On Wednesday and Thursday nights last week, as Jews gathered in some virtual way around the Seder feast, they asked, “How is this night different from all other nights?” Christians would do well to reflect similarly. The Jewish celebration of Passover and the Christian celebration of Holy Week overlapped this year. Both traditions recall dark nights from long ago when desperate people of faith gathered to face a scary future. Both, however, are overshadowed by a global threat from a virus that respects neither religion nor geography. What lessons might we take away today, facing a very different threat?
Passover commemorates a time when not one but 10 plagues were unleashed on a nation that had enslaved the Israelites. According to the Book of Exodus, God said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt…. So I have come down to rescue them.” Thus began a power contest between Moses’ God and the Egyptians’ many gods. The plagues culminated in a final affliction that would take the lives of every firstborn son in Egypt.
On that night of blood and death, the Israelites huddled in their homes, listening to the loud sounds of grief but protected by marks on their doorposts that caused the plague to “pass over” their own homes. After more divine intervention, the Israelites escaped at last and began their march to the promised land. That image, of slaves walking free with the wealth of Egypt in their pockets, has inspired liberation movements throughout history, most notably the American civil rights movement.
Over the next 40 years God acted as a kind of divine nanny, directing the crowd’s every move, supplying food and water, dispensing the Ten Commandments. Yet, rather than expressing gratitude, the Israelites responded like spoiled children, by grumbling and plotting insurrections. Instead of cooperating as a true community, they soon splintered into factions, blaming their leaders and demanding more miracles. The Israelites finally made it to the promised land, although a journey that should have taken a few weeks dragged on for four decades, as God waited for the generation of complainers and rule-breakers to die off.
Passover celebrates that first night of liberation, when courage overcame fear and when beleaguered people joined together in unity—a good thing to remember in a year when a virus forces social isolation. Shelter-in-place orders will keep Seders in 2020 from being inclusive group events. Yet, as Rabbi Yaacov Behrman from Brooklyn told a journalist recently, “These prayers are what unite us, right now and through many generations. The times we are living in will bring these prayers alive while we reflect on what is happening all around us.”
Writers of the Gospels portray Jesus recapitulating the experience of his forebears, including a flight to Egypt and a 40-day temptation in the wilderness. Some compatriots welcomed him as a leader like Moses, one who could deliver them from another oppressive regime, the Roman empire. Instead, of course, he met an early death.
Jesus had supernatural powers, though he used them for healing, not punishment. When authorities arrested Jesus, one of his followers wielded a sword in loyal defense. Jesus cried “No more of this!” and performed his last miracle, restoring the man’s severed ear. All the disciples fled, and there followed a series of inquisitions and tortures that led to his brutal execution.
All four Gospels set Jesus’s crucifixion during Passover week in Jerusalem—yet another historical echo—and all four record a final meal with the disciples. In John’s detailed account, Jesus spells out the fate that awaits him, though his followers seem uncomprehending. He is turning the mission over to them. “As I have loved you, so you must love one another,” he says. To underscore the point, he takes on the role of a servant and, despite their protests, washes their feet.
Then comes Easter Sunday, the day that changes everything—eventually. With surprising transparency, the Gospels record that initially the disciples themselves refused to believe the rumors of resurrection. Unlike scheming conspirators, unlike gullible simpletons, they reacted as any rational person would, with incredulity: Dead bodies in a sealed tomb don’t suddenly reappear, alive, a few days later. One by one, Jesus convinced them otherwise.
As if in a daze, some of the disciples headed home, to resume their old profession of fishing. And when they saw Jesus one last time, they asked if he was now planning to restore the kingdom to Israel. They were still unable to grasp what he had told them, that his death would inaugurate a new kind of kingdom, not tribal or ethnic, but one without borders, a spiritual kingdom that would spread to the uttermost parts of the Earth.
Seven weeks passed between Easter and the Jewish holiday of Pentecost, when at last the disciples understood their mission. Suddenly, “with a sound like the blowing of a violent wind,” the Spirit of God descended, transforming the cowering disciples into bold and courageous messengers. The kingdom had come, though not just to Israel: to Parthians, Medes, Romans, Cretans, Arabs, and many others, as the Book of Acts details.
“The kingdom of God is within you,” Jesus had told them, a concept they comprehended at last.
Jews and Christians share the belief that we humans are God’s image-bearers, with the mission of mirroring God’s own qualities of mercy, compassion, and steadfast love. At Passover, Jews relive a time when they were slaves, a reminder to care for the needy and disenfranchised. Usually they invite the less-fortunate and those who live alone to the Seder feast, a practice made impossible this year by coronavirus restrictions.
For Christians, Holy Week focuses on a God-man who makes a willing sacrifice and then charges others to emulate his example of selfless love. Against all odds, in the three centuries after Jesus’ death, Christianity grew from a tiny subset of Judaism to become the official religion of the Roman empire. The sociologist Rodney Stark argues that Christians’ response to suffering helped fuel the expansion of the faith. When diseases such as smallpox and bubonic plague hit Roman towns and the locals fled, Christians stayed behind to nurse not only their own families but also those of their pagan neighbors. When Romans abandoned their unwanted babies by the roadside, Christians adopted them.
Once Christians became a majority in Rome and all of Europe, however, a kind of amnesia set in about Jesus’s message of nonviolence. Under Christendom, some of Jesus’s followers became persecutors rather than the persecuted, and waged wars of religion in the name of the Prince of Peace. Tragically, their spiritual ancestors, the Jews, made an easy target.
The lessons from Passover and Holy Week apply to believers and unbelievers alike, for a tiny virus has humbled us all. As we gather digitally in search of human contact, we do so with a new understanding of how vulnerably connected we are; a novel coronavirus that has spread around the world provides the proof. We will defeat the malady only by putting aside divisions and working together as a global community, united against a common threat. Our real victories are won not with the sword, but through our service and care for each other.
The governor of Colorado, where I live, gives regular updates on the COVID-19 outbreak, in press conferences marked by honesty and good sense. Jared Polis is the first Jew to serve as Colorado’s governor, and I was surprised recently to hear him quote a passage from the New Testament, 1 Corinthians 13. “And now these three remain,” said the governor, “faith, hope and love.” He described the faith we have in scientists working on vaccines and cures, and in the health-care workers tending the sick. Next he reported on some reasons for hope, with social isolation finally showing results in our state.
“But the greatest of these is love,” he concluded. A challenge like COVID-19 can only be met if we all join together in a display of willing sacrifice and selfless love. Something worth pondering in a year when Passover and Holy Week overlap.
© 2020 by Philip Yancey, as first published in The Atlantic.