Passover and Good Friday fall on the same day this year (April 3), and Easter Sunday and the second day of Passover are also on the same day (April 5). Although Easter Sunday was on the same day for all Christian denominations last year, that will not recur until 2017.
The close proximity of Passover and Easter on the calendar is no accident. It was the clear consequence of the gospel accounts. All the synoptic gospels record that the Last Supper was either a Passover Seder meal -- Matthew (26:17) and also Mark and Luke), or a meal the night before Passover -- John (18:28).
Since Passover, like all Jewish holidays (but unlike Christmas), is calculated on a lunar calendar, that makes Easter float with the springtime and thus with the Jewish calendar forever and ever. I, for one, am glad it does.
Passover and Easter are the only two holidays in Judaism and Christianity that have the theological power to bring us together. True, there's also much in the account of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus that has split us apart and caused terrible suffering for Jews accused of deicide and terrible distortions in Christian theology.
However, the essential meaning of the two holidays is the same: Freedom to serve God often calls for bloody sacrifice, but freedom is God's will for us all.
Both holidays transform wine and bread into symbols of God's salvation. The matzah and the Eucharist wafer (in the Catholic tradition) are both unleavened bread. Leaven--yeast-- is a symbol of arrogance and wealth. Unleavened bread is modest and simple and teaches us humility as an indispensable religious virtue.
At the Last Supper, the bread is the body of Christ. So the Seder is eaten for God, and the Eucharist is eaten of God, but both transform bread into a symbol of God's saving and powerful love for us.
Wine at Passover is the symbol of joy and of the promises in Exodus chapter six that God would bring us out of the house of bondage and to God and freedom. Wine at the Last Supper and at the Eucharist feasts for two millennia is the blood of Christ, but that blood is not the blood of a murdered man. It is, in Christian teaching, the blood of the Messiah, and as such it is a symbol of victory over sin and death and not an unjust stain from the body of an innocent man. Both meals remind us that salvation is not easy but it is promised and that promise will be kept.
Both holidays also give more than a passing nod to the natural world created by a supernatural God. These are, let us never forget, springtime holidays. Seeing how the natural world is reborn in the spring helps us to believe that we can also be reborn by a rededication to our faith and our God.
The close connection on the calendar between Passover and Easter has special personal resonance for me. Easter fell on Sunday, April 12, 1987. The first seder meal that year was Monday, April 13. I first met my dear friend Fr. Tom Hartman that Sunday, having agreed to appear on News 12 Long Island's cable news show to discuss with him the similarities and differences between Passover and Easter.
I got a little chirpy during the interview and just blurted out, "Look, it comes to this: There are no chocolate bunnies in Passover and there is no horseradish in Easter!" If not for Tommy's gentle grace, I'm sure I would never have been invited back. Two hours later, we were still talking in the parking lot. This season is when our friendship and the God Squad began.
The Hebrew word for Egypt is mitzraim, meaning "a narrow place," like a gorge hemmed in on both sides by high rocks. To be a slave is to live in a narrow place. Anyone who's depressed or in need of hope is still living in mitzraim, but there's a place beyond Egypt. That place is the desert, where we try to find our way, but we're still suffering and still not free.
For Christians, that desert place is Calvary. But there's a place beyond the desert. That place is the promised land, and for Christians that place is the Garden Tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, where Jesus rose from the dead.
When I met Tommy, I was in a narrow place, and because of my love for him and because of his love for me, we both journeyed to wide places where we could celebrate many Passovers and Easters together and apart. This season and these holy days changed my life. I pray that they may also change yours.
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