St. Paul wrote about Pascha in the first epistle to the Corinthians: “Purge out therefore the old leaven, that you may be a new loaf, just as you are unleavened. For even Christ our Pascha is sacrificed for us” (5:7). Here, the Greek word, Pascha is left untranslated from the original of St. Paul. What did the Apostle mean by these words and what does leaven have to do with Pascha? To understand this, we have to go back to Corinth in the first century, and subsequently, to Egypt more than a thousand years before Christ. We also have to understand how they made bread.
St. Paul was writing an epistle to the Corinthian Church. The Church lived in the midst of a modern cosmopolitan and commercial city of the Roman Empire. By being next to an important shipping passageway and stopover between Rome and the Aegean Sea, the city of Corinth had access to many of the physical goods of the Empire, as well as much of its evil influences. Corinth came be to a city catering to sailors and merchants who gladly spent their money on the worldly pleasure offered there. To “Corinthianize” came to mean “to practice fornication”. The Corinthians believed that they were free to experiment in new and different ways of pleasure, to be lax in their spirituality and to generally enjoy the “good life”. Unfortunately, this social attitude began to permeate the Corinthian Church, with a terrible spiritual impact that they were unable to recognize.
The Apostle Paul came to see that the Church at Corinth had multiple spiritual diseases: pride causing factions (1:11-12), thinking too highly of their intellect (1: 18-31), lacking spiritual growth (3:1), judgmental (4:3), satisfied in their riches (4:8), adulterous (5:1), lax (5:2) and legally vindictive (6:6). St. Paul calls the Corinthians “puffed up” (5:2). He uses the word six times in this epistle compared to only once more in another epistle. He wrote this first epistle to the Corinthians to address these points and he did so by going to the heart of the matter: “Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little leaven leavens the whole loaf?”
Leaven is a substance used to make bread puffed up and light. Today, we often call it yeast. Without it, we have unleavened bread which is flat, hard and unexciting. Leaven can come in many forms but a common property of it is that one needs only a small quantity to make an entire loaf rise. In those days, a small piece of previously leavened dough was used to leaven a new loaf of unleavened bread (sourdough bread). Thus, a little leaven could grow without bounds. The analogy for both good and evil is clear.
Christ compared the Kingdom of God to leaven because it would start with a few people and spread to the whole world (Mt. 13:33). Christ also used the analogy in a negative sense when he equated leaven to the doctrine of Pharisees and Sadducees (Mt. 16:6). It only took a little of the false teaching of these religious leaders to penetrate a disciple and to wreck spiritual havoc. St. Paul is taking the negative analogy further by equating the growth of pride with the puffing up of leavened bread. In other words, it only takes a little bit of unchecked self-importance to grow in our soul to the point that we become puffed up with pride, unable to recognize our weaknesses and dependency on God, and subsequently blinded to the infinite worth of our brother or sister in the Church. This pride naturally grows into other areas, including indulging in passions, degenerate speech and behavior and, finally, becoming lax and uncaring about God or his people.
St. Paul instructs how to correct this: “Purge out therefore the old leaven that you may be a new loaf, just as you are unleavened” (5:7). He was saying that the Corinthians needed to become a new kind of spiritual loaf, unleavened by the pride of the world around them. More specifically, this is a reference to the Feast of Unleavened Bread which was celebrated together with the Passover: “For even Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us”. The word Passover is a translation of the Greek word Pascha. St. Paul adds: “Therefore let us keep the Feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (5:8). He was highlighting the spiritual meaning of the Festival of Unleavened Bread. To clarify this, we now have to jump in time more than a thousand years before Christ, and to the nation of Egypt.
At that time, the Roman Empire did not exist and Egypt was a cosmopolitan center of sin. Unfortunately, the Israelites had become slaves in Egypt and, in contrast to the Corinthian church, recognized it and were calling out for deliverance (Exodus 2:23). God, with mighty miracles, delivered them from Egypt and from the ruling Pharaoh. For that point in time, and as a memorial going forward, God provided a special ceremony called the Passover (or Pascha), as well as the Festival of Unleavened Bread (Exodus 12). The Israelites were to participate in and to commemorate God’s deliverance by taking a Passover (Paschal) lamb, killing it and smearing the blood on their doorposts. This was to be their symbol of protection so the Angel of Death would pass over their houses on his death mission to Egypt. After using the blood of the lamb, the Israelites and their families were to eat of its body. Additionally, the Israelites were to prepare bread without leaven and eat it for seven days, showing their haste in coming out of Egypt, since no one had time to leaven their loaves in the rush to get out.
Throughout the centuries, the days of Passover and of Unleavened Bread (both together simply called Passover or Pascha) became an important commemoration in Israel because they represented freedom from slavery and God’s deliverance. When God became incarnate in Christ, He participated fully in this ceremony by re-enacting it every year with his family at Jerusalem (Luke 2:41-42). Most importantly, as the culmination of what it represented, He became the ultimate Paschal Lamb by being crucified at the same time that the symbolic Passover lambs were being slain in the Temple (John 19:14-18). Christ became our true Pascha (I Cor. 5:7).
Thus, we come back to the meaning of I Corinthians. The Apostle Paul was implying that the Corinthians, without being aware of it, had become slaves to sin, just like the Israelites had been slaves in Egypt. They should have been crying out for deliverance from the Egypt of their day, and making haste to leave it quickly. They were admonished to no longer spiritually linger in the Corinthian leaven of self-importance, pleasure and self-satisfaction and thereby become puffed up, with the rest of Corinthian society. Further, they were instructed to purge the old leaven of worldly influence that had already entered their soul and was causing havoc in their congregation. This was the real cause of their spiritual decay.
St. Paul was admonishing the Corinthians to look to the ultimate example of the Person who was never puffed up. Jesus Christ, the real Passover Lamb, took the humiliating position of being publicly nailed naked to a wooden cross for their salvation. The Lamb’s way, if adopted in their lives, was the antidote to the leaven of pride, material interests and uncaring attitude towards their brothers and sisters. The cross was not important to the sophisticated Corinthians who saw themselves as dealing with more important political issues of who among them was the greatest (1:12,18).
The lesson for us today is now clear. We live in a society just as degenerate (if not more so) as that of the Corinthians. Without realizing it, all it takes is a little of its arrogance, pride or self-satisfaction to penetrate our soul, and we are on our way to becoming “puffed up”: self-important, vindictive, uncaring and lax. The only way back is to remove the poisonous leaven and cry out for deliverance from Christ. The humiliating example of our Savior is the antidote and that which gives us salvation from bondage and removes the poisonous leaven. Let us take up His attitude of love for the Church and self-sacrifice into our soul and bodies, thus becoming like the Pascha which we so love, the true Bread of Life and the Paschal Lamb that was sacrificed for us.