Like Passover, Easter festival of deliverance
Like Passover, like Easter.
Easter is the oldest and most important feast of Christians. The belief in Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection is at the core of the creed recited in every Catholic Mass today.
Passover (Pesach in Hebrew), on the other hand, is one of the holiest and oldest religious festivals in the Jewish calendar. This year, Jews started to observe it after sundown on Monday (April 14).
But it is much older than Easter. According to a report by British Broadcasting Co. (BBC), Jews have celebrated Passover since about 1300 BC, or for more than 3,000 years.
“Passover is the original model of Easter. Like Passover, Easter is a festival of deliverance,” Marianne Dacy said in her book, “The Jewish Roots of Christian Feasts.”
“The first Christians were Jews, conscious of the Jewish festal calendar. They could not have failed to project the events of the passion and resurrection of Jesus onto Passover, or to connect and superimpose their faith on to the annual observance of the Jewish Passover,” Dacy added.
Dacy is a Catholic sister of the Our Lady of Sign and holds a doctorate (“The Separation of Early Christianity from Judaism”) from Sydney University.
Easter is the only feast of the Christian year that can claim to go back to the time of the apostles. It must derive from a time when Jewish influence was high, during the first century, Dacy said.
She said that for three centuries, the Catholic Church tolerated Easter celebration on two dates, either on the Jewish Passover or on the Sunday after Passover, because “it was acknowledged that there was apostolic authority for both practices.”
What is Passover?
“Passover is a celebration of freedom as we remember all the great miracles God made and how we left Egypt in a great hurry,” said Rabbi Eliyahu Azaria of the Bait Yaacov Synagogue of the Jewish Association of the Philippines in Makati City.
A popular Jewish festival, Jews travel great distances to be with family and friends to celebrate Passover when they recall and relive the exodus from Egypt.
As told in the Book of Exodus, God promised that he would release the Israelites from slavery in Egypt for over 200 years.
But Pharaoh, then the ruler of Egypt, was adamant and refused to free the Israelites. He relented only after the 10th and worst plague that claimed the life of his own first-born son. The 10 plagues wrought on Egypt, which showed that God’s mighty power affected only the Egyptians and not the Israelites.
The name “Passover” is a reminder of the special divine protection during the 10th plague where first-born sons were killed but God “passed over” the houses of the children of the Israelites.
Posted on the walls of a hall at the Makati synagogue are colorful artworks prepared by the wife of Azaria to show the 10 plagues.
“Children especially love the ones showing the leaping frogs and the animals,” Azaria said.
“On the night of the Seder we focus a lot on the children. We encourage the children to ask a lot of questions. We also have sections when the children are the ones singing,” Azaria said.
In the Passover Seder, the story of the exodus is retold and relived especially for the children. Seder means “order” and it refers to a ritual meal shared by family and friends during the first night of Passover.
The youngest child present gets to ask the traditional four Ma Nishtana (Hebrew for “What has changed?” ) questions: “Why is this night different from any other night?”
The Bible commands Israelites to relate and explain to their children the history of the Exodus: “You shall tell your child on that day, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.’”
This duty is called in Hebrew as “Haggadah” (Narration). It is done with hymns, Biblical passages, traditional stories, prayers, anecdotes and songs (and in the case of the Makati synagogue, colorful artworks) to illuminate and make the the Exodus interesting for the children.
During the Seder meal, Jews eat unleavened bread called “matzah” and bitter herbs, such as horse radish, to symbolize the hardship of Egyptian slavery, and have salt water to symbolize the tears of the slaves.
The Passover celebrations last for seven or eight days, depending on where you live. It is celebrated for seven days in Israel.
“Outside of Israel, [like in Manila], we have an extra day of celebration for a total of eight days and the retelling of the story would be on the first night and the second night,” Azaria said.
Why the extra day?
Azaria pointed at history to find the reason. For the first thousands of years of Jewish history, when there were no Internet, telephone and media, the new moon (a sign for the start of Passover) was to be seen by the naked eye in Israel. Witnesses had to testify: “We just saw the new moon.”
This was the news that would have to be spread from Israel to Persia, to the Middle East and to wherever the Jews were. This message was to be relayed though torches from the top of a mountain to another.
It was a difficult, long process, hence to be more or less accurate and avoid being a day off, an extra day was added. The extra day is one of the many traditions that is still being observed by Jews to this day.
House of leaven
On the day before Passover, preparations are made to scrub and clean every nook and cranny, and to thoroughly clean the house of leaven called “chametz,” which includes anything containing the five major grains: wheat, rye, barley, oats and spelt.
The ritual search for chametz has become a fun game of seek-and-find for children on the eve of Passover. On the next morning, all the remaining chametz is eaten, burnt and/or sold to a non-Jew.
During the period of Passover, Jews refrain from eating chametz, which include bread, crackers and cookies. Azaria said it was like having a gluten-free diet.
They eat instead unleavened bread or matzah to commemorate the leaving of Egypt in a great hurry.
Azaria said the Jewish people were going to a desert and they had to prepare food quickly for many. Because they did not have much time, they made bread, with just flour and water, without making it rise.
The unleavened bread is flat and today, according to Azaria, it has to be made in less than 18 minutes.
According to Dacy, the Christian Passover in the early centuries was a “nocturnal commemoration of the death and resurrection of Jesus, lasting a single night.”
“It quickly became the occasion for converts to be initiated into the Christian Mystery. It combined the commemoration of the death and resurrection of Christ, and the celebration of both baptism and the Eucharist,” she added.
Bible scholars could not agree on the date when Christians stopped celebrating Passover.
Dacy said, “The Jewish Christians who tried to keep both Jewish ritual law and Christian way of life were ostracized, and not accepted by either Jews or Christians.”
This showed that almost from the beginning there were tensions, as the early Church became estranged from Judaism.
However, Dacy said, “It is important to look for elements that unite Jews and Christians. However, the past cannot be forgotten. It takes time for past wrongs to be healed.”
Celebration of freedom
In 1965, the Second Vatican Council of the Church issued “Nostra Aetate” (In Our Times), which acknowledged the Church’s guilt toward the Jews and the place of Judaism in the plan of God.
The document introduced reforms in Church policies, including interactions with non-Christians, like Muslims and the Jews.
Section 4 of Nostra Aetate repudiates the centuries-old charge of “deicide” against the Jews. It states that while the Jewish authorities and their followers pressed for the crucifixion of Jesus, his death “cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today.”
The 1965 document also stresses the religious bond shared by Jews and Catholics, reaffirms the eternal covenant between God and the people of Israel, and dismisses Church interest in trying to baptize Jews.
The 12 readings from the Bible during the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday are linked closely with the early Passover. The third of the readings is on the Exodus story.
The Book of Exodus is also a shared canon. It is the second book in the Christians’ Old Testament. It is likewise the second book of the Jewish Torah.
The Exodus story has a lesson for all, whatever one’s faith is. According to one online story on the Passover, the lesson is that we can “escape from our personal Egypts. And the seek-and-destroy-any-leavened-particle part of Passover teaches us to eradicate our puffed-up, inflated, doughy egos and be simple, flat, unleavened matzah.”
Azaria added, “Passover is a celebration of freedom. Slavery did not end. We still have to fight for the rights of others.”
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