which Christ delivers us from our slavery to death and the devil.
Learning from Melito
What can we learn from the way Melito celebrates Easter?
First, Melito reminds us that Christ’s resurrection is attested in both Old and New Testaments. Melito’s sermon text for Easter, after all, is from Exodus, not one of the Gospels. This works because Melito is convinced that the story of the Passover and the story of salvation in Christ are the same story. This has larger implications for our understanding of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. Often we think of prophecies as the place to find Christ in the Old Testament, but Melito (along with much of the Early Church) sees Christ in the Old Testament narratives as well. This is not surprising, since when Jesus was speaking to the two men on the road to Emmaus, Luke tells us, “Beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27).
Second, Melito shows us that cross and resurrection are not in opposition to each other. Easter (Pascha) is the celebration of both. The cross defeats death because Christ is the true Passover lamb whose blood causes the Angel of Death to pass over anyone marked with it. The resurrection defeats death because it corresponds to the crossing of the Red Sea, which is the definitive rescue from the power of the Pharaoh.
Now, we may wonder whether it would have been more proper for Melito to describe the cross as a sacrifice to pay for the sins of the world. This is how we usually prefer to describe the cross, after all. To be sure, Melito would not reject this description, since forgiveness of sins figures prominently in his sermon. But if you think about the account of the Passover in Exodus, the purpose of the sacrifice of the lamb is not so much to forgive sins as to make the Angel of Death pass over the houses marked by the lamb’s blood. Therefore, a celebration of Easter that focuses on Christ fulfilling the Passover would naturally emphasize the fact that Christ’s sacrifice overcame death. This fits quite well with the cross being a sacrifice for sin, since sin is the reason we are subject to death in the first place. But there is more than one way to describe the benefits of the cross!
‘Our true Paschal Lamb’
To what extent does our own tradition continue Melito’s emphasis on Easter as a celebration of the true Passover? Luther’s Easter hymn, “Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands” (LSB 458), stands very much in this tradition. It describes Christ’s blood as causing death to pass over us.
Stanza 5 reads,
Here our true Paschal Lamb we see,
Whom God so freely gave us;
He died on the accursed tree—
So strong his love—to save us.
See, His blood now marks our door;
Faith points to it; death passes o’er,
And Satan cannot harm us.
Another hymn that develops this theme is “At the Lamb’s High Feast We Sing” (LSB 633). In stanza 4, both the cross and the resurrection are depicted using imagery from the story of the Passover and the crossing of the Red Sea:
Where the paschal blood is poured,
Death’s dread angel sheathes the sword;
Israel’s hosts triumphant go
Through the wave that drowns the foe.
So the connection between Passover and Easter is something that resonates strongly for Lutherans as well, as do the closing words of Melito’s sermon:
This is the alpha and omega,
This is the beginning and the end,
The ineffable beginning and the incomprehensible end.
This is the Christ,
This is the King,
This is Jesus,
This is the commander,
This is the Lord,
This is he who rose from the dead,
This is he who sits at the right hand of the father,
He bears the father and is borne by him.
To him be the glory and might forever.
The Rev. Dr. David R. Maxwell is Louis A. Fincke and Anna B. Shine professor of systematic theology at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.