March Madness, 33 A.D.

It was a Selection Sunday like none before it.  For in addition to the sixty-four college basketball teams that were chosen on March 14 to compete in the championship tournament, four additional teams were tapped by the NCAA to serve as potential “alternates” should any of those in the schedule have to drop out because of a Covid-19 outbreak.  And though that didn’t happen with the first team that had to forfeit on only the second day, the plan is still that there will be no re-ordering of the brackets should another health disqualification occur.  So if even a top-seed team cannot play at the last minute, their spot may go to an alternate that wasn’t even invited to the Big Dance in the first place.

Centuries ago, however, “Selection Day” meant something else to the ancient Hebrews.  For according to Exodus 12.3, on the tenth day of the first month of Nisan (usually March to April sometime according to the Gregorian calendar), every Jewish male was instructed to pick out a lamb that would be the right size for his household to eat at Passover.  And if a household was too small, they were instructed to join with another family and form what we might call in the language of our day, a Passover Pod.

Israelites could choose either a lamb or a goat, but the law of Moses specified that the animal in question should be a one-year old male without blemish or defect.  Oddly enough, however, families often took the animal which they had selected into their homes or campsite until the fourteenth day of Nisan when they would be killed and eaten that evening for the Passover meal. 

Why would they do so?  In part it may have been for the family to have time to carefully examine the animal and make certain it had no disqualifying marks.  For the thousands of pilgrims who came to Jerusalem for the required festival would more than likely not have brought their own livestock with them.  Instead, upon entering the city, they would simply have made their way to the market place to pick a lamb from the flocks that the Sadducees, ever mindful of the business end of the Temple, had thoughtfully bred and raised for purchase.

But the custom perhaps had another purpose as well, namely, allowing observant Jews to more closely bond with the lamb that was to be offered up as a sacrifice for their own sins.  For clearly, knowing the sacrifice personally couldn’t help but make it far more impactful.

All of which makes the Holy Week story even more intriguing.  For if you do the math, what jumps out is that as the Passover lamb was killed on the Thursday of that festival that means that Jesus arrived into Jerusalem not just on what we’ve come to call Palm Sunday four days earlier, but specifically on “Lamb Selection Day.”  And by doing so, the message He sent was fairly plain:  “I am the Passover Lamb that can save you, so choose me!”  Then as if to follow up, Jesus came to the Temple every day that week so that everyone interested could carefully look Him over and hear His claims.

It’s no wonder thus that the apostle Paul told the Corinthians that “Christ, our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Corinthians 5.7) and the unknown composer of the Book of Hebrews similarly proclaimed that “Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many” (Hebrews 9.28).  Even at the very beginning of His public ministry, his cousin John the Baptist recognized who Jesus was when he saw Jesus passing by and told his own disciples, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” (John 1.36)  And still later, the apostle Peter reminded others that they were indeed “redeemed with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or spot.” (1 Peter 1.19).

It makes me wonder a bit, thus, if in addition to waving palms each year at the beginning of Holy Week, we might just want to consider checking out the livestock as well on Palm Sunday. For even without an actual sheep or a goat to inspect, the days ahead are truly an appropriate time to come face to face with the claims and character of the Christ.

Never mind therefore how unprecedented this year’s NCAA March Madness with its teams in waiting is; when Jesus showed up on that ancient Lamb Selection Day in Jerusalem, it was clearly a moment that changed the entire world.  What’s more, in those days between His Triumphal Entry and arrest, the “Final Four” came to have a very different meaning indeed.

(This post appears as well in the Spring issue of the Christ Church Community magazine.)

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