Over the course of this week, Jewish and Christian people of faith will be observing some of our most sacred traditions. For Jews, it is the time of Passover (Pesach), commemorating God’s deliverance of the Hebrew slaves from bondage in Egypt under the Pharaohs. Passover is a weeklong observance (this year from the evening of Monday, April 14 to sundown on Tuesday, April 22). It includes the ritual cleansing of the home, reading of the story of the Exodus, singing, games, and a special dinner with family and friends called a “Seder,” usually held on the first two nights of the holiday.
The Seder meal is both solemn and celebratory, recalling the Israelites’ bondage and strife, as well as their deliverance into freedom under Moses. Not being Jewish myself, I had always assumed (based primarily on my childhood viewing the Ten Commandments with Charleton Heston) that the Passover observances were somber. I learned otherwise when I was invited to a Seder at the home of some Jewish friends when I lived in Canada. There are serious elements, but for the most part it is a joyful celebration, in thanksgiving for God’s goodness. In fact, my hostess told me that she wouldn’t have done her job until I was so stuffed that they would have to roll me out in a wheel barrel. It was just about necessary.
Christians are in the midst of Holy Week. It begins with the remembrance of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and concludes with the celebration of Easter. In between these two high points are plenty of lows, including the recalling of Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples, his betrayal, arrest, and finally his crucifixion under the Roman governor Pontius Pilate on Good Friday. It is believed by Christians that these events occurred during the week of Passover and that Jesus (who was Jewish) was in Jerusalem to observe the holiday.
There are multiple theories and doctrines that attempt to explain why Jesus was crucified (executed as a criminal, in fact), what his death meant nearly 2000 years ago, and what it continues to mean today. In the Roman Empire crucifixion, being the most painful and humiliating punishment conceivable, was reserved for treasonous enemies of the state. So, it likely was a result of claims made (by Jesus, by his followers, or by his enemies) that he was the King of the Jews and the Son of God. In the Roman Empire, only Caesar would have been afforded such lofty titles. Whatever the reasons, we should never lose sight of the fact that Jesus and his disciples were Jewish themselves, even if his teachings challenged the religious standards of his day. The gospels’ attempts to paint the Jewish populace as the “bad guys” in the story of Jesus’ death likely reflect a later prejudice among minority Christians. It is a perspective that has haunted Western civilization ever since and needs to be confronted. It was the Empire that killed Jesus, evidenced by the fact that he was crucified as an enemy of the state.
Most importantly, Christians believe that on the Sunday after his death Jesus rose again. We don’t know and can’t explain how, beyond believing that God is always more powerful than we can imagine. This is what we celebrate on Easter. It is the faith that has sustained Christians for 2000 years. Just as our Jewish brothers and sisters believe that God was powerful and faithful enough to free the Israelites from their bondage in Egypt, Christians believe that the powers of evil and death were not strong enough to hold or defeat Jesus. For Christians, the resurrection is God’s promise and demonstration to all people that sin, evil, despair and even death cannot and will not have the final word in human life.
So it is that Jewish and Christian individuals, families, and faith communities across the world are simultaneously remembering and celebrating the great promises and actions of God this week. They are promises of hope. They are promises of liberation. They are promises of life—new and abundant life. The Wakefield Interfaith Clergy Association invites you to join one of our faith communities this week and experience that abundant new life for yourself.
© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, Ph.D.