This is Holy Week. When Jesus and his disciples gathered together, the Eucharist was instituted, but what they were coming together for (Tyndale’s “Easter lamb” notwithstanding) was the Passover. Tonight the Passover is celebrated by Jews all around the world, and some Christians even have a Seder meal. Thus the two events are intertwined, both chronologically and in their significance.
The Torah was specific for the date of the Passover:
The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in Egypt, “This month will be the very first month of the year for you. Tell the whole community of Israel: On the tenth day of this month each man must take a lamb or a young goat for his family-one animal per household. A household may be too small to eat a whole animal. That household and the one next door can share one animal. Choose your animal based on the number of people and what each person can eat. Your animal must be a one-year-old male that has no defects. You may choose a lamb or a young goat. Take care of it until the fourteenth day of this month. “Then at dusk, all the assembled people from the community of Israel must slaughter their animals. They must take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the doorframes of the houses where they will eat the animals. The meat must be eaten that same night. It must be roasted over a fire and eaten with bitter herbs and unleavened bread. Don’t eat any of it raw or boiled but roast the whole animal over a fire. Don’t leave any of it until morning. Anything left over in the morning must be burned up. This is how you should be dressed when you eat it: with your belt on, your sandals on your feet, and your shepherd’s staff in your hand. You must eat it in a hurry. It is the LORD’S Passover. (Exodus 12:1-11)
Just as the Christians have a certain (with variations between the Eastern churches and the rest of us for calendrical differences) time for Easter, so also the Jews are very punctilious in celebrating the Passover on the fifteenth day of Nisan, even when Nisan is no longer the “head of the year” in the Jewish calendar (how that came to pass is a complicated business.)
However, every rule has exceptions. In 715 BC Hezekiah, King of Judah, had to bend the rules on Passover:
Hezekiah sent a message to all Israel and Judah and wrote letters to the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh. He invited them to come to the LORD’S temple in Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover of the LORD God of Israel. The king, his officials, and the whole assembly in Jerusalem decided to celebrate the Passover in the second month. They couldn’t celebrate it at the regular time because not enough priests had performed the ceremonies to make themselves holy and the people hadn’t gathered in Jerusalem. The king and the whole assembly considered their plan to be the right thing to do. So they decided to send an announcement throughout Israel from Beersheba to Dan. They summoned everyone to come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover of the LORD God of Israel. These people had not celebrated it in large numbers as the written instructions said they should. (2 Chronicles 30:1-5)
Why? When Hezekiah ascended to the throne the previous year, Judah was coming off of a long period of enforced paganism under Ahaz, a paganism designed to placate Ahaz’s Assyrian lords. (If you think we’re immune to placating foreign rulers, just wait until our debt reaches critical mass.) Hezekiah’s “revival” (to use a not entirely applicable Christian term) was both religious and political in nature. Unfortunately, there was so much to do to restore the integrity of the Temple and of the priesthood itself that a proper Passover was impossible on 15 Nisan, so Hezekiah opted to celebrate it a month late. In conjunction with his advisers, he decided that it would be better to celebrate the feast properly rather than to do a rush job and meet the schedule.
There was no real provision in the Law to do this, Numbers 9:6 notwithstanding. And, in some ways, Hezekiah was stretching his authority in taking such a decision when the priests of the Temple were charged with it. But extraordinary times deserved extraordinary provisions, and Hezekiah was prepared to do these in order to reaffirm the people’s covenant relationship with God and the integrity of the nation. Such decisions paid off, even in the face of his own mistakes, i.e., his “flashing of the cash” in front of the rebel Babylonians resulted in Sennacherib’s invasion of Judah, which nearly ended in disaster except for a divinely sent plague.
Today Easter (and Passover) come with their usual regularity. The liturgical churches (who decided on the date of Easter to start with) don’t have the inclination to change it, and the evangelicals don’t have the authority to do so. But what if our circumstance is so extraordinary–or so dire–that it was necessary to put off the celebration of the most important event because of our own mistakes? Are we that tied to habit or custom? Or do we refuse to believe that our schedule is less important that our condition before God? It’s something to think about as we stumble through our routine.
There are two other messages to come from this.
The first comes from the first passage to be cited:
This is how you should be dressed when you eat it: with your belt on, your sandals on your feet, and your shepherd’s staff in your hand. You must eat it in a hurry. It is the LORD’S Passover. (Exodus 12:11)
Passover celebrate the Jews’ departure from Egypt. Subsequent history has shown that the Jews have departed from many places. Today their situation is perilous, more so than any time in recent memory. Once again many are dressed for travel. We as Christians must do what we can to protect them.
Second, as for us? The ultimate message of Easter is that the results are enduring and, although celebrated at an appointed time, does not fade with the passing of a holiday:
Your boasting is unseemly. Do not you know that even a little leaven leavens all the dough? Get rid entirely of the old leaven, so that you may be like new dough-free from leaven, as in truth you are. For our Passover Lamb is already sacrificed-Christ himself; Therefore let us keep our festival, not with the leaven of former days, nor with the leaven of vice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (1 Corinthians 5:6-8)
Hezekiah delayed his Passover because of excess “leaven” in Judah. It was that important then to be free of it; it’s important now too.