Courage, Freedom and the Spring Holidays

Constituencies of two distinct religious traditions joined in and by their pasts have been engaged this week in observances honoring their shared mythology.

Jews have celebrated Passover, a freedom festival if ever there was one. For the more orthodox Jewish believers, Pesach commemorates a divine intervention in the lives of their 13th century B.C.E. forebears called The Exodus as former slaves against all odds were led to freedom by a messianic figure named Moses.

For other Jews who have thrown off the mythological outer garments of their tradition, Passover is a reminder that freedom of any kind at any time is bound to be hard won. Those who wish to be free must take charge of their lives and gain freedom on their own — freedom being not a gift but an achievement.

These latter-day Jews know that the real history of their people did not include an Exodus from Egypt as depicted in the document named for it. With the help of scholarship, they have come to see that their origins are more likely to be visible in certain archaeological and textual records suggesting elective emigration rather than a massive escape through a sea whose waters were held back by a prophet’s divine power. They now appreciate that the result was the founding of an egalitarian society in which its members worked out a code of laws rather than passively receiving one from a giant hand on Sinai.

During this week, Christians have been tracing what the more conventional believers among them consider to have been the last days of an earthly Christ prior to his execution, burial and miraculous resurrection. Sunday will bring ornate liturgical pageantry intended in that tradition to proclaim that Christ’s victory over death — not only his own but death itself.

For other Christians who long ago abandoned efforts to force the square pegs of ancient doctrine into the round holes of contemporary reality, what is called Passion Week, Good Friday and Easter have become observances centering not on what are depicted as actual events in the life of a Galilean peasant but on enduring motifs of freedom and courage — the former unobtainable apart from the latter.

His existence, scarcely attested outside of the Bible/1, the Jesus figure, so differently represented in the four New Testament gospels, was transformed through the indefatigable efforts of ideologues masquerading as theologians from a character of mythology into a figure of history. Clues that he is the former and rather than the latter are sprinkled liberally throughout the New Testament text. They include the narratives of his miraculous birth/2, his celebration as the incarnation of an invisible deity/3, his purported miraculous works/4, his miraculous resurrection/5 and his likewise miraculous ascension into heaven./6

Underneath the veneers that have overlaid the various personages known as Jesus — the original presumably a Jew of Galilean origins — is a substance that should remind one of such speakers-of-truth-to power as the 8th century B.C.E. public intellectual Amos who at great risk to himself faced up to a neighboring king and told him and his minions that their neglect of the poor was anything but benign. It should remind one of Martin Luther King Jr., whose death at the hands of an assassin 42 years ago will be observed on this Easter Day, April 4.

If Christians are determined to find in their Easter observances some evidence of life after death, they have only to behold how much more alive King is today than his late assassin. Yes, King’s body is entombed in honor near his one-time church in Atlanta. I have wept at that memorial site. But his name is on ten thousand tongues every day wherever freedom is sought and celebrated, wherever courage has won it.

King could not have invoked the words of what he called “that old Negro spiritual”/7 on that blazing hot August day almost a half century ago without summoning from within himself the same courage as empowered those of antiquity eventually known as Jews to emigrate for freedom’s sake. Those first century C.E. Palestinians who rallied around the ethical wisdom of the one they called Jesus likewise found within themselves the courage to carry on the fight for freedom.

That courage and that freedom are what Passover and Easter are about, whether celebrated with matzo or lilies, gefilte fish or ham, bitter herb or colored egg.

1/ see Flavius Josephus, “The Antiquities of the Jews,” Bk. 18, Ch. 3, 3.
2/ Matthew 1: 18-25; Luke 1:26-38, 2:1-14
3/ John 1:1-18
4/ e.g., Matthew 8:1-17; Mark 5:35-42; Luke 13:10-13; John 11:38-44
5/ Matthew 28:1-10; Luke 24:1-12, 13-31; John 20:1-18
6/ Luke 24:50-53
7/ “Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty we are free at last”

Review & Commentary

or, use the form below to post a comment or a review!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

* Copy This Password *

* Type Or Paste Password Here *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>