Vancouver’s Catholic and Jewish communities took another step toward strengthening their relationship as 200 people of both faiths mingled, shared a meal, and discussed the Easter and Passover holy days.
“It marks a significant event in the increasingly closer relations that our two communities enjoy, and it is an enormous blessing our Lord has given to us,” said Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB, at the dinner at St. Patrick’s Parish April 8, the second such event in recent months.
In December, the two communities shared a meal and discussed Christmas and Hanukkah at Congregation Beth Israel in Vancouver.
This time, the gathering focused on Easter and Passover, and their common themes of death and new life, suffering and redemption.
“Our statement of belief is enacted through the practice of the Passover seder,” said Rabbi Laura Kaplan, director of interreligious studies at the Vancouver School of Theology, one of three panelists chosen to share reflections on Easter or Passover.
“This is the most popular of Jewish holidays. Jews gather in large groups at community centres and synagogues and in small groups in each other’s homes, and together, by telling the story and eating the ritual foods, it’s as if we affirm: the Exodus from Egypt happened, the Exodus is still happening – problems, questions, and needs never go away – and the Exodus will happen again.”
The earliest record of the Passover seder, she said, comes from about the year 200, and the rituals of tasting unleavened bread, bitter greens, and wine, and re-telling the Exodus story have not vastly changed since.
“In each and every generation, we are obligated to regard ourselves as though we actually, personally, left Egypt,” she said. “It is, some people would say, the essence of Jewish faith: to have hope in a better future. Or, in the language of biblical prophets: redemption is coming. We will be at peace.”
Unfortunately throughout history, from the suffering in Egypt to the Holocaust, the Jewish people have not known peace. Chris Friedrichs, a history professor at the University of British Columbia and member of Vancouver’s Jewish community, told the crowd the persecution of Jews through history has even come at the hands of Christians.
“There is a rather complicated history in the relationship between Passover and Easter,” said Friedrichs.
The “most famous Passover meal in history” – the Last Supper – marked a drastic historical and theological divide between the observers of these feasts.
“(Jesus’) life as recorded in the Gospels of the Christian New Testament was a deeply Jewish life. Many of his teachings, practices, and disputations were profoundly rooted in Jewish tradition,” said Friedrichs.
But between the Last Supper and the Resurrection, “everything changed. For Christians, the Resurrection is at the heart of their belief system. But of course, the Resurrection is something which no Jew can possibly believe. These three days make the difference,” he said.
“For most of the 2,000 years that followed these three days, relations between Christians and Jews were deeply troubled.” In history, Jews came under persecution from Christians, some of whom blamed all Jewish people for killing Jesus, held mistaken beliefs about Jewish rituals, or tried to force conversions, he said.
Inter-religious feuds led to extreme violence and deaths in cities like Trent in 1475, where a Christian child was found dead in a Jewish man’s home on Easter Sunday, resulting in public outrage leading to a massacre of Jews in the town.
Deacon Hilmar Pabel, a Catholic historian at Simon Fraser University, added other examples to the list, saying it wasn’t hard to find stories of persecution of Jews in Prague, Lisbon, and then-Bessarabia (modern-day Moldova and south-western Ukraine) at the hands of Christians fueled by prejudice.
“For centuries, Catholics prayed ‘for the perfidious Jews.’ Perfidious means treacherous, untrustworthy. They characterized Jewish people as spiritually blind.”
Even cardinals and popes, he said, brought prejudice into Church teachings, at times for example requiring Jews to wear distinctive clothing and observe a curfew around Easter time, lest they make fun of Christians observing Holy Week. “These rules entered into the law of the Church, were repeated by popes, and enforced by secular authorities.”
But times have radically changed since then, Deacon Pabel said.
“With the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, a new and deeper appreciation of Jews and Judaism occurred. The liturgy on Good Friday was revised, so now we have a beautiful prayer for Jewish people, those to whom God spoke first,” he said. “There is no prayer for the conversion of the Jews. It is that they remain faithful to who they are, to their covenant.”
This year, Jews and Christians will celebrate their biggest feasts of the year at the same time. Passover will begin at sundown on Good Friday, April 19.
The traditions also overlap during Holy Week liturgies, where Catholics will read the Exodus account from the Old Testament and sing from the book of Psalms. “We’ll be thinking of you when we hear those words,” said Deacon Pabel.
“The Jewish people are, as Saint Pope John Paul II said, if you’ll allow this, our elder brothers and sisters. We worship separately, but we’re family.”
Friedrichs is also optimistic about relations between local Jews and Catholics. “In Vancouver, we can confidently and safely assert our own adherence to our own traditions, while at the same time taking a sincere interest in the beliefs and practices of different faiths.”
Archbishop Miller hinted at the possibility of more Jewish-Catholic events in the future, though dates have not been announced.