02 April 2007

Passover and Easter

The Jewish religious holiday of Passover begins at sundown this evening and continues until nightfall on the 10th of April. The Christian holiday of Easter falls on Sunday, April 8th this year, and religious services celebrating it are often held outdoors at sunrise.

Most of my readers know that Passover recalls the biblical event when God killed the first born of Egypt, man and beast alike, except those Jews who marked their doorways with blood, as they were tipped off that this would happen and marked themselves so that this wrath would pass them over. It is one of many Jewish holidays in the structure of "they tried to get us, they failed, let's eat," although in fairness a Passover Seder is one of the more solemn and deeply spiritual events of the Jewish calendar. Despite having greater religious importance, outside areas with large Jewish populations, Passover goes virtually unnoticed outside the Jewish food aisle at the grocery store, unlike religiously less important Hanukkah, co-opted to counterbalance Christian hegemony in early winter.

Most of my readers similarly know that Easter is this week because Christian tradition placed the crucifixion of Jesus on the Friday following the commencement of Passover, making the "Last Supper" after entering Jerusalem to the palms of Palm Sunday, a Passover Seder. The date was therefore roughly coupled with the Jewish lunar calendar. The Friday in commemoration of the crucifixion at the order of Roman magistrate Pontius Pilot, is called "Good Friday" on the notion that this sacrifice saved Christian believers from an ancient legacy of original sin. The following Sunday, the Third Day, including Good Friday, is Easter and marks the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, having overcome death.

The Easter story that borrows from the fertility rites in the ancient pagan Greco-Roman world. The links to the fertility rites are retained in the English name for the holiday and in the Easter egg and Easter bunny traditions. But, while the pagan secular aspects of Christmas with Santa, the Christmas tree, and presents can overwhelm Christmas, at Easter, the religious aspects are a more equal rival to tradition. The seasonal aisle at your local shops may fill up with Easter goods not long after Valentine's Day (if St. Patrick's Day doesn't also intervene to take over that section first), but it is not an inescapable presence in every mall, on every radio station, in every house and store window, and on the steps of city hall.

While Easter is more joyous than Passover in tone, it is also a deeply religious day, with far more theology attached than say, Christmas, an event a couple of the Gospels leave out entirely. Ironically, the closest analogy in Christian theology to the Jewish Passover is part not of the Easter story (called the Passion), but the Christmas story, which in the longer versions includes the exile of Jesus and his family from the Promised Land to Egypt to flee the slaughter of the innocents that is coming at the behest of King Herod. But, for Christians, the joy of the birth of Christ overshadows the mass baby killing of Herod.

Easter hymns are less memorable than Christmas carols, and the associated loot in Easter baskets and egg hunts is generally more meager than Christmas presents, for cultural Christians, but both are occasions to dress up families to attend, although usually nuclear families. People often travel home to be with extended family for Thanksgiving and Christmas, but rarely for Easter, despite the fact that spring break often makes it possible to do so.

Christmas homilies tend to be introspective turning to family and the plight of the teen aged parent who Mary, the mother of Jesus is, in tradition. Easter sermons, in contrast, tend to be more pompous and public affairs and often dovetail with confirmations or adult baptisms, times at which one shows public orthodoxy and commitment to the faith.

Easter for Christians is also a time to celebrate youthful innocence, and last weekend the kids and I saw Charlotte's Web in the theater, a film awash with Easter symbolism, not to mention the fact that ham and lamb are both traditional Easter dishes, although I doubt that they picked up on it in that way.

After Easter, the next major landmark for Christians is Pentecost, the religious season of summer, which many more staid Christians prefer to be on vacation for so that they can forget that the Gospels indeed are awash with the more exuberant examples of the faith, as well as their deeply traditional commemorations. Pentecost has little but the time of year in common with the roughly contemporaneous Jewish festival of First Fruits, Shavu'ot (and no, I don't know how to type in Hebrew in blogger, although the New Blogger spell checker is a wondrously well designed feature).

Of course, the closest secular answer to Shavu'ot in America is coming right up. Half a month from today, on April 17, is the day Americans know and love, the individual income tax return deadline. This festival is marked with a parade of sorts at the post office as midnight approaches. Accountants are known to celebrate the following day as a unique tradition of their guild, often with cruises to far away places.

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