Seven weeks passed between Easter and Pentecost, when the disciples finally understood their mission. Suddenly, “with a sound like the blowing of a violent wind,” the spirit of God descended, transforming the cowering disciples into bold and courageous messengers. The kingdom had come, though not just to Israelites: to Parthians, Medes, Romans, Cretans, Arabs, and many others, as the Book of Acts details.
“The kingdom of God is within you,” Jesus had told them, a concept they comprehended at last.
Jews and Christians share the belief that humans are God’s image-bearers, with the mission of mirroring God’s own qualities of mercy, compassion, and steadfast love. At Passover, Jews relive a time when they were slaves, a reminder to care for the needy and disenfranchised. They are encouraged to invite the less fortunate and those who live alone to the seder feast, a tradition made impossible this year by coronavirus restrictions.
For Christians, Holy Week focuses on a God-man who makes a willing sacrifice and then charges others with emulating his example of selfless love. Against all odds, in the three centuries after Jesus’s death, Christianity grew from a tiny subset of Judaism to become the official religion of the Roman empire. The sociologist Rodney Stark argues that Christians’ response to suffering helped fuel the expansion of the faith. When diseases such as smallpox and the bubonic plague hit Roman villages and the locals fled, Christians stayed behind to nurse not only their own families but also those of their pagan neighbors. When Romans abandoned their unwanted babies by the roadside, Christians adopted them.
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After Christians became a majority in Rome and all of Europe, however, a kind of amnesia set in about Jesus’s message of nonviolence. Under Christendom, some of Jesus’s followers became persecutors rather than the persecuted, and waged wars of religion in the name of the “Prince of Peace.” Tragically, their spiritual ancestors, the Jews, made an easy target.
The lessons of Passover and Holy Week apply to believers and unbelievers alike, as a tiny virus has humbled us all. When we gather digitally in search of human contact, we do so with a new understanding of how vulnerably connected we are; the novel coronavirus that has spread around the world provides the proof. We will defeat the malady only by putting aside our divisions and working together as a global community, united against a common threat. Real victories are won not with the sword, but through service and care for one another.
The governor of Colorado, where I live, gives regular updates on the COVID-19 outbreak, in press conferences marked by honesty and good sense. Jared Polis is the first Jew to hold the title, and I was recently surprised to hear him quote a passage from the New Testament, 1 Corinthians 13. “And now these three remain,” said the governor, “faith, hope and love.” He described the faith we have in the scientists working on vaccines and cures, and in the health-care workers tending the sick. Next he reported on some reasons for hope, as social distancing finally shows results in our state.
“But the greatest of these is love,” he concluded. A challenge like COVID-19 can be met only if we all join together in a display of willing sacrifice and selfless love. Something worth pondering in a year when Passover and Holy Week overlap.