VIEW FROM THE PEW
It’s time for the full moon Thursday and that can inspire romantic, poetic visions of strolling alongside moonlit waves. Or activate superstitions held by some law enforcement officers and others about moonbeams setting off weird behavior, lunacy.
This full moon of April is profound beyond those earthly interpretations. Millions of people around the world will link this moon rise to their belief in God and their very special relationship with Him.
Jewish people begin their observance of Passover Thursday night, the 15th day of the month of Nissan on the Hebrew calendar.
For Orthodox Christians, the celestial event is a required step toward their celebration of Easter on May 1. The congregations of Sts. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Pacific in Makiki, St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Church in Alewa Heights and the Holy Theotokos of Iveron Russian Orthodox Church community that meets in Kakaako, are small in local numbers but are in communion with 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide. Theotokos is Greek for the Blessed Mother of Jesus; not so mysterious in the translation, huh?
Those of us who are in the western side of the global divide of Christianity are happily into the Easter season and past the Lenten sacrifices of fasting with smaller meals and abstaining from meat on Fridays. If you complied with those minimal restrictions, meant to put your focus off the physical and into the spiritual preparation for our greatest religious celebration, hurray for you. If you are of a mature age, you may have recalled the hard old days of more stringent Lent rules.
But we are wimps compared to our Orthodox brothers and sisters. Their observance of “Great Lent” calls for no meat or fish, no eggs or dairy food, no olive oil, no wine. For the whole six weeks. Unless you are a child, infirm or ill, old, or pregnant. It’s the ultimate goal, of course, and some don’t achieve it every day. Some congregations may relax the rules a bit, but that is frowned upon because it just isn’t, well, orthodox.
While they are fasting, and we are finishing up the dregs from Easter baskets, Jews have been anticipating Passover with food on their minds, too.
The Pesach celebration
The holiday, called Pesach in Hebrew, marks the events we read about in the book of Exodus. After generations of slavery in Egypt, the Hebrew people were led to freedom by Moses who was following God’s command. Jews celebrate their covenant with God and, as described in modern context, a landmark event for religious freedom.
The Pesach celebration traditionally begins with a communal meal, a seder, at which the story of Moses is told. Called the Haggadah, it is an account of the 10 plagues God levied on Egypt to persuade the Pharaoh to let His people go, with the climax being the death of the firstborn son of each household. God, by way of Moses, told each Hebrew family to smear the blood of a slain lamb on their doorway, a signal to the angel of death to “pass over” that family.
A ritual seder platter of food is laden with symbolism about the exodus story. It includes a roasted shank bone commemorating the sacrificed lamb, bitter herbs — horseradish, endive, romaine lettuce nowadays — to recall the bitterness of slavery, and a paste of ground apples and nuts to represent the mortar which Hebrew slaves made as they built Pharaoh’s monuments. Communal meals planned by three Oahu Jewish congregations — and thousands around the world — are likely to feature roast chicken on the actual menu — lamb being harder to get, more expensive and not to everyone’s taste.
But matso is the required food for this ritual feast and for meals during the eight-day observance of Pesach. The unleavened bread fulfills God’s command that the Hebrews should leave Egypt in haste, not lingering to let their bread rise.
That command has evolved through the centuries into a dogmatic housecleaning ritual that non-Jews can’t even imagine. Observant Jews clear their homes of any trace of any grain that might ferment or rise, become leavened even by accident. The rice’s gotta go. Ditch the cornflakes, granola and oatmeal. No pastries, no cakes, no pasta, no bread for sandwiches, all gone.
It’s all “chametz” and orthodox Jews go to great extremes to get rid of it. Some “sell” those basic pantry supplies to a Gentile friend, with the understanding they will buy them back after Passover. Some box up that stuff and seal it in a cupboard or cartons. Some pack away the pots and plates used through the year for that normal food as well.
Jewish friends of mine do a less rigorous grocery dumping but follow the non-leavening tradition. They lament that matso bread — more of a crispy cracker — available in Hawaii is boxed and a long time and distance from its bakery. Local supermarkets display a limited supply of kosher food. However, it is a tradition that accepts the macaroon, a cookie confection made without flour. I benefitted for years from a co-worker sharing his Passover stash, and I raid the kosher shelf when I see a tin of coconut macaroons.
Catholic and other Christians have adopted the idea of a seder meal, often in a parish hall, with meaning for us because our faith is rooted in the Old Testament, too.
The Last (seder) Supper?
We love the idea that Christ and his disciples were likely celebrating a Passover seder at the Last Supper, before he died. He turned the ritual blessing and eating of bread and wine, familiar to his band of Jewish followers, into the offering of himself as Passover sacrifice, instituting the Holy Eucharist and a new covenant with God.
But the way, whether or not the Last Supper was actually a Passover celebration was the fodder for theologians for years. Matthew, Mark and Luke describe it as such, but John writes that reason for burying Christ quickly after his death on the cross was that it was the Jews’ “preparation day” before Passover.
But time wise, this wasn’t a year easy to link Passover to Holy Thursday to Easter. While we were commenting that Easter was early this year, for Orthodox Christians, it’s a very late Easter. And Passover is 11 days later than last year and that is not just of passing interest to us Christians.
We’re all linked by mankind’s efforts to understand our world by creating calendars. We count our year as 365 days long, although it takes a few more hours each year for Earth to circle the sun. So this year, we caught up with an extra “leap” day in February, a calendar correction that was invented centuries ago.
The sages who worked out the Hebrew calendar — centuries before Jesus lived — applied a similar corrective math. Like most ancient people, they measured time with a lunar calendar; everyone could observe that it took 28 days to go from full moon to the next full moon. But clearly that didn’t mesh with the solar cycle of seasons. They decided to add a “leap month” to their 12-month calendar. The extra month is added every two or three years to catch up with the lunar cycle lapse of 11 days. It’s all about keeping religious holidays in sync with the seasons — such as Passover being in the spring. The last “leap month” occurred in 2014.
It was important to the early Christians to keep their celebration of Christ’s resurrection linked to its historic date, and that tied us to the timing of the Jews’ Passover celebration.
So when is Easter?
When is Easter? was a key question for early church leaders at the first ecumenical council at Nicea in 325 AD. Of course, they didn’t call it 325 because they were using the Roman Empire’s calendar based on the reign of Julius Caesar. (I hear you, too much on calendar trivia? Bear with me; I love this stuff.)
The Christian fathers of the time decided that Easter will be celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring Equinox. That was another thing the ancients had figured out — the longest and shortest days of the year and the “equal length” days in between. Those old-time Christians also ruled that Easter would be marked only after the Jewish Passover.
So, that’s why Easter is still on its way for Orthodox Christians.
We are in the last weeks of Easter season because western Christians deleted the rule to wait until Passover is over. That was back in 1582 when Pope Gregory XIII redrafted the old Julian calendar to be more astronomically correct, scrambling the lengths of different months and so forth.
Orthodox churches eventually accepted the Gregorian calendar, but they maintain the Passover-first requirement. The other differences between Christianity east and west are more complicated than this simple column can tackle. God bless Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill for making history Feb. 12, the first face-to-face meeting between leaders of the two branches of Christianity since the great schism of 1054.
So, as the world turns, 2017 will bring an earlier Passover as the lunar month drifts to 11 days sooner in solar time. Passover will begin on April 10.
Easter will be celebrated on April 16 by Catholics and Protestants in western Christianity as well as by Orthodox Christians. The confluence of astronomy won’t happen again until 2025.
Speaking of lunar months drifting compared to the secular, solar-cycle calendar, Muslims face a more rigorous month of fasting this year and last because they do not have “leap” years or other corrections on the Islamic calendar. They observe 28 days of fasting from all food and liquids including water from dawn to dusk throughout Ramadan, which marks the time when the Quran was revealed to Mohammed.
It is a rigorous religious practice even in cooler months and particularly taxing when it occurs in summer, as it will this year.
The concept of fasting as a means to become closer to God is one the three major religions share. Ideas that are shared by the three faiths who recognize roots in Abraham will be explored in an April 24 seminar sponsored by the Interfaith Alliance of Hawaii. Jay Sakashita, associate religion professor at Leeward Community College, will speak. Participating panelists are Rabbi Ken Aronowitz of Temple Emanu-El, Abdul-Karim Khan, a leader of the Muslim Association of Hawaii, and the Rev. Ron Williams of Community Church of Honolulu. It will begin at 6:30 p.m. at Community Church of Honolulu, 2345 Nuuanu Ave.