As we approach this year’s near simultaneous celebration of Easter and Passover, why don’t religion writers and influential clerics begin to fret over perplexed families that must do battle with the awkward, unavoidable “April Dilemma”?
Every winter, articles abound over the December Dilemma, highlighting husbands and wives in mixed-marriages struggling to jointly honor Christmas and Hanukah, or focusing on divided clans with their share of non-believers unable to decide whether to center festivities on Jesus or Santa.
The spring festivals speak to us with greater clarity and force because they’re unequivocally and inescapably religious.
Christmas has been largely secularized around the world, but efforts to drain faith-based messages from the Easter holiday have, for the most part, failed miserably. For one thing, it’s much tougher to secularize a festival about Resurrection (which doesn’t happen all that often) than one about birth (which, in one form or another, happens all the time).
This means that if Easter isn’t religious, it’s empty and inconsequential. Few Americans feel deep emotion or profound sentimental attachment to the procedure of rolling colored eggs. The Easter Bunny remains an indistinct personality who’s gained limited traction, but Santa Claus has become a distinctly beloved figure around the world. Consider the difference between cherished Kris Kringle movies (“Miracle on 34th Street” or “The Santa Clause”) and the rancid recent release “Hop” (just out on DVD), with Russell Brand voicing the son of the Easter Bunny, who leaves the family business and goes out to Hollywood to ogle starlets. Families enjoy watching Santa films to savor the season, but children should only view “Hop” as a form of punishment if they’ve been very, very naughty.
Attempts to separate Passover from its religious roots have fared no better than the bid to secularize Easter. As far as Hanukah is concerned, it’s a minor festival in the Jewish calendar with no practical requirements (other than lighting candles) and a religious message (purification, re-dedication) that’s widely ignored. Passover, on the other hand, is a big deal (and the most widely observed of all Jewish occasions)—Biblically mandated, with elaborate rituals for an extended seder meal and a radical change of diet and (even dishware) that’s supposed to last eight days. Meanwhile, only masochists savor the matzo for its own sake (it’s traditionally described as “the bread of affliction”) but the potato pancakes (latkes) of Hanukah seem tasty even without religious associations. Those who prefer not to think about God can be perfectly comfortable with Hanukah as commemoration of a liberation struggle, honoring the military genius of Judah the Maccabee. But during the Passover season atheists and skeptics are stuck: it wasn’t civil disobedience or inspiring speeches by Moses (he was tongue-tied, remember?) that got the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt, but a series of miracles by a supernatural God.
The spring festivals both count as tougher, more demanding, more personal and (surprisingly) less controversial than the winter celebrations. Easter insists that Jesus died and rose again for you, personally – not for some other guy, or just for a group of disciples long ago. The Passover liturgy recited at the seder meal similarly demands that you experience the Exodus as if you yourself escaped from Egypt - not your great grandfather or your Orthodox Uncle Max - and you owe the Almighty undying gratitude as your personal liberator.
The religious messages in the April holidays are pointed, unequivocal, impossible to fudge. There’s no annual “War on Easter” to compare to our annual (and increasingly tedious) “War on Christmas” because no one tries to claim that Easter’s a secular occasion, or attempts to empty Holy Week of its New Testament substance. While ardent believers seek to “Put Christ back into Christmas,” there’s never been a comparable effort to “Put Christ Back into Easter”—since it’s been unthinkable to take him out of the holiday at any point. Sure, Christians can bring their skeptical, non-believing friends along with them to experience an inspiring sunrise service this Sunday morning, but the worshippers will be honoring more than the new buds of spring.
In America’s wonderfully pluralistic and open society, the clear, fervent expression of religious messages makes for less conflict, not more. In this country, Christians have never repeated the horrors of Medieval Europe, when the Easter holiday frequently offered an excuse for violent persecution of Jews as “Christ-killers,” producing bloody pogroms that interrupted traditional Passover celebrations. Here, increasing numbers of Christians seek to experience Passover, not to suppress it – hoping to familiarize themselves with some of the same rituals that Jesus may have led at the Last Supper.
No wonder that Jews and Christians can simultaneously enjoy the twinned seasonal expression of our distinct traditions, with little of the confusion or torment associated with the December Dilemma. In this sacred season we see that religion isn’t a zero sum game –a more devout and meaningful Easter for Christians in no way detracts from a joyous Passover for the Jewish community, just as a strictly observant Passover (which begins this week at sundown of Good Friday) takes nothing away from the drama and impact of Holy Week.A national religious revival need not favor one faith over another –the United States at large can benefit from more serious consideration of timeless questions. And even committed skeptics, who opt out of sectarian celebration of either of the April holidays, can welcome the common messages of rebirth and of liberating fresh starts that all of America seems to need at the moment.