Holy Week. As our lives become more secular and separated, the name doesn’t seem to have as much meaning as it once did. Not long ago all of Saint Paul shut down on Good Friday to celebrate the holiday that is central to Christian faith. The passing of this holiday into another optional day off for those who can afford it may be disturbing to people who value the old ways, but a little perspective shows that the time itself was always defined by others even before we learned how important it is to get along in a diverse world.
Easter isn’t like Christmas in that it happens on one calendar day. The definition of Easter is “The first Sunday after the first full moon after the first day of Spring”. That’s why it moves around as much as it does. The reason that we have this “floating day” is that Easter remains tied to the Jewish holiday of Passover, which is essential to understanding how it came to be. That means we are tied to the lunar Jewish calendar as well.
Passover is critical to the timetable of Easter and all of Holy Week. The Last Supper, or the first Communion, was celebrated at a Passover Sedar on what we now know as Maundy Thursday. That old name comes from “Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos” (“A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you”), a centerpiece of the small service among the Apostles. But the day itself is tied directly to Jewish tradition through the Sedar.
This makes the treatment of Jews by Christians over the years far more baffling, if you ask me.
Knowing that the holiest day of the year is defined by Jewish tradition is just one example of how Christianity fits into a larger world, however. Sometimes we have to reach deeper to find it and work hard to make the universal love of Jesus into something real.
When Pope (soon Saint) John Paul II became the first Pope to pray at a mosque in May of 2006, it was just after Easter. He said after his prayers alongside an Imam, “May the house of Christians and Muslims turn to one another in experience of brotherhood and friendship so God the Almighty may bless us with peace.” It was a call to extend the words and works of Jesus into a new era of peace and brotherhood. In many ways, it was similar to the deep connection Christianity shares with Judaism.
It may seem like a shame that Holy Week isn’t quite what it used to be here in Saint Paul, but we all can still celebrate our own faith in our own ways. The public part of the celebration has moved on to something a little bit bigger, something that seems to be more in line with the origins of the holidays in the first place.
John Paul did his best to help us make sense of it. More to the point, I’m quite sure Jesus would approve.