By Professor of Theology, R.R. Reno
Redacted from an erudite, emotional article that should be read in its entirety.
The Wall Street Journal April 15-16, 2017
Easter stalks Passover. They arrive together every spring, like the daffodils and magnolia blossoms. This year, Easter Sunday falls as the eight-day Jewish festival nears its end. 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.
In March, my wife, who is Jewish, was on the phone, herding her parents, uncles, brothers and cousins. “No, it’s not Tuesday. The first night of Passover is on Monday this year.” She made arrangements for the Seder, the festive meal with a traditional liturgy that retells the familiar story of the Exodus.
Emails and texts were exchanged to sort out who would bring what, and this past Monday night we sang and recited the age-old prayers and set out a cup for Elijah, the harbinger of the messianic era. We ended, as always, with the declaration: “Next year in Jerusalem!”
Now, just a few days later, the holiest days of the year for Christians are under way. As the solitary Catholic in my Jewish household, I’m planning to head to church on Saturday night for the Easter Vigil—where I’ll be celebrating Passover once again…… Put in Christian terms: The Passover Seder recalls and celebrates the resurrection of the people of Israel.
Today we tend to think of slavery strictly as an injustice, which of course it is, and some modern Seders treat the Passover as the triumph of justice over oppression. But this is not the traditional view. In the ancient world, slavery was not just a hardship for individuals but a kind of communal death. An enslaved nation can survive for a time, perhaps, but they have no future. A people in bondage is slowly crushed and extinguished.
The notion of slavery as a form of death is accentuated in the story told in the Passover Seder. The small clan descended from Abraham settles in Egypt. They are fruitful and multiply, becoming numerous and mighty.
The glow of life in the people of Israel arouses Egyptian resentment. Set upon and subjugated, they are ground down by hard labor and harsh oppression. But the descendants of Abraham call out to God—and he raises them up out of slavery, parts the Red Sea, and delivers them from Pharaoh’s murderous anger.
Judaism is realistic. Passover does not promote a dreamy optimism or cheery confidence that God will keep everything neat and nice. Even the chosen people are vulnerable to oppression and murderous hatred. There’s room in Passover for Auschwitz.
In the story of Exodus, the Israelites make it through the split waters of the Red Sea to dry land. But they are not simply safe. God releases the waters, and Pharaoh’s army is destroyed.
So it is at the Easter Vigil. A chant known as the Exultet announces that the darkness shall not triumph. “Be glad, let earth be glad, as glory floods her.” With a haunting refrain, the ancient song links Passover to Easter: “This is the night,” we are told, “when once you led our forbearers, Israel’s children, from slavery in Egypt and made them pass dry-shod through the Red Sea.” And “this is the night when Christ broke the prison-bars of death and rose victorious from the underworld.”
…Passover does not teach Jews that their oppression is not real and their suffering not bitter. But, the lesson is more powerful. God favors the people of Israel with his Torah and its sweetness outweighs every setback, evil and disaster.
Nor is Easter a simple springtime celebration of life. The resurrection of Jesus reveals something more urgent and shocking. God favors the sons of Adam with a triumphant love in the person of Jesus, the Christ. And that love does not fend off or parry death, but destroys it, just as light overcomes darkness.
The Almighty delivers his people. He unlocks the prison of darkness and shatters the power of death, This is the meaning of Easter, the Christian Passover.
(And, all of the above plus more is why our Founding Fathers used, as the basis of this great nation, the Judeo-Christian ethic.)
Mr. Reno is the editor of the religious journal First Things. He was formerly a professor of theology and ethics at Creighton University.
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