Written By: David P. Deavel
Jews observe the end of Passover this year on the same day Christians celebrate Christ’s resurrection—Easter Sunday—and that calendar coincidence serves as vivid illustration of an adage both profound and theological. As has been said, Judaism and Christianity are two religions separated by a common faith.
Christians and Jews both believe in the God who created everything there is, put the moral structure of life in our hearts, and also chose to reveal himself in an intimate way to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We both have as our basic prayer book the Psalms and we look to inspiration from the Hebrew prophets. And we both look forward to the coming of the Messiah, the anointed King of Israel who will set the world right, and the resurrection of the dead.
But here is where it gets tricky. Christians believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Jewish Messiah who came once in humility, proving his credentials by rising from the dead and promising to come in power at the end of time. Even more, this man is God himself, who took on human nature in a mysterious fashion.
This claim divided the Jews of the first century, and it continues to divide Christians and Jews to this day. There is a long history of hostility between the two groups, one that includes a good deal of harsh treatment of Jews by Christians throughout history—even on the part of Christian leaders. Even here in America.
And yet in the modern world, as unbelief has become strong, Christians and Jews have found each other and valued their common faith even amid division. Pope Pius XI said of Christians in response to Nazi propaganda, “We are all spiritual Semites.”
America might be the best place to see it. Christians and Jews have found each other as allies and friends quite often and from near the beginning of the American experiment. President George Washington wrote to the Jewish community at Newport, Rhode Island, in 1790, assuring them that their “inherent natural rights” would be respected and that the United States government, “which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.” He closed his letter with a blessing:
May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.
May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy.
That desire from a Christian that Jewish brothers and sisters would be “useful”—to each other, to our country, and to God—and “everlastingly happy” is one that we can all share. Though we are divided now in religion, we all pray that God would make his truth clear to all of us so that we might be united in truth.
Perhaps one odd way in which this was fulfilled was in the old Hollywood. When his movie was praised for its portrait of Christ, Ben Hur director William Wyler liked to joke that it took a Jew to make a good film about Jesus. This year, however, we have an even better opportunity than the movies to do each other good.
Providentially, 2021 offers us a special opportunity to experience the unity between our two faiths. The Christian feast of Easter–which in Romance languages is almost always called something derived from the Latin and Greek Pascha, meaning “Passover,”–falls on April 4 this year, the final day of the Jewish Passover. Christians and Jews will both be celebrating God’s deliverance at the same time.
And though the Jewish feast remembers in Passover a liberation from slavery in Egypt, it is important to remember that for them slavery was considered a kind of death, a situation in which they could not live in their own land, worshiping God as he wanted them to, nor live ultimately by his law. What Moses led was not just a move for political liberation, but spiritual liberation, too.
Christians understand this as well. As R. R. Reno, a Catholic theologian married to an observant Jew, noted a few years ago, Christians who gather on Saturday night before Easter “are like the Israelites fleeing with Pharaoh’s army. Easter begins in a night-darkened church. We are in the valley of the shadow of death.” Like Jews, Christians are celebrating what God has done in history—through Moses and then more fully through Jesus—and what they pray God will do: give us freedom from oppression, from sin, and from a culture that doesn’t always value following God first. But Christians also want freedom to worship God as he would be worshiped and follow his law of love.
This weekend, Jews and Christians, divided by a common faith, will—in a coincidence of Grace—get to celebrate Passover and Easter at the same time and ask God to make each other “everlastingly happy,” in President Washington’s words, even if it must be in his own mysterious “due time and way.”
David P. Deavel is editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, co-director of the Terrence J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law, and Public Policy, and a visiting professor at the University of St. Thomas (Minnesota).
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