We Gather to Celebrate
Personal Reflections on Easter and Passover
There is an old saying that, in order to avoid conflict, one should “never talk about politics or religion in polite company.” Well, at Steady we don't seek conflict, but we obviously violate the first stipulation often. And today, we will add the second.
Religion is on many minds as spring holidays in the Christian and Jewish faiths align this weekend, and in a rare occurrence also overlap with Islam's Holy Month of Ramadan.
Today, of course, is Easter Sunday. Friday marked the first night of Passover. These two holidays are connected: Jesus’s Last Supper was a Passover seder.
Now, Passover and Easter do not always occur in concert with each other on our calendars. In fact, centuries ago, religious leaders in both faiths spent much time and energy determining when these holidays should occur. The challenge is due to inconsistencies in how we measure the passage of the year and the complexity of aligning a day to a season. The Jewish calendar is a lunar one, and it does not match with precision our journey around the sun (which is what dictates the seasons). For any of you who want to know more about the celestial and historical background for these celebrations, it is explained in some humorous detail in this piece from The Atlantic.
Easter and Passover are both, by definition, “moveable feasts,” in that they fluctuate in our calendars, sometimes quite considerably. This variability leads to questions like, “Is Easter or Passover early (or late) this year?” It can be cause for confusion, but perhaps we can also derive some perspective from the shifting time frames of these holidays.
We seem to be living in an era of disorientation. When so much of what we once felt was rooted feels adrift, the fact that these celebrations are also in flux as Earth makes its progression around the sun can allow us to marvel at how the cycles of nature, and the rebirth of spring, defy our rigid categorizations.
Easter and Passover do have a lot in common besides their time of year. Both holidays represent hope — Easter celebrating the resurrection of Christ, and Passover retelling the story of the liberation of the Jewish people from bondage in Egypt. They also both tend to be occasions for multi-generational family gatherings (sometimes raucous, sometimes affirming, sometimes dysfunctional). The foods of spring, fresh and plentiful, are staples of both traditions. We also recognize that other religions and cultural celebrations have events that are of a similar nature.
This year, after two in which many families forewent gathering on account of the pandemic, there will be joy in households across the country as we return once more to these time-honored celebrations. But at the same time, many chairs will be empty because of those who died from COVID — a million people in the United States alone, a number still beyond my ability to fully comprehend. In addition to the deceased, some in attendance will be suffering the lingering effects of long COVID, and the pandemic isn’t over. Undoubtedly some seders and Easter brunches will see the virus spread among friends and loved ones.
And then there is the litany of non-COVID human sadnesses that often become apparent when families congregate. Illnesses other than COVID have taken their toll, marriages falter, the strains of life pull people apart. The added anxiety of the pandemic has made the life struggles even more acute. Then there is the state of our country and the broader world. I suspect politics will come up as families see each other again, and the discussions in many instances will be fraught and contentious.
We are living in difficult times. But both of these holidays remind us that suffering has always been part of the human condition. We struggle, and yet we can also triumph. We bear witness to sadness but can also feel the rush of joy. Freedom is precious, and so is connection to friends, loved ones, and our communities. We should open our hearts and our support to those who are less fortunate. We should pledge of ourselves to work hard to make the world a better place.
Here at Steady, we thought that in the communal spirit of the season, we would ask for you to share your own stories and memories of, and perhaps plans for, these holidays. And for those who do not celebrate Easter or Passover, please feel free to share your celebrations of spring or occasions when you come together with others. We have made the comments section open to all, and we love hearing from folks outside the existing Steady community.
We will kick this effort off with our own personal perspectives on these holidays.
Easter has, for as long as I can remember, been a time to pause and take stock of life, a moment to assess goals, to evaluate which endeavors are worthy of effort, to repair the bonds of love and friendship, to remember the chasm that often exists between the values elevated by a materialistic world and those one hopes to cultivate from deep within.
When I recall my earliest memories of the holiday, I think of a snapshot of a way of life, a time, and people who are long gone. I came of memory age at the height of the Great Depression, an era of struggle, hopelessness, and deep anxiety. Easter, and what it has come to represent for me, will always be tied to these realities. It was about finding rays of optimism in a world where darkness was readily apparent.
As children, we had school off for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. So Easter meant a long weekend at the dawn of spring, and the budding adventures that brought. There was also a rule back then (I’m not sure if it was officially sanctioned by the city) that we could go barefoot to school from Easter through Thanksgiving. And in Houston, where there is an arms race between humidity and heat, tossing the shoes off was another form of liberation.
My father was a man of prayer and faith, but he was wary of what he called “organized religion” and didn’t attend church regularly. My mother went more often but not every Sunday. However, she felt it was important that my brother, my sister, and I spend time at Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, and occasional church services.
The first church I attended was a small Baptist church in Houston named West 14th Avenue Baptist Church. It wasn’t exactly the most inspiring name, but it certainly let you know where it could be found. My earliest church teacher was an unemployed plumber and pipefitter (this being the Great Depression) who was not exactly a man trained in the instruction of young minds. But he did his best, and looking back on it, he was good, mostly because he believed so deeply.
I’ve spent a lifetime since then in various churches, some for many years and others for brief periods. But the early teachings of my mother, my father, and that first church have been my rocks of faith: belief in the power of prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the Sermon on the Mount; Christmas and Easter are the most important days on the calendar. Religious belief is such a deep and personal thing that I find it, even now — perhaps especially now — difficult to explain. Never more so than when the subject is Easter and the matter of confronting death. About this, the basics of Christianity help by underscoring that Easter is, or should be, a time of renewal and self-reflection. A time to think about what is in your heart, and to dig deep beneath the layers of ego and artifice to try to grapple with your true self.
Over the years, I have found myself in myriad places and on many different assignments on Easter Sunday. Unlike Christmas, with its fixed date, Easter would often seem to pop up unexpectedly in my consciousness: “Oh wow, it’s already almost Easter.”
This was especially true in war zones, where major efforts are made to celebrate Christmas. I found that isn’t so much the case with Easter, although individual service members certainly did their part. The absence of organized festivity always further cast Easter as a holiday of personal reflection for me and accentuated a sense of loneliness at being away from home and loved ones, a stranger in a strange and dangerous place. It also made the questions about who I am, and who I want to be, all the more pointed and poignant.
Here I am at 90 years old, still asking these questions. I am thinking about renewal for the coming year. I am thinking about the difficulty I have had, and I suspect many others have as well, separating out how I seek contentment and happiness, about the difference between what our culture defines as success and what I realize is really important when I look deep within my heart. Easter is a time when, no matter where I am or what I’m doing, I try to pause so I may consider what my life is and should be — and what the journey into eternity may entail.
I seek to honor the timelessness of our experience and our connection to others, the ties that exist with the past, and the road ahead to an unknowable future. These are the big themes with which we grapple, even as we understand that our own time here is finite.
When I think of Passover, I remember the words of that old McDonald’s jingle from my childhood: “food, folks, and fun.” Although there is a certain irony in this association, because almost everything on the McDonald’s menu would be verboten on Passover.
In my memory, I see the landscape of the dining room table, almost as if I am hovering above with a bird's-eye view, and not just a single dining room table but many over the years. I see white tablecloths, the multiple plates for the required courses, and the wine glasses that will be filled and emptied with ritual timing, if not exactly precision. But more than that, I see the faces and hear the voices of family and friends. Many of them, like my dear grandparents, are long gone. Everyone else has grown older.
These reflections bring to my mind, in stark relief, the immutable truth of the passage of time. Where once my brothers and I sought out the hidden matzoh that is part of the Passover seder, it is now the role of my children and their cousins. My parents are their grandparents. The houses in which we used to celebrate as kids have been sold to others. We now welcome people into new homes and create new memories.
Passover for me has always carried a strong sense of time. As part of the holiday observation, we recount every year a distant history of the Jews escaping the bondage of Egypt. We are told it is important to retell this story every year, lest we forget it or new generations don’t learn it properly. And with this retelling come the inevitable and necessary connections with our own time, whatever time that may be.
We are forced to think about injustice. We are required to contend with man’s inhumanity to man. We remember the tears borne from oppression and cruelty. Sadly, there are always contemporary examples. And that is especially true now.
During the Passover seders of my youth, we would tell the biblical story. But the conversation would invariably turn to the recent past and the present. I learned about the Holocaust and the Cold War, Vietnam and world hunger, slavery in the United States, the Civil War, and the civil rights movement. I learned about European colonialism. I learned about disease and natural disasters.
We live in a time when too many in elected office are trying to sanitize the darker chapters of history and the cruelty and injustice they represent. They say they are doing this to protect children from feeling bad or guilty. But in reality, they know the truth undermines the mythologies upon which their craven political power is built. I like to think that Passover is a rebuttal to such instincts. It offers an instruction that even young children, especially young children, must understand that pain and suffering exist in this world. And that the only way we can hope for a brighter future is to acknowledge that, learn from it, and never forget.