Easter and Passover

IMG_1149The room where The Last Supper took place.

Easter follows Passover. They arrive together every spring, like the daffodils and magnolia blossoms.  Over the years, I have come to see that Christianity’s most important day recapitulates Passover. Both holidays face head-on the daunting power of death—and both announce God’s greater power of life.—RR Reno, The Wall Street Journal

Both festivals nature and history converge with a resounding message of hope. The renewal of nature that comes with spring amplifies the promise of redemption embedded in the historical events being commemorated. To each faith community, God’s presence manifests itself in two keys, in nature and through history.

Yet, in both, the preferred medium is history, a legacy of the biblical shift to monotheism. Judaism and Christianity rest firmly on the foundation stories recounted ritually in their respective spring festivals. In Egypt, the family of Jacob had morphed into a nation welded together by the bitter experience of oppression.

Redemption by God imbued them with the national mission to create a body politic of a nobler order. Though their descendants failed, the body of religious literature which recorded their efforts and voiced their ideals would challenge humanity even as it would comfort them in their long exile. To recall the exodus in dark times nurtured the yearning for a future restoration, which is why Passover ends with the reciting of a haftarah[prophetic reading] that bristles with this-worldly messianism (Isaiah 10:32-12:6).

If Passover is largely about Egypt, Easter is largely about Passover. Its historical setting is Jerusalem at Passover, the Last Supper could well have been an embryonic seder, and Jesusis fated to become the paschal lamb. Indeed, the new Catechism of the Catholic Church calls Easter “The Christian Passover” (no. 1170) and speaks of the “Paschal mystery of Christ’s cross” (no. 57).

The good news is that the death of one has the capacity to save many. The resurrection of Jesus is the ultimate affirmation of life or in the words of the Byzantine liturgy:

Christ is risen from the dead!
Dying, he conquered death;
To the dead, he has given life (no. 638).

Finally, because the message of both festivals is so central to the belief system of each faith community, it interlaces the liturgy year round. In the Haggadah we read that Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah was already advanced in years before he fathomed that the exodus from Egypt should be recalled by every Jew twice daily, in the evening as well as in the morning. That is the reason for the addition at the third paragraph of the Shema [a prayer said twice daily] in which this bedrock fact is affirmed. God’s compassion obliges us to sanctify our lives.

Correspondingly, for Catholics and many Protestants the weekly sacrament of communion, reenacting the last supper, turns God’s saving grace into a lived reality.

Passover is Communal, While Easter is Individual

Still for all their commonalities, Passover and Easter diverge fundamentally. While both festivals are about delivery from a state of despair, be it slavery or sin, Passover heralds the birth of the Jewish people as a force for good in the comity of nations. In contrast, Easter assures the individual Christian life eternal. Passover summons Jews collectively into the world to repair it; Easter proffers a way out of a world beyond repair.

Passover reflects a worldview that devalues life after death and privileges the community over the individual. Easter bespeaks a religion that reverses both sets of priorities, enabling it to comfort those who had lost faith in the gods of Rome.

Passover’s Connection to Rosh Hashanah

It is well known that Passover is not the only Jewish new year, that in fact it came to share that role with Rosh Hashanah. Whereas our months are numbered from Nisan [when Passover falls], the years are counted from Tishrei [the month in which Rosh Hashanah falls]. The reason for that anomaly is the development of Rosh Hashanah, after the canonization of the Hebrew Bible, perhaps concomitantly with the emergence of Christianity, into a festival that addressed itself solely to the fate of the individual.

The Mishnah stresses that on Rosh Hashanah alone God has “all inhabitants of the world pass before Him, like flocks of sheep” (Rosh Hashanah 1:2). On the other three pilgrimage festivals, including Passover, the world is judged by God collectively. The expansion of the nameless first day of the seventh month, when loud blasts were to be sounded (Leviticus 23:24 and Numbers 29:1), into a solemn day of judgment for every single member of humanity suggests a Jewish response to a society with a heightened sense for the importance of the individual.

The result, however, is not a transformation of Judaism. Its deep structure remains intact. Rosh Hashanah joins Passover; it does not replace it. While the valence of the individual is definitely elevated, the priority of the group is not devalued. Judaism continues to be animated by a spirit of communitarianism.

Likewise, the dominant orientation stays this-worldly. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are not about getting into heaven. Our profusion of prayers carries aloft a modest request of God: to give us but one more year to try again, to live our life in such a manner as to make a difference. Our task is to mend the world, not flee it. The retention of two new years, one in the spring, the other in the fall, bespeaks the remarkable effort to keep polarities in balance.

Reprinted with permission of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

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