The two feasts are of course intimately related historically and theologically, something made more obvious by referring to the Christian celebration in the Greek as Pascha, itself a transliteration of the Hebrew Pesach.
Those of us devoted to Jewish-Christian amity are well aware that the confluence of these observances has over the centuries been the occasion of fear, distress, and sometimes brutality. The violent aspect is somewhat highlighted in the West this year by the fact that the first night of Passover happens on Good Friday, the day when Christians mourn the crucifixion of Jesus. The perennial accusation of "Christ killer" and the medieval "blood libel" against Jews are awful parts of our shared paschal history that cannot be forgotten.
Traces of that shared history are evident when Jews at the Passover Seder open the doors of their homes to welcome Elijah, which some scholars believe originated among Jews in the Middle Ages to show their non-Jewish neighbors that nothing untoward was happening within. Historically-embedded habits—some of them polemical—are exercised in the Christian tradition on Good Friday of proclaiming every word of the Johannine passion narrative with its many references to "the Jews." Historical memory is at work when some Jews pray on Passover for God's wrath to be poured out upon the nations.
Theological arguments and counter-arguments are in play when Christian sermons caricature Jesus' Jewish contemporaries or when the Seder's rehearsal of the Exodus story stresses that Israel was not rescued by any messenger and barely mentions Moses.
At a deeper level the very dating of the holydays is important. It reflects the distancing process between Christians and Jews that unfolded early in the Common Era. The disparate lunar and solar astronomical calculations that fix their respective occurrences today were at least partially meant to entrench a deep chasm between Jews and Christians. For instance, the bishops at the Council of Nicaea, assembled by the Emperor Constantine in 325 C.E., declared, "It appeared an unworthy thing that in the celebration of this most holy feast [of the Resurrection] we should follow the practice of the Jews, who have impiously defiled their hands with enormous sin, and are, therefore, deservedly afflicted with blindness of soul." Paradoxically, the subsequent laws that sought to separate Jewish and Christian practice testify to the close interactions between Christians and Jews in the formative centuries.
Today we are blessed to live in an era when religious leaders in both communities encourage mutual respect, conversation, and collaboration between Jews and Christians. As we will no doubt be reminded by Pope Francis during our annual conference in Rome, Christians and Jews have embarked upon on "a journey of friendship" that is a "genuine gift of God." Other speakers will explore with us the ramifications of this extraordinary journey.
As we commemorate Exodus or Easter this year, let us take a few moments to consider our respective liturgies in the light of our young, new relationship. Are there ways our rituals can implore and express freedom from the slavery of hostility and ignorance between Jews and Christians? Can the theme of new life spoken in our prayers during this season inspire our resonating covenantal lives? Can our observances celebrate our historical and theological connections in positive ways so as to unleash an unprecedented interreligious synergy that would benefit all humanity?
A holy Pesach or Pascha to all!
(Prof. Dr Philip A. Cunningham - ICCJ President;
Director of the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations, St. Joseph's University, Philadelphia)