Elijah at the Table: Pascha and Passover

By Caroline Langston 3-29-2012
Wine and Matzoh, Roman Sigaev/Shutterstock.com
Wine and Matzoh, Roman Sigaev/Shutterstock.com

“Easter? Isn’t that over?” I’m already gearing up to hear this, just as I launch into trying to trying to actually make something spiritually of Lent’s remaining weeks, after my feeble efforts, while also anticipating the Feast of Feasts that awaits in a little more than two weeks.

At work, hunched over my vegetarian lunch of channa dal and naan (Orthodox Lent is all about carbs!), I furtively scan florist websites for vibrant bouquets, and think about ordering that grass-fed leg of lamb from the small farmer who sells meat at our local market. I wonder if I get the cute bouquet of bright pink roses with the foam Easter eggs and the fuzzy bunny for my daughter, will the flowers hang on for another seven days to grace our Pascha table?

While every few years Orthodox and “Western” Easter coincide—as they have done for the past two years, in fact—most of the time there can be weeks or even months between the celebrations. It’s a pretty standard interval this year: Orthodox Easter is April 15, but everybody else’s is the previous Sunday, April 6. For those who think about it and manage to stock up on candy and supplies at the “after-Easter” sales, those chocolate bunnies are likely to taste kind of stale.

Does it even matter, since fuzzy bunnies and pastel eggs, to use the in-group parlance, aren’t even Orthodox? (“That’s not Orthodox!” I’ve heard countless times, and it always reminds me of that joke about radical feminists, the punchline of which is “That’s not funny!”)

Such is the reality of celebrating as a religious minority, with one’s holiday forgotten in the public mind. And in my fifteen years of celebrating Pascha as an Orthodox Christian, I’ve had a growing consciousness of what it feels like to be a celebrant of one of those misunderstood or neglected holidays. I’ll never think about Eid al Adha or Shavuot the same way again.

More than any other, though, it is the Jewish celebration of Passover that coincides most closely with Orthodox Easter—perhaps ironically, given the dubious record of many Orthodox countries toward Jews. Despite a common misperception by some that Passover has to take place before Orthodox Easter can occur, there’s actually no intrinsic connection.

And yet the holidays remain symbolically “twinned” nonetheless: The word “Pascha” itself is a restatement of the idea of “Passover/passage”—to say nothing of the Passover meal that launches the heart of Holy Week in earnest.

More often than not, as well, the towering boxes of Streit’s Matzos and Manischewitz Tam-Tam crackers begin to appear in the grocery stores just as Orthodox Christians are ramping up for their rigorous Holy Week—at a time when the pastel eggs and marshmallow Peeps are disappearing from the shelves

It’s happening this year too: On April 7 at sunset, when Jewish families sit down for the first Seder, Orthodox Christians will welcome the dawn of our Palm Sunday, a major step in the march toward Easter. And while it may be coincidence, it is deeply meaningful to me, because for years I have loved Passover—both as its own celebration, but also because it taught me how I wanted to celebrate Easter.

When I was growing up in Mississippi in the 1970s, each year I looked forward to Easter, and each year I was disappointed. That one bright blue Sunday rolled around on the calendar, Jesus popped out of the tomb like a magic trick (if we even really thought about Him), and I was left fingering the purple cellophane of my Easter basket. We might go out to lunch at a restaurant in a motel.

In my child’s mind, it seemed as though God deserved better. We did, too.

Celebrating Passover taught me that faith could be different, could be braided into the dough of everyday life. I attended my first Seder when I was a student at boarding school back in the Eighties. I went to the Seder initially because one of my best friends was an officer in the Jewish Student Union, and another was the daughter of the school rabbi.

The poignance of the dinner’s ritual immediately struck me. As an evangelical Christian then, steeped in the language of what I’d been taught to call the “Old” Testament, I was exhilarated by the way that the Exodus of the children of Israel had been translated into the context of family and home. A deeply personal faith was not just some kind of invisible “belief,” but something beautiful that one could actually practice—with candles, wine, and yes, food, set apart and sacred.

And for that whole week that followed, we continued the ritual of remembrance, munching on matzoh smeared with peanut butter and honey—delicious!

That lesson is something that I will remember as I, too, abstain for a couple more weeks—not from leaven and chametz, but from the siren smell of beef shwarma drifting from the crowd of food trucks—the latest craze from L.A.—thronging the streets near my office. If I had never encountered Judaism, I would likely have never become an Eastern Orthodox Christian.

But I won’t leap to host a seder myself. While I know it’s become common for evangelicals and some Catholics to mimic their own seder rituals, I am hesitant to do so. While today’s interfaith families face special choices and challenges in their religious observance, for the most part, to choose to be one faith is to not choose all the others.

Instead, it seems to me that the real beginning of honest ecumenical dialogue lies in recognizing the differences between faiths, that all religions are not alike, and that some gulfs are not easily bridgeable. The history of painful relations between religions is ample testament to that.

But throughout the week of Passover, which is my Holy Week, I will be thinking about our common candles burning with light, and that we both long for Elijah to recline at our table.

And the world to be made new.

Caroline Langston, a native of Yazoo City, Mississippi, is a regular contributor to Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion's Good Letters blog and has been a commentator on NPR's All Things Considered. She lives with her husband and children in Cheverly, Maryland. This post originally appeared via the journal Image.

Wine and Matzoh, Roman Sigaev/Shutterstock.com

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