The Paschal Mystery

In Christian theology the term “paschal mystery” refers to Jesus’ life, death and resurrection and their saving significance for us. The adjective paschal derives from the Hebrew verb pasach, meaning “to pass over,” and alludes to ancient Israel’s rescue from slavery in Egypt in Moses’ time, when the Lord “passed over” the houses of the Israelites while striking down the Egyptians (Exod 12:23).

The Old Testament reading for the Third Sunday of Lent contains the core of God’s covenant with Moses on Mount Sinai, what we call the Ten Commandments. The text begins, however, not with a commandment but with a historical prologue: “I, the Lord, am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery.” This statement reminds the people gathered at Sinai about God’s rescue of them at the first Passover. In this context, keeping the commandments is the proper response to God, who formed this people, set them free and guided them through their wandering in the wilderness. In this context the commandments are the stipulations of the covenant between God and his people. They flow from what God had done on their behalf, and so are a response to the divine favor or grace manifested at the first Passover.


For Christians, Jesus’ death and resurrection form the continuation and climax of the paschal mystery. The most obvious connection is that historically these events took place in connection with the feast of Passover on the Jewish calendar. Whether the Last Supper was an official Passover meal has often been debated among biblical scholars. But there can be no doubt that it was carried out in the spirit of Passover and provided the occasion for Jesus to foreshadow and interpret his approaching death on the cross. The earliest Christians took their cues from the Passover celebration and interpreted the death of Jesus (the Lamb of God) as the sacrifice for us and for our sins. They found in Jesus’ death on the cross not a defeat or the end of the Jesus movement but rather the one efficacious sacrifice for sin freely offered by God’s Son.

In John’s Gospel Jesus makes three Passover pilgrimages. At the first Passover, in John 2, Jesus performs the symbolic action of “cleansing” the Jerusalem Temple and prophesies its destruction. On the level of history, these actions undoubtedly got Jesus into serious trouble with the local religious and political leaders and surely were factors in his execution and death. In Johannine theology, however, Jesus’ symbolic challenge to the current Temple system is a sign of his own death and resurrection. Whereas his opponents imagine that his actions were about the massive remodeling project begun by Herod the Great and continued under his successors, John suggests that at this first Passover in his public ministry, Jesus was really saying something about his own body and about the paschal mystery. Zeal for God’s house will eventually destroy Jesus’ body. But after his resurrection from the dead, worship of the God of Israel will be best carried on with reference to Jesus as the restored and renewed temple of God (John 4:21-24).

In today’s selection from 1 Corinthians 1, Paul reminds the proud new Christians that the core of their faith concerns Jesus’ death and resurrection, and that whatever genuine intellectual wisdom and spiritual gifts they might possess are rooted in the mystery of the cross. In bringing these people to Christian faith, Paul had proclaimed to them that the cross of Christ had made possible for them the spiritual benefits of redemption, peace with God, access to God, justification, reconciliation, salvation and so on. In this context the first Passover was a shadow of even greater realities to come with Christ: “For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed” (1 Cor 5:7).

Paul insists that the power and wisdom of God have been made manifest in the apparent foolishness of the cross and the physical weakness of God’s Son. In New Testament times the cross was an instrument of intense suffering reserved for rebels and slaves. It was regarded as among the cruelest punishments that could be inflicted. To Gentiles Jesus’ death seemed to be just an execution of another rebel. And most Jews could not conceive of their messiah as one who might suffer and die such a shameful death. And yet, according to Paul, the crucified Christ is the power and wisdom of God.

Rooted in the formative experience of God’s people and reaching its climax in Jesus’ death and resurrection, the paschal mystery provides the theological context for the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist, and indeed for all of Christian life. Here we encounter the paradoxical power and wisdom of God in the mystery of the cross.

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