The God Squad: Comparing Passover, Easter

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God Squad Rabbi Marc Gellman

Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.

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For Christians and Jews, all of our religious holidays divide us except for Passover and Easter. Passover and Easter bring us closer together. Let me try to explain this exquisite spiritual contradiction.

Passover and Easter are different in that Passover, as theologian Martin Buber has written, is celebrated by a meal eaten for God, while Easter is celebrated by a meal eaten of God.

Passover celebrates a God who could not become visible, while Easter celebrates a God who had to become visible to save a sinful humanity. Passover is about liberation for a nation of slaves. Easter is about liberation of individual believers from the enslavement of sin.

There are worlds of difference between these two faiths, and as much as we wish to come together, our sacred histories keep us apart. However, we're only kept apart the way singers in different parts of the same choir are kept apart by the timber of their voices. We're kept apart the way climbers are kept apart by their choices to climb the same mountain by different paths. Passover and Easter teach us that the ways we're different, though real and defining, are not nearly as important as the ways we're all the same.

Passover and Easter are both songs of springtime. Both are celebrations of a season of new growth and new births for the flocks that still feed us, even if we only encounter them in plastic trays in the supermarket. The parsley on the seder plate and the Easter eggs in the neon green plastic basket are both just symbols of springtime. We are sophisticated human beings now, but our spring song holidays remind us that we're still animals waiting for seasonal rebirth.

Passover and Easter also unite us through our sacred history and sacred scripture. According to the synoptic gospels, the Last Supper of Jesus was a Passover seder meal (Matthew 26:17; Mark 14:12; and Luke 22:7). The Gospel of John has it as occurring the day before Passover (John 13:1) -- a distinction without much difference.

The point is that this holiday celebrating the Exodus from Egypt for Jews was transformed into a new kind of Exodus from a new type of bondage -- the bondage of original sin. To insure that the messages of Passover and Easter remain forever linked, Easter is the only Christian holiday whose arrival is calculated on the ancient Jewish lunar calendar.

This year, the first seder meal is on Good Friday (April 6). It's my personal view that God would be pleased by this concatenation of freedom stories. Passover is about freedom, understood as liberation from oppression. Easter is about freedom, understood as salvation from sin. Both capture an essential element of freedom. That's the way with all truly great songs, truly enduring stories and truly transformative rituals.

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To try to comparatively rate our two different spring songs or, worst of all, to try to force our songs upon each other, is a betrayal of the way God has taught us to sing our songs into this broken world. Our lives sustain us, but our lives also break us. We make bad choices, and we're also the victims of pure bad luck. Either way, we can be tempted to lose hope. Passover and Easter restore our hope.

The Exodus from Egypt was an historical event, but it echoes our own personal emancipation from the Egypts that keep us enslaved to false gods and small needs. This is why the text of the Passover Haggadah citing Exodus 13:8 commands us to teach our children and each other that each of us is required to view ourselves as if we had also left Egypt.

History reaches out beyond its rational limits and becomes a sacred history. If we were freed then, we can be freed now. If we were led through the sea then, we can be led through our own oceans of despair now. In an identical way, Easter reaches beyond the limits of history to personally embrace and challenge every Christian with the joy and good news that our sin is no longer an obstacle to God's acceptance of our lives as they are right here, right now.

Just as God reached into every Hebrew home during Passover, then as now, so God reached out into every Christian heart during Easter, then as now.

Taking his people out of the house of bondage and removing the bondage of sin are acts of liberation so awesome and exquisite, so transformative and gracious, so loving and powerful that we have no proper response except a gratitude that washes over us and waters the world with a redeeming stream that shall never cease and never slack.

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