Let's look inward in this season of freedom, rebirth Faith: With their potent messages of hope, redemption and liberation, Passover and Easter provide a perfect time to search our hearts and atone for our sins.

March 30, 1997|By ARTHUR J. MAGIDA

There are certain meetings of time and spirit and faith in the West that some would call coincidence and others would call divine.

To the more crass and less theologically astute, Hanuk-kah and Christmas might fall into this rarefied category. But about all they share is temporal proximity: They just happen to reside in the same monthly neighborhood. Other than that, the two have almost less in common than Yom Kippur and Ramadan, both of which, at least, require fasting.

Moreover, the influence of one has corrupted the sanctity of the other: Christmas merchandising has given Hanukkah celebrants an excuse for excessive gift-giving, a frenzy that doesn't say much about either faith.

The true faith-brothers under the skin are Passover and Easter, and not because Jesus attended a Seder the night before his crucifixion nor because the two holidays often overlap on the calendar. There is a symmetry between them because both promulgate, in their own fashion, potent, almost relentless messages of hope, redemption and liberation, be they personal, tribal, communal or universal.

Whether Jesus was the Messiah or whether he died for humanity's sins or whether he was just among the thousands of prophetic figures or simply malcontents crucified by the occupying Romans, Christianity's embrace of his gruesome death speaks to the great, almost universal yearning for transcendence, justice, eternality; to the passionate, almost innate and often irrational conviction that we are more than we seem; that life, however dreary, is more than it seems; that a Son could make his Father manifest for all time.

Jesus' liberating spirit is simultaneously the personal, yet also the more cosmic counterpoint to the liberating spirit of Passover. Jesus, Christians believe, died to free humanity from its sins; Moses, both Jews and Christians believe, was God's emissary before Pharaoh to secure the Israelites' freedom from bondage. Entreaties and arguments, plagues and calamities, miracles and magic, all these Moses winningly delivered. But Pharaoh recanted, sending his army to retrieve the fleeing slaves. The Israelites became free, but Pharaoh remained shackled by venality, mendacity, greed.

Today, we think little about traditional slavery, which, of course, is assumed to have been extirpated from the globe. Instead, we deal with less visible bondage. We turn inward, because in this post-Freudian/post-modern era, we prefer to look at interior demons, ours and others', and we may shiver, knowing that some of these can be more difficult to exorcise than were the shackles of ancient Egypt. These may be the sins for which Jesus died, but they linger and, somewhere in this vast world, are committed anew every moment. They may be the very sins which the Commandments that Moses received can deter, but too many of us breach these edicts, willfully, maybe even gleefully.

This is not to say that ours is a world solely of sinners and transgressors, or that the next weather report will predict buckets of hail and brimstone. Just that the two leading Western faith traditions, in their own ways, have offered us a hand - and that too few have responded. We can point accusatory fingers at bombers in Oklahoma City or in Atlanta or on buses in Jerusalem or at the gunman who turns an elementary school in Scotland into an abattoir. Or at politicians who dissemble and prevaricate. We see all this - and we shake our heads in dismay.

We're good at that. But rarely do we use this season's twin messages of liberation - inner and outer, personal and universal - to extricate ourselves and our world from our woes. Instead, we take the same route as did the Angel of Death, who passed over the homes of the Israelites while slaying the Egyptian first-born - and we "pass over" ourselves. But now is the time to search our own hearts before flaying outward. For if not during this season of freedom and rebirth, then when?

Arthur J. Magida is the author of "Prophet of Rage" and the two-volume "How to be a Perfect Stranger."

Pub Date: 3/30/97

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