Celebrating Passover and Easter during a Pandemic
Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations, Saint Joseph´s University, Philadelphia, PA
In recent months, a simple genetic mutation in a virus has caused a global crisis. Everyday plans have had to be changed, the options that postmodern life usually offers were drastically reduced, and many have been shaken by not being in control of their lives. In addition to those severely ailing from the COVID-19 virus, many people are falling through inadequate social safety nets. Cries for solidarity with the suffering multiply, reminding us that to be united in our common humanity in the face a menace that does not distinguish among peoples, nations or socio-economic groups. Humanity is challenged to set aside greed and selfishness for the greater common good.
For Jews and Christians, this idea is especially relevant at this time of year. Both Passover and Easter refer us to the biblical accounts in the book of Exodus about the slavery of the ancient Hebrews in Egypt and their redemption by God. These narratives depict the Creator as the judge of pagan deities (Exodus 12:12; Numbers 33: 4), of the idols upon which the despotic power of the Pharaoh was based. It seems that today the idol of assuming that we are in charge of everything or that any problem is easily solved is collapsing.
The Bible instructs the people of Israel to hold a family ritual dinner on the night when Passover begins. Its aim is for succeeding generations to re-experience the feelings of the ancient Hebrews who were preparing to embark on the path of freedom from oppression. Parents are to tell their children, sitting around the table, the story of the Exodus, drawing from it the implications for the present. Jews also look ahead to the future Age to Come when the world itself will be transformed according to God’s will. At the Passover Supper (Seder) a special cup is set aside for the prophet Elijah, the herald of the Messiah and of the transformed life of messianic times.
The rabbinic sages understood the four biblical verses that prescribe such an educational endeavour (Exodus 12:26; 13: 8; 13:14; Deuteronomy 6:20) as referring to four different types of people: the wise, the unworthy, the simple and those who do not know how to ask questions. They concluded that teachings about the Exodus must be adapted to each of these four types. All the different personalities must be impacted by the message of dignity and hope that is required to free an enslaved spirit. Such a spirit is demanded in these days from many people and rulers throughout the world—whatever their individual personalities might be—in order to correct those systemic factors that allowed the epidemic to become a pandemic that spread widely, leaving thousands dead.
Jesus, of course, is remembered by Christians as establishing the Eucharist around the time of the ritual Passover meal. According to Jewish custom, he and his disciples would have discussed God’s actions on behalf of Israel and issues of present suffering and imminent redemption. In all four Gospels, Jesus speaks of his own impending death as related to God’s Reign of liberation and life (Matthew 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:14-20; John 13:1-18:1; cf. 6:35 ff).
In the Christian tradition, therefore, Easter is a time of grief, hope and joy. The crucifixion of Jesus occurred during the celebration of Passover in Roman-dominated Judea. The conviction that God had raised him to new life developed among some of the Jews who followed him. These origins shaped the subsequent Christian interpretation of the biblical themes of oppression and redemption.
Thus, affliction and hope and new life are part of the observances of both Jews and Christians at this time of year. They both keep in mind the messianic times of the future during their celebrations. Jews expect a world of peace and freedom from fear and afterwards the resurrection of the dead (principles of faith no. 12 and 13 of Maimonides). Christians, who believe that Jesus is the “first fruits of those who have died” (1 Corinthians 15:20), expect that at the End of Days death itself will be overcome for everyone. Not only pain, but hope unite Jews and Christians. We should recall this as we mark our respective holydays in these times plagued by the coronavirus.
Unlike in other years, in 2020 many families will not be able to be together. Many Houses of Prayer will be closed, and communal liturgies will not be held. Our observances this year will need to include reflection about not being able to be with family and friends, to being unable to hug them, to being kept at a distance. Thousands of people are crying at this moment over their loved ones sickened or killed by the virus. In this difficult time, let us seek to be uplifted by the messages of hope that Passover and Easter in their different but resonating ways offer to both Jews and Christians.
Rabbi Akiva, the greatest of the sages of the Talmud, used to say before every misfortune: everything that the Merciful does is for good (b. Berachot 60b). Misfortune must not defeat us. Even in the midst of calamity, we must take positive actions and not allow ourselves to be overwhelmed.
"May the grace of the Lord our God be upon us, that the Lord establish the work of our hands" (Psalm 90:17) as we observe Passover and Easter this year.