13 When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. 15 So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!”
19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” 20 They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” 21 But the temple he had spoken of was his body.
JOHN 2:13-16, 19-21
At the Passover meal in Jesus’ time the most important element was the ‘paschal’ lamb, although nowadays it is not customary to eat lamb at Passover. This is because Passover can no longer be celebrated in the Jerusalem temple. In AD70 the Romans destroyed it, as Jesus predicts in Matthew 24:1-2.
For Jesus, the Passover would have been celebrated by eating paschal lamb that the temple priests had deemed to be pure and spotless. It was what Jesus objected to so much when he turned over the tables. Jewish families had a choice, to breed or purchase a lamb of their own or to buy one in the temple that had been pre-approved. Since there was a commercial interest for the temple authorities to sell the lambs they had acquired for the festival, it was not easy to gain their approval for ‘external’ lambs. Therefore most people bought their lambs in the temple, falling victim to what was effectively a monopoly.
The lambs would be purchased on the tenth day of the month of Nissan, to be sacrificed, five days later. On that day silver trumpets were sounded by the priests as a signal to begin the slaughter. The fat was burned and the blood collected to be poured on to the base of the altar. No bone of the Passover lamb was to be broken (Numbers 9:12). Meanwhile, the assembled crowd sang a response to the Psalms: Hallelujah (‘Praise the Lord’).
It must have been quite an experience of sound, sight and smell. But after AD70 Jewish tables no longer had a Passover lamb with which to celebrate and, still to this day, orthodox Passover meals have only the shank bone of a lamb, indicating the absence of the Passover lamb. It is known as the zroah (‘arm’), and has its own symbolism, reminding partakers of God’s outstretched arm to save his people (Deuteronomy 26:8).
Christ identified himself with the Passover lamb, and as the Christian Church was beginning to take shape and increase, the Jewish Passover had to adapt to not having a lamb on the table. As Christians we might want to say that that was because Christ the Passover sacrifice was alive and present in his Church for it was the outstretched arm of Christ on the cross that ultimately saved God’s people.
God of Passover, show us your outstretched arms of love in all we encounter this day. Amen.