Good Friday and the first night of Passover converged this year. Instead of sitting at my usual seder table, I spent this Passover taking part in a traditional three-day Easter celebration in Licata, Sicily.
A childhood friend of mine is married to a Sicilian doctor with whom she lives in Milan. Every two years, they return to his hometown, Licata, for Easter. This year, they invited my husband and me to join them for a local observance that few tourists ever see.
On Good Friday, there was an elaborate procession through town in which a wooden Christ figure, dragging his heavy cross, was borne through town on a pallette held aloft by pallbearers. From another part of town, a second group of bearers carried a wooden Madonna on a pallette. She and the bleeding Jesus dramatically rendevouzed at the top of the main square, accompanied by dirge-like music. From there, they were carried together to the bottom of the main square, where Jesus was hoisted on to the cross, with his grieving mother in attendance. The next day, Jesus was removed from the cross and carried to his burial place. On Easter Sunday, the risen Jesus was again carried through town in an elaborate procession, with the Sicilian marching band playing triumphant music.
I was deeply moved by bearing witness to this powerful reenactment of the Passion and Resurrection of Christ. But, it took place on the first two days of an important Jewish holiday – and that evoked conflicting feelings in me. On the one hand, Jesus was a Jew and the Last Supper was a Passover seder. Therefore, there was a rightness in all of this. On the other hand, Easter has historically been a time of deadly pogroms against Jews. My late husband used to tell the story of an uncle in the Ukraine, who was murdered on Easter Sunday. Christians emerging from church were so inflamed by an Easter sermon excoriating Jews as Christ- killers, that they pursued the first Jew they could find – his uncle – and forced him into the river to drown. Happily, Vatican Council II has set the record straight: it was the Romans who killed Jesus, in a uniquely Roman form of execution, and Jews bear no collective guilt for His death.
But the overriding feeling that bubbled to the surface was an awareness of the importance of memory in Christianity and Judaism. The reenactment of the Easter story brings an immediacy to the suffering of Jesus and a constant renewal of his message of redemption to the world. The annual Passover seder also calls on us to remember. It is the mandatory retelling of the story of the liberation of the Jews from bondage in Egypt, the receiving of the Ten Commandments and the journey to the Promised Land. Jews are required to retell this story as if they were actually living through this journey from slavery to freedom together with a special responsibility to repair the world.
For both Jews and Christians, their respective rites of Spring – Passover and Easter – are times of renewal of key tenets of their faith. Their occurence on the same day this year is an apt convergence. There is much to be learned and much to be gained in bearing witness to each others' rituals.
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