Christ our passover is sacrificed for us: therefore let us keep the feast.
While I was living in Madagascar for a few months, my host told me one day that we were going on a mystery ride. After an hour of driving down red dirt roads in the Malagasy bush, we came to a sort of oasis. Towering trees surrounding a small, green-blue pond. Ribbons made from long strips of colorful cloth were hung all throughout the branches, and as I walked in the shade of the trees, I looked into the pond and saw some of the biggest fish I have ever seen. My host then told me that this pond was considered a holy site for the Malagasy, a place to connect with ancestors through a simple liturgical sacrifice. As he was explaining this to me, some locals arrived, unpacked a picnic lunch and then brought part of their lunch to the edge of the pond. Unbeknownst to me, this pond contained freshwater eels as well as fish. The head of the family took pieces of meat from their lunch and held them six inches above the water where the eels came up and ate the meat. This was a sacrifice to his ancestors and the fact that eel took his offering meant that the ancestors heard his prayers. This was my first time witnessing an actual sacrifice and it reminded me of what I had learned about Greek and Roman sacrifices in the ancient world. In fact, it had all three main components of an ancient sacrifice.
First, the ancients always considered an animal sacrifice to be the offering of a life, not a celebration of death. So, an ancient would consider the offering of a goat to be an offering of a life on behalf of the one bringing the goat. It was not the victim, the goat, which was truly offered up, but the goat’s life on behalf of the participant. Second, sacrifices almost always included a meal. While only the fat and a few bones were actually burned, the rest of the animal was grilled and then shared among the people gathered. Third, sacrifices were not individualistic. The meal knit these individuals into a special community.
What I witnessed in Madagascar is no exception. The offering was part of a meal–a meal which bound the living members together with those who had already died. The reception of the nourishing meat by the eel signified that the community was in harmony and the living members in good standing.
Think also of the Jewish Temple practices which bound Israel together. The Jewish Passover, for instance, was an elaborate meal of sacrifices of lamb, bread, and wine with an ancient liturgy that taught future generations their own story of Exodus and reminded those at the table to what community they belonged.
What we celebrate today and what we have focused upon this entire Holy Week is the ultimate sacrifice made by God Himself so all may be knit together in one holy fellowship. During this past Holy Week, Jesus became the Passover sacrifice for us by joining the meal with his own death on the cross. On Maundy Thursday, Jesus claimed that the wine and bread offered at the meal is not just bread and wine but his very own body and blood. In fact, the meal now consists of Jesus himself, because He is the sacrifice. The lambs offered at the Temple were killed and then, according to the Mishnah, they were skewered as they ran one strong wooden stick through shoulders and another one from the mouth to the buttocks of the lamb. It was a cruciform sacrifice, just as Christ was crucified.
The Proper Preface for Easter puts it this way: “He is the very Paschal Lamb, which was offered for us, and hath taken away the sins of the whole world.” This shows Christ two-part sacrifice of the Passover Lamb but also the sacrifice of atonement: the once-a-year sacrifice at which the Jewish high priest entered the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle or Temple and poured the sacrifice of blood, upon the Ark of the Covenant, the mercy seat of God Almighty for the sins of all Israel. As we have shown many times before, Christ’s entrance into the Holy of Holies is signified by his own tomb, as when Mary Magdelene looked into tomb and saw the two angels sitting on either side of the stone that had held Jesus’ body. It was an image of the Ark, on top of which were two Cherubim on either side of the place of sacrifice.
This is exactly what the author of Hebrews acknowledges: [Heb 9:11-14 KJV] But Christ being come an high priest of good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this building; Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption [for us].”
Through his most perfect sacrifice, Jesus conquered death and atoned for the sins of all mankind. And even more, we join this perfect sacrifice because we are baptized into this sacrifice. In this sense, Christ’s sacrifice creates a community, like all sacrifices do. As Paul says: “We are buried with him by baptism into death.” And since we join that sacrifice, we all get to enjoy His life which Christ sealed by His resurrection. Again, Paul says: “[Rom 6:4, 8-11 KJV] Now if we be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him: Knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him. For in that he died, he died unto sin once: but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God. Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
We are now all truly alive because we live IN Christ through our baptism. His sacrifice is ours, His Body and Blood our nourishment, His Body our fellowship with one another. It is a community marked by his wounds and sacrifice because we are united in His Body and nourished by the meal of his Body and Blood.
At first, though, this community did not realize the meaning of Christ’s death and resurrection–they had no foundation to understand such a marvelous act. As soon as dawn began to break on Sunday, Mary Magdalene rushes to the tomb to find the body of her beloved. She seems frantic, wrecked by grief and sleeplessness, but as she comes into the area of the tomb, she knows something is wrong. She runs and gets John and Peter who investigate but leave in haste, knowing the danger they are in by being about an opened tomb. We actually have a law written on a stone tablet from around the 1st century that declared a death penalty for anyone caught disturbing the tomb of a buried body. The Gospel’s account says that they believed. Let us be clear, though, just as John reminds us, they have yet to believe in the Resurrection of their Lord. No, they now believe Mary’s testimony is true. The body is gone.
Mary then goes into the tomb herself, where the angels ask why she is weeping. And with a flat affect as if she is not even surprised by the presence of angels, she tells them plainly that she seeks the Lord. Noticing another presence now, she turns, and does not recognize the Gardener until Jesus calls her by name as only He could say her Name. Mary finally sees Her Lord and grasps his feet which she had bathed with her own tears. Now she has found Him, but still she only thinks of Him as He was, not as He is now, as Her Resurrected Lord who will ascend and be with His father. She then carries the news back to the Apostles to whom Jesus appears later. At first, the community of believers do not know what to do with the sight of their Lord. They do not understand the sacrifice that He has made on their behalf. But as Jesus appears in the breaking of the Bread, and as He teaches them and reveals the meaning of the OT, and as He sends the Holy Spirit to them, their confusion turns into faith. They become a community of the faithful, united together in Christ, united together in His sacrifice.
You have walked together through Holy Week. We have experienced the suffering and death of Our Lord. And now you see the empty tomb and Jesus calls you by name. Do not let the sacrifice of Our Lord pass you by again as an empty symbol but have faith and seek those things which are above–seek Christ Himself. He is here, not rotting in a tomb, waiting for you to join His sacrifice, for you are dead and your life is hid with Christ in God! Christ is risen–rise with Him and offer your life to Him as He gives Himself for you.
Christ our passover is sacrificed for us: therefore let us keep the feast.