Those of us who come from an American Restoration Movement heritage seem to have particular difficulties with religious holidays and calendars. In the past, we’ve tended to ignore Christmas (“December 25 isn’t really when Jesus was born!”), opt out of Lent (“That’s Catholic!”), and skip right over Easter.

Other traditions, of course, are more attuned to the “liturgical calendar”—a cycle of religious seasons that determine worship themes, holy and feast days, and Bible readings. These “seasons” include: Advent (December), Christmas, Epiphany (mid-January to Lent), Lent, Easter (not just a weekend, but a season that lasts until Pentecost), and a period of weeks referred to as “Kingdomtide” by various denominations.

The point of a liturgical calendar, of course, makes great sense. It keeps the church (and Christians) focused on the “main thing” and helps avoid wandering off into peripheral matters that don’t really matter. The Incarnation, cross and resurrection, the deity of Christ and the centrality of the Trinity/church/second coming—all these things are vital parts of the core gospel and are worth rehearsing and revisiting with annual regularity.

One of the prime objections raised by those who are suspicious of a liturgical calendar is the apparent “arbitrariness” of the calendar. Who knows when the angel appeared to Mary, when Jesus was born, when the Transfiguration occurred? There are just some events in the life of Christ we can’t pin down with any precision.

But that objection doesn’t hold much water when it comes to Easter. The dates of Easter coincide closely with the timing of Passover, and the Feast of Passover was the timeframe—according to the Gospel witnesses—when Jesus was crucified and raised from the dead.

Scripture Study

Now the Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread were only two days away, and the chief priests and the teachers of the law were scheming to arrest Jesus secretly and kill him. “But not during the festival,” they said, “or the people may riot.” (Mk 14:1-2)

Things were coming to a boil between Jesus (with his confrontational message of change) and the religious authorities (with their innate conservatism and desire to maintain their own leadership roles).

  1. Jesus had already entered Jerusalem (the “triumphal entry”—Mk 11:1ff).  
  2. He had engaged in a series of difficult encounters with the religious authorities in the temple courts and pronounced several parables that condemned them in no uncertain terms. (Mk 11:15-12:44)
  3. The Passover was just two days away (Mk 14:1).
  4. The religious authorities wanted to put an end to Jesus and his irritating ways, but they feared the crowds and decided to postpone any action until the Passover season was over (Mk 14:2).

Cautious … wary … plotting. But then something fell into their laps.

Then Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went to the chief priests to betray Jesus to them. They were delighted to hear this and promised to give him money. So he watched for an opportunity to hand him over. (Mk 14:10-11)

  1. It was at this point that the Sanhedrin (the council of elders) was presented with an opportunity they simply couldn’t pass up. Judas—one of the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples—decided to betray his Master. The timing wasn’t what the authorities would have preferred (those pesky crowds were still in town). But, in this case, expediency trumped caution.
  2. Judas’ decision is linked closely to the timing of Passover in all the Gospel accounts. (See Mt 26:1-5, 14-17; Mk 14:1-2, 10-11; Lk 22:1-6; Jn 13:1-2, 18-30).

The “Last Supper” was—according to the Gospel accounts—a Passover celebration.

On the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, when it was customary to sacrifice the Passover lamb, Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Where do you want us to go and make preparations for you to eat the Passover?” So he sent two of his disciples, telling them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him. Say to the owner of the house he enters, ‘The Teacher asks: Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ He will show you a large room upstairs, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there.” (Mk 14:12-15. See also Mt 26:17-19; Lk 22:7-13; Jn 13:1-2)

  1. Jesus died and was buried on Friday. He was resurrected on the first day of the week—a Sunday. This final meal (a Passover meal) was eaten on a Thursday night.
  2. The Gospel writers indicate that Thursday night was “the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread” (this being another name for “Passover”) … the day on which it was customary to “sacrifice the Passover lamb.”
  3. There is real question among the scholars as to whether this “first day” was the day on which the Passover lamb was both killed and eaten. But, whatever the details, it is clear that both the Last Supper and the crucifixion of Jesus are tied very closely to the Passover Festival.

John is particularly interested in having the death of Jesus coincide with the slaying of the Passover Lamb. (John is notorious for going his own way chronologically.) His “Last Supper” occurs not on “the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, when it was customary to sacrifice the Passover lamb,” but “just before the Passover Festival”:

It was just before the Passover Festival….The evening meal was in progress … (Jn 13:1-2)

According to John’s chronology, the timing of Jesus’ arrest put the religious authorities in a real quandary. They wanted to assure Jesus’ condemnation and death before the Passover Feast.

Then the Jewish leaders took Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman governor. By now it was early morning, and to avoid ceremonial uncleanness they did not enter the palace, because they wanted to be able to eat the Passover…. Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jewish leaders did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down. (Jn 18:28; 19:31)

  1. The Jewish authorities could not enter Pilate’s palace because such close contact with a Gentile and his “home” would render them ceremonially unclean. John notes, “they wanted to be able to eat the Passover.”
  2. And, once Jesus was killed, they didn’t want his body left hanging through the “special Sabbath” to follow—an indication that the following day (which, remember, began at sundown according to the Jewish custom) was both a Sabbath Day and Passover proper.
  3. Again, whatever the details, it is clear that both the Last Supper and the crucifixion of Jesus are tied very closely to the Passover Festival.

One last matter. You may wonder why the timing of Easter fluctuates yearly between dates in March and dates in April. It is precisely because the timing of Easter is so closely connected to the timing of Passover. The Passover, being a Jewish celebration, is set according to the Jewish calendar. It occurs in the month of Nisan (no, not the car! The first month of the Jewish religious year!) We in the West base our calendar on the rotation of the sun (a solar calendar). The ancient (and, to some extent, the modern) Jews, however, base their calendar on the phases of the moon (a lunar calendar). These two calendars are slightly out of phase, which causes the date of Passover to vary on our Western calendars … and, hence, the date of Easter. Clear as mud?

Reflections

Jesus died on Passover. Jesus was raised to life on the First Day after Passover. This is the season of the year—Spring—when the Christian message brims with hope and power the promise of new life.

Why should we be so “religious” about observing certain annual events (birthdays, anniversaries, civil holidays) and so hesitant to observe certain religious dates?

The covenant of Moses (given by God to the Jews) gloried in annual feasts, celebrations, fasts, and ceremonies. The Jewish calendar is dominated by religious festivals and remembrances. Jesus himself honored this calendar, keeping the feasts and traveling to Jerusalem each year. And one of the most important facets of Christian faith (honoring the first day of the week) is a calendar-driven observance.

Could we be missing out on something valuable by neglecting to pay attention to the rhythms and cadences of the religious year? Might our faith and worship be enhanced by a little regularity and organization in our religious calendar?

Especially at Easter—a time that focuses the church universal (and even the whole world) on the essential truths that “Jesus died” and “Jesus lives”—I always feel the need to join people of faith (whatever their brand or stripe) and affirm: “Yes! I believe that too! And I celebrate with you!”

[This was excerpted from class curriculum I wrote for a congregation I was serving in an interim capacity. If you are interested in knowing more about class curriculum, small group studies, and/or sermon outlines, please visit www.lookpress.com or contact me directly.]