Jesus and his friends celebrate Passover: Image by George C. Gray
The leaders of the faith communities in Concord rotate authorship of a weekly column in The Concord Journal titled Voices of Faith. This past week was my turn and here's my article.
Many Christians celebrate Lent, a season of preparation for Easter. The word Lent comes to us from the Old English lencten, referring to the lengthening of days in the spring. At least on this side of the equator then, Lent is a climatic as well as a spiritual springtime for Christians - even if it begins under a blanket of snow!
Since the early days of the Church, Lent has been a final, intense period of preparation for those who will be baptized at Easter. Over centuries, that preparation has come to be shared by all Christians (including the already baptized) with the understanding that some “spring cleaning” for the soul is in order for every member of the Church. Lent can also be understood as a kind of “spring training” for one’s faith life: exercising what has been idle; strengthening what has grown weak; and toning up what is less than firm. The traditional exercises for that preparation have been: greater faithfulness to prayer; fasting or “giving something up”; and almsgiving or works of mercy for the poor. In my own parish we pray each Sunday in Lent for “fasting that leads us to prayer and for prayer that leads us to serve the poor.”
Lent ends at sundown on Holy Thursday when the Paschal Triduum (three days) begins. These are the holiest days of the year: one great feast spread over three days. On Thursday, at the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper, we remember the last meal Christ shared with his friends, the sacrament he left us in the Eucharist and his washing his friends’ feet at table. On Good Friday we remember the suffering and death of Christ on the Cross. And on Saturday night we celebrate the Great Easter Vigil, the first Mass of Easter which includes the baptism, confirmation and first communion of our newest members.
One cannot fully understand this Christian spiritual springtime without understanding at least some of Jewish prayer and practice. Not just in Lent and at Easter but through the whole year, my Church’s life and liturgy are in debt to, we are heirs of, the history, scriptures, ritual and prayer of our ancestors in the faith, the chosen of Israel. The Israelites were the first to hear the word of God and to enter into a covenant with the Lord. Their scriptures comprise the majority of pages in the bible Christians read and preach. For its March Faith Festival, my parish is focusing on the Psalms, the prayer book of the Hebrew scriptures which in so many ways is also the prayer book of Christians, both for quiet meditation and for congregational singing. In my own Catholic tradition the heart of worship is the Eucharist, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, a memorial of that Passover Seder Jesus shared with his friends on the night he was betrayed.
The depths and riches of this spiritual ancestry for Christians cannot be overestimated. It’s precisely in light of this that any words or deeds by Christians that violate this kinship are particularly painful and distressing. Recently a schismatic Catholic bishop was widely and accurately publicized as a Holocaust denier just as the Vatican took a step to bring him and his religious society back into the fold. That the schism and the pope’s initiative were not centered on questions about the Holocaust does not in any lessen the harm done by this bishop’s inane views and remarks. That the Vatican has strongly rejected this man’s position and that leaders of Jews and Catholic Christians have, in the past two weeks, taken steps to reaffirm and strengthen what has been significant interfaith advance over the past 50 years are welcome signs of the substance of that growth.
I can’t help but wonder how much our grassroots relations as Jews and Christians would deepen and improve if Christians were more aware of their spiritual ancestry and if our Jewish neighbors knew how much Christians have inherited from the people of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
This year, as often happens, the Christian celebration of Easter (April 12) falls at the time of Passover which begins on April 8. Such timing offers a good opportunity for mutual understanding between two faiths that share a common source. A few weeks later the town of Concord will hold its 29th annual Holocaust Remembrance Service on April 26 at 7:30 p.m. in the Town House. Lent will be over by then but it would be a fine Lenten exercise to jot that event, time and place on our calendars right now.