Is eating lamb at Easter really a ritual ?
At the origins of this famous Easter rite, reality and symbol are intertwined in a certain ambiguity.
For animal advocates, this is certainly an important battle : every year, 3.5 million lambs are slaughtered just before Easter in Italy alone. Biblical scholars and theologians, on the other hand, focus on the sacred texts of the Old and New Testaments. Even Benedict XVI, in the Holy Thursday homily in 2005, pointed out that Jesus himself probably did not eat lamb during the celebration of Easter with his disciples, thus calling into question the Jewish religious tradition.
This tradition, Benedict XVI had then added, certainly took root in order to substitute the Lamb as a symbol of the incarnation of God. But Moses himself, according to the texts of the Exodus, would never have asked his people to eat lamb on Easter Day. It was only later, by bringing together the customs of the semi-nomadic and pagan peoples, that the Jews would have begun to consume lamb at Easter.
We therefore wanted to explore the issue further. An interesting question about the notion of Easter tradition, but also to rediscover some fundamental notions at the origin of our faith. To do this, we called upon a famous biblist, Monsignor Romano Penna, Professor Emeritus at the Pontifical Lateranense University....
How did the tradition of eating lamb on Easter day come about ?
Bishop Penna : This is a tradition that comes from the Jewish religion. The hypothesis that Jesus ate an Easter without a lamb is based on the written text, but the story always goes beyond the scriptures. Then we should remember that in the fourth Gospel, there is not even the celebration of Easter, of the Eucharist. And yet, Paul, in the First Letter to the Corinthians, speaks of Jesus as "our Easter". From the Jewish point of view, eating Easter means eating the lamb. In Luke’s Gospel it can be read that Jesus says "I so desired to eat this Easter with you before I suffered". In the synoptic gospels, it is an omission to talk about the last meal without the lamb. It is not said that there was no lamb, it is simply not taken into account, because the narrative is made from the point of view of Christian practice : the latter does not include the blood of the lamb, because the Christian faith is based on the faith of Jesus Christ, and not on the consumption of "a" lamb. And Paul says on this subject that "Christ, our Easter, was slain" (1 Corinthians 5:7).
What changes between Jewish and Christian Easter ?
Bishop Penna : From the Jewish point of view, the blood of the lamb does not save from sins. On the contrary, in Exodus chapter 12, we can read that blood is put on the posts and lintel of the house doors, in order to spare some houses from the "exterminating angel" who came to kill the newborns. From the Jewish perspective, Easter is a celebration, so to speak, "political", because it is the celebration of liberation from slavery, it is above all political and social. It is not the atonement for sins, it is absolutely not. For this came with the sacrifices in the Temple and on the day of Yom Kippur, when a goat and not a lamb will be sacrificed. The texts are complex : from a Christian point of view, Jesus was represented by the paschal lamb.
Moreover, in the fourth Gospel, John the Baptist says : "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world". It is John the Baptist who says this, without any reference to the Last Supper and he says it in relation to Jesus’ redemptive function. But in the Jewish religion, an Easter without a lamb is unthinkable. This is the question of blood : let us remember the book of Leviticus which forbids us to drink blood, because in the blood there is life, which belongs to God alone, and that is why we can neither touch it nor drink it. The paschal lamb is "immolated" but we should literally read "killed", in the sense that we take its blood. We only eat the flesh, actually. In John’s Gospel, chapter 6, after the speech on the bread of life, Jesus said : "Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood, dwells in me and I bored". A sentence that caused a scandal and many dropped it. That is why Jesus asks his disciples : "Do you want to leave too ? "This is one of the points of differentiation between Christianity and Judaism.
But Moses himself does not ask to eat the paschal lamb ?
Bishop Penna : In chapter 23 of the Exodus, when the main holidays of the Jewish calendar are established, it is very clear that they are connoted from an agricultural point of view. The first is the feast of Azymes, during which bread and unleavened bread are eaten, so it is the Passover celebrated without the lamb. The second is the Feast of the Premises, Pentecost. And the third is the Feast of Tabernacles, which would be better to call the Feast of Harvests. All three are expressions of an agricultural crop. Then these celebrations were combined with events of the Exodus, stories that took on a mythical, official and founding character of Jewish identity. Even Pentecost is established in relation to Easter, because it is the fiftieth day, the seven weeks of Easter (7×7 makes 49, plus 1) : it is an Easter holiday, because it refers to the feast of Unleavened Bread.
So Jesus celebrated the Jewish Easter, and ate the lamb at the Last Supper ?
Mgr Penna : In the synoptic gospels, in which the Last Supper is told, there is no reference to the lamb, but neither is it explicitly stated that there was none. We just don’t talk about it. But it is not mentioned precisely because Christian Easter had already emerged from Jewish Easter. Christian Easter, let us remember, does not celebrate the flight to Egypt, as our Jewish brothers do, but celebrates the death of Jesus Christ. It is therefore his blood that is at stake : here is how a political notion is transformed into a more personalized, if not religious, aspect of Salvation.