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.
Like everyone, I’ve heard every angle of what is ‘really’ happening concerning the coronavirus. I don’t have enough intelligence, insight or fortitude to discern the issue 😀 …so I thought I’d ask a few people who I highly respect and trust for their opinion. Could you give me yours? I realize this may be a long and involved answer. Feel free to answer here, through email or skip it altogether. So appreciate your take on things!
I’m just an ordinary citizen when it comes to questions like these. I tend to be skeptical about conspiracy theories, and truly regret the partisanship and division. But as for the delicate balance between lockdowns and recovery, I leave that to the experts, tilting toward the scientists rather than politicians. The ideal would be a quarantine of the sick, not the well, but without universal testing available, we don’t know who’s sick.
Good morning, Mr. Yancey –
I am currently reading “What’s So Amazing About Grace?” I come from a “grace” ministry so it is quite wonderful to read your insights into the greatest biblical topic, maybe after God’s love, which is by grace, anyway!
Have you considered adding a daily devotional to your site or repertoire?
Thank you for your messages and books that share God’s grace and hope.I rely on them!
I have an 89 year-old aunt who is terrified of the coronavirus and who wrote to me, “I don’t know what God is thinking with this pandemic. It is very hard to have faith with such havoc in our world and friends and family.” I want to send her one of your books. My first thought was to send her The Question that Never Goes Away, but perhaps Disappointment with God would be better. Please suggest the book that you think would be best for my aunt and folks like her. Thank you.
The Question That Never Goes Away is more current-events oriented, so I think that’s a good choice. How compassionate of you to look for ways to calm a senior citizen’s anxiety.
Philip, I am grateful to God for all the ways your writing has helped me over the years to better understand his character and how we can be more faithful servants to him. May God bless you and continue to speak through you to reach more and more people.
Thank you so much for the historical overview, pulling so many events together, drawing attention to those wrong expectations and flawed attitudes. Pointing us towards what only will make a change: Faith, Hope and Love.
The reading blessed me this morning.
Your Jewish governor has one of the best, most encouraging responses I’ve heard. May it echo throughout the land, throughout government–states and federal-and throughout our churches of all brands.
Thank you for your continual writing about all that is before us and within us.
I have pondered the question “Is it just a coincidence that Passover and Easter are in the same week and fall on a critical week of the pandemic?” In listening for God’s reply I hear the words “I think not.” I don’t know if this is the beginning of sorrows that the Word tells us about. I do know God is just as sad as we are to see this happen. Will the world change and humble themselves and seek the face of God? History shows this will not happen. Wake up people of the earth. Time is short.
In an earlier post a few months back you mentioned your book “Soul Survivor “ which I obtained and have nearly finished. I think it is my favourite work of yours. To me it is like an invitation to join the Phillip Yancey book club. You have set me up with enough reading material to last the rest of my life, starting with “The Brothers Karamazov “ . Thanks for pointing me in this direction.
Great! Reading is one of the best ways to spend social isolation, I believe. –Philip
I think this is the time when we need to really ask ourselves a simple question. A question made popular primarily by young people a couple decades ago. “What would Jesus do?”
Thank you for this amazing article Philip. Someone introduced me to your books around 8 years back. Except for 2 or 3 recent ones I have read all of your books and I have been immensely blessed by them. To anyone who asks me who my favorite author is, I don’t have to think twice. May God bless you abundantly, keep you in good health and continue to keep you a blessing.
IN WINDS OF TIME: Ambitious Windbags Prevail
America has many forms of self-deception.
Grandiose schemes and dreams abound…
Many offered or foisted, ‘for our own good’?
Denial, an ever- present protective cocoon.
Truth so poorly tolerated, is an underdog.
The faint and quiet voice called Reason, a
weary whisper in roaring winds of rhetoric.
Will the children of Future’s heart be heard?
As their parents seem blind again to truth, and
sad humanity stays covered with war blood…
Mankind’s prayers and sincere longings might,
Re-kindle the return of God’s smile’s warmth,
as men search and grasp for Grace in the dust.
We worship our smarmy smug celebrity gods.
Hapless politicians have chosen to join them.
Insightful, helpful, and hopeful.
Yes.:) God bless you. Thank you.
As always, thoughtful, insightful, intuitive wise and challenging. For many years Phillip Yancey has been a favorite author and teacher for me. Going back to times when I faced tragedy after tragedy, his bible teaching and life experience revealed to me the truth of Gods character. Mr. Yancey pulls back the veil and causes me to look deeper, I am a better pastor, leader, friend and man of God because of your writing. We met over thirty years ago while both were teaching at a woman’s conference, etched in my memory that has forever shaped my ministry is his answer to an immature questions. Your honesty continues to challenge and deepen my relationship with the Lord. Thank you
Fear is a self imposed prison said john whitehead of the Rutherford institute and ron blue has said fear and faith are incompatible with each other. In texas a 29 year old county judge Hernández declared Harris county and the 3rd largest city in the USA closed but according to the texas constitution her declaration is not legal because only the texas legislature is authorized to close private businesses. This reported by Empower Texans. What happened to the rule of law ?
Thank you very much, Philip for your reflections at this difficult time for the world. It really helps to encourage us!
Enjoy your writing. Always makes me “ponder anew what the Almighty can do”!