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Easter, Passover celebrate basic message of freedom from bondage

Published: Saturday, April 7 2012 1:06 p.m. MDT

Ladies light candles prior to the service. Members of Chabad Lubacitch celebrate Passover Friday, April 6, 2012. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Ladies light candles prior to the service. Members of Chabad Lubacitch celebrate Passover Friday, April 6, 2012. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

The scene is repeated every year about this time: Hundreds of Christian pilgrims walk behind a white donkey from the Mount of Olives to the Old City section of Jerusalem, carrying crosses and waving palm fronds as they retrace the route taken by Jesus Christ on the last Sunday of his life some 2,000 years ago.

"It's the holiest place in the world for Christians," Etienne Chevremont, a pilgrim from Paris, told the Associated Press last Sunday. "It's important for me to come here at least once in my lifetime."

Meanwhile, throughout Jerusalem, Israeli Jews are preparing for the holiest of their holy days — Passover — in the city that is every bit as sacred to them as it is to Christians (and, for that matter, to Muslims).

"The festival of Passover calls for early and elaborate preparations," wrote Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, who led the Jewish Chabad-Lubavitch movement from 1951 until his death in 1994. "It is not physical preparedness alone that is required of us, but also spiritual preparedness, for in the life of the Jew the physical and spiritual are closely linked together, especially in the celebration of our Sabbath and festivals."

Sharonne Zippel, right, lights candles prior to the service. Members of Chabad Lubacitch celebrate Passover Friday, April 6, 2012. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Sharonne Zippel, right, lights candles prior to the service. Members of Chabad Lubacitch celebrate Passover Friday, April 6, 2012. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

And so last Sunday — Palm Sunday in the Christian tradition — there was a confluence of faith throughout Jerusalem. Christians lit candles and attended special worship services associated with Easter's Holy Week, while Jews began their physical and spiritual preparations for Passover — making the matzah (flat, unleavened bread), gathering bitter herbs and purchasing the celebratory wine.

This intriguing intertwining of faith and religious tradition is not unique to Jerusalem. Wherever Jews and Christians live in proximity to each other, Easter and Passover run a parallel course, occasionally intersecting at points that are, to some, completely coincidental, and to others, deliberately profound.

Said Marvin Olasky, editor-in-chief of the Christian-oriented World Magazine, "Passover and Easter are the only Jewish and Christian holidays that move in sync, like the ice skating pairs we saw during the Winter Olympics."

Sarah Zippel, right, smiles at her mother Sharonne as they prepare food for the Passover meal. Members of Chabad Lubacitch celebrate Passover Friday, April 6, 2012. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Sarah Zippel, right, smiles at her mother Sharonne as they prepare food for the Passover meal. Members of Chabad Lubacitch celebrate Passover Friday, April 6, 2012. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

And neither, it should be noted, has anything to do with a rabbit that lays multi-colored eggs.

History of Passover

The history of Passover is centuries older than Easter, and is based on an Old Testament story that is meaningful to Christian and Jew alike. It is an eight-day festival that commemorates the release of the Israelites from decades of slavery in ancient Egypt. If you've seen the classic Cecil B. DeMille film, "The Ten Commandments," with Charlton Heston as Moses, you know the story: how God preserved the baby Moses so he could safely grow to become the means by which he would deliver Israel from bondage.

According to the Biblical account, Moses — under specific direction from God — approached Pharaoh and demanded that he give the Jews their freedom. Each time Pharaoh refused, God sent a new plague upon the Egyptians to destroy their land, their livestock and their crops. In the final plague, all of the firstborn Egyptians were killed while the firstborn Jews were spared, or "passed over" — hence the name of the holiday.

Raul Rivera acts the part of Jesus Christ during the Stations of Christ play presented by the Catholic church, Saint Peter and Saint Paul in West Valley City Friday, April 6, 2012. (Brian Nicholson, Okespa?l) Raul Rivera acts the part of Jesus Christ during the Stations of Christ play presented by the Catholic church, Saint Peter and Saint Paul in West Valley City Friday, April 6, 2012. (Brian Nicholson, Okespa?l)

"Pharaoh's resistance was broken, and he virtually chased his former slaves out of the land," said Rabbi Benny Zippel of Chabad-Lubavitch Utah. "The Israelites left in such a hurry, in fact, that the bread they baked as provisions for the way did not have time to rise. Six hundred thousand adult males, plus many more women and children, left Egypt on that day, and began the trek to Mount Sinai and their birth as God's chosen people."

The Passover story, therefore, is about deliverance. But more than that, said Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, it is about freedom.

"Passover celebrates the notion that freedom is a right," Rabbi Hirschfield said, "while recognizing that rights are not always free."

The Easter story

Interestingly, the Jewish freedom won through the events celebrated at Passover had been lost again by the time Christianity's Easter story took place. This time, instead of the cruel bondage of Egypt, the children of Israel were under the oppressive rule of the Roman Empire. In the midst of this oppression came Jesus, riding triumphantly into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, with his followers waving palm fronds and shouting his praises even while Jewish leaders plotted to destroy him.

Sarah Zippel, right, smiles at her mother Sharonne as they prepare food for the Passover meal. Members of Chabad Lubacitch celebrate Passover Friday, April 6, 2012. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Sarah Zippel, right, smiles at her mother Sharonne as they prepare food for the Passover meal. Members of Chabad Lubacitch celebrate Passover Friday, April 6, 2012. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

Jesus was Jewish, and he arrived in Jerusalem at the time of Passover. The Passover observance therefore is woven into the fabric of the Easter story, inextricably linking one with the other. For example, before he was crucified, Jesus ate a "Last Supper" with his closest followers. This was likely the traditional Passover Seder, which includes the ceremonial eating of unleavened bread and drinking of wine. During the Last Supper, Jesus gave his followers bread and wine, but he imbued those Passover elements with new meaning that took the bread and wine from the Passover tradition and turned it into the Christian communion, also known as the Eucharist or sacrament.

During the days of Passover observance, Jesus was taken, judged, beaten and eventually crucified. Christians believe that in a Jerusalem garden called Gethsemane and on the cross of crucifixion Jesus was sacrificed for the sins of mankind, in much the same way the Passover lamb (or "Paschal lamb") was sacrificed in remembrance of the deliverance of the children of Israel. Three days later, on what is now known as Easter morning, Jesus was resurrected, which Christians believe is how Jesus overcame death and made salvation available to all.

Raul Rivera acts the part of Jesus Christ during the Stations of Christ play presented by the Catholic church, Saint Peter and Saint Paul in West Valley City Friday, April 6, 2012.West Valley City el viernes, 6 de abril, 2012.  Raul Rivera acts the part of Jesus Christ during the Stations of Christ play presented by the Catholic church, Saint Peter and Saint Paul in West Valley City Friday, April 6, 2012.West Valley City el viernes, 6 de abril, 2012.  Raul Rivera acts the part of Jesus Christ during the Stations of Christ play presented by the Catholic church, Saint Peter and Saint Paul in West Valley City Friday, April 6, 2012. (Brian Nicholson, Okespa?l) Raul Rivera acts the part of Jesus Christ during the Stations of Christ play presented by the Catholic church, Saint Peter and Saint Paul in West Valley City Friday, April 6, 2012.West Valley City el viernes, 6 de abril, 2012. Raul Rivera acts the part of Jesus Christ during the Stations of Christ play presented by the Catholic church, Saint Peter and Saint Paul in West Valley City Friday, April 6, 2012.West Valley City el viernes, 6 de abril, 2012. Raul Rivera acts the part of Jesus Christ during the Stations of Christ play presented by the Catholic church, Saint Peter and Saint Paul in West Valley City Friday, April 6, 2012. (Brian Nicholson, Okespa?l)

"The resurrection of the dead is the chief truth of the Christian faith," said Christian pastor and author Robert L. Moyer. "Other doctrines are important; this one is essential."

According to Thomas S. Monson, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the great message of the Easter story is that "the most glorious, comforting and reassuring of all events of human history had taken place: the victory over death. The pain and agony of Gethsemane and Calvary had been wiped away. The salvation of mankind had been secured."

Passover traditions

It isn't surprising, then, that religious observances with such remarkable beginnings would include with them long-lasting traditions and celebrations. For Passover, the celebration is divided into two parts.

"The first two days and last two days are full-fledged holidays," said Rabbi Zippel. "Holiday candles are lit at night, and Kiddush (a blessing over grape juice or wine) and sumptuous holiday meals are enjoyed on both nights and days. We don't go to work, drive, write or switch on or off electric devices. We are permitted to cook and to carry outdoors."

Sharronne Zippel, left, her daughter Sarah Zippel, front, and Luz Teicher, right, put bowls of food on a serving cartMembers of Chabad Lubacitch celebrate Passover Friday, April  6, 2012. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Sharronne Zippel, left, her daughter Sarah Zippel, front, and Luz Teicher, right, put bowls of food on a serving cartMembers of Chabad Lubacitch celebrate Passover Friday, April 6, 2012. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

The middle four days are what Zippel called "semi-festive intermediate days," during which most forms of work are permitted.

The central element of the Jewish Passover observance is the traditional Seder, a ritual meal that is, according to Rabbi Zippel, "a 15-step family-oriented tradition and ritual-packed feast" that includes the re-telling of the Passover story, special blessings and songs, the drinking of four cups of wine, the eating of matzah and the partaking of bitter herbs and other symbolic foods on the Passover Seder Plate while in a reclining position.

Although there are usually variations between different Jewish congregations relative to the strictness of various religious observations, "Jews everywhere perform the Seder in much the same way," Rabbi Zippel said. Out of respect and interest, non-Jews also celebrate the Passover Seder. Professors at Mormon-owned Brigham Young University have been conducting an news.byu.edu/archive12-mar-seder.aspx on-campus Seder every year for nearly 40 years. And www.suntimes.com/news/metro/11695458-418/obama-hosts-passover-seder-friday-will-use-maxwell-house-haggadah-again.html President Barack Obama as been hosting a Passover Seder since 2008, when he was still campaigning for the presidency.

Sharonne Zippel pushes the serving cart past her son Chaim Zippel as the get prepare for the service. Members of Chabad Lubacitch celebrate Passover Friday, April 6, 2012. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Sharonne Zippel pushes the serving cart past her son Chaim Zippel as the get prepare for the service. Members of Chabad Lubacitch celebrate Passover Friday, April 6, 2012. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

Easter traditions

President Obama, a professed Christian, has also sponsored an annual pre-Easter prayer breakfast at the White House for religious leaders the past three years. www.mercurynews.com/breaking-news/ci_20323595/obama-easter-story-helps-him-troubled-times This year's breakfast was held Wednesday, during which he said tht the Easter story of Christ's agony and resurrection has helped him get through the tough moments of his presidency.

Like Jews, Christians vary in their observance of various Easter-related customs. While most Christian denominations celebrate Easter Sunday as a way of honoring Jesus' victory over death and sin, they don't all celebrate the other elements of Holy Week.

Candles are lit prior to the Passover meal. Members of Chabad Lubacitch celebrate Passover Friday, April 6, 2012. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Candles are lit prior to the Passover meal. Members of Chabad Lubacitch celebrate Passover Friday, April 6, 2012. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

In some Christian churches, for example, Palm Sunday services acknowledge Christ's triumphal entry into Jerusalem by carrying large palm branches in processions. Latter-day Saints, on the other hand, rarely mention Palm Sunday in their services.

Similarly, there is no Mormon observance of Maundy Thursday, the Thursday before Easter which is remembered by other Christian congregations as the day of the Last Supper, when Jesus ceremoniously washed the feet of his apostles and established the communion, Eucharist or sacrament ceremony. In Roman Catholic churches, priests wash the feet of 12 people and consecrate the ceremonial oil that will be used throughout the coming year.

Ladies light candles prior to the service. Members of Chabad Lubacitch celebrate Passover Friday, April 6, 2012. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Ladies light candles prior to the service. Members of Chabad Lubacitch celebrate Passover Friday, April 6, 2012. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

Good Friday is observed in many Christian churches on the Friday before Easter. This day commemorates the day upon which Jesus was crucified. This is a day of mourning, and meditation on Jesus' suffering and death.

Some denominations observe an Easter vigil on the night of Holy Saturday, waiting and watching in faith for Christ's conquest of death and sin. In some churches, a pure white Paschal candle is lit to "help make our darkness light."

Easter morning is the most Christian of holidays, joyfully observed throughout the Christian world with special services, prayers, sermons, presentations and songs declaring that "death is conquered, man is free, Christ has won the victory."

That message — that a victory has been won, therefore man is free — isn't really all that different from the central messages of Passover, Rabbi Hirschfield said.

"To teach people that death itself can be conquered is to teach them that the constraints they assume, that the circumstances which limit them and keep them from being free — they can all be overcome," he said. "While we differ as Jews and Christians about the historic claim of the cross, we are both products of teachers who lived and died around the message that no matter what the world does to us or tells us, we are free to make a difference, and that eventually that difference will transform the world."

EMAIL: jwalker@desnews.com

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