This week there will be plenty of storytelling in religions. For the first time in over 30 years several religions are celebrating significant festivals this week. Christians are celebrating Easter, Jains are celebrating the birthday of one of their founders, Baha’is are remembering the day on which their founder Baha’u’llah declared his mission as a Manifestation of God, Sikhs are commemorating the birth of the Khalsa in the festival of Vaisakhi while Muslims are observing Ramadan.
For Christians religious services will focus on the last three days in the life of Jesus. On Holy Thursday the story is about the Last Supper Jesus shared with his disciples before going to his death. This Last Supper has become ritualised in eucharists/communion services celebrated in some denominations daily. On Holy Thursday there is an extra element – at least for Catholics. While the story of the Last Supper is read the priest will wash the foot of 12 parishioners in imitation of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. Being conservative, the Church has in the past stipulated that the parishioners should be men, but Pope Francis has shown by example that not only can women have their feet washed but even people who are not Catholic. As has become his custom the Pope will say Mass in a prison outside of Rome and wash (and kiss) the feet of prisoners, displaying in action, the meaning of the story which is that service, compassion and love of others is at the heart of faith. For Christians this story should be the motivation for how they live and had this been the case throughout history a lot of conflict between religions and a lot of religious wars could have been avoided. But for some people the washing of the feet was limited to followers of Jesus – leading to rejection of others and even denying them salvation. It depends then, not so much on the story but how you hear that story.
Good Friday focusses on the death of Jesus at the hands of the Roman authorities. Yes, he was brought to those authorities by some of the Jewish ruling group but not by ‘The Jews’. Unfortunately, many churches will read the account of Jesus passion from the Gospel of John, and it talks about ‘The Jews’ and if the person leading the service doesn’t explain that this does not refer to the whole Jewish people of which Jesus was a part, the listeners can come away with the wrong idea. This idea was so prevalent in the Middle Ages that Jews were unsafe during these three days as many Christians would attack them to avenge the death of Jesus, charging them with deicide. This reading of the story has been declared wrong by the Catholic Church in its document on its relationship with other faiths, Nostra Aetate as has any form of antisemitism.
The story of Good Friday has been and can be read in different ways – focussing on how necessary it was for the salvation of the world. Another way of reading it is to see it as the first step in an integrated action that includes the Resurrection on Easter Sunday. In this way death and resurrection are taken together and reflect the reality of life. We live in a world where death in nature happens for new life to develop and evolve. Death and resurrection can be read as a spiritual practice – letting go of each moment, old ideas, to embrace the next and respond to what life calls us to.
While all this is happening in Christian churches the Jewish community will be celebrating Pesach/Passover with their families at home. It will take place at a family meal where the story of the People of Israel’s escape from the slavery of Egypt will be told and symbolically acted out through the readings and food that is eaten. Some Christians think this is the meal that Jesus celebrated with his disciples before his death, but it isn’t the same. The order of the service is one that developed in the first century of the common era and would not have been the one celebrated by Jews in Jesus’ time. Some Christians like to Christianise it and link it to Jesus Last Supper, but this is to deny it and Judaism its own integrity. As a story of redemption and salvation Jews will be remembering the injustices and conflicts, the crises from which humans need to be saved and praying that this might happen now as it did in the past to their ancestors. But to do this is also to commit to working to make this salvation a reality in so far as we can.
And the other festivals of new year and the story of religious founders that are being told at the same time as the festivals of Pesach and Easter, as well as the intensive prayer and fasting of Ramadan, must surely give this week a powerful spiritual energy which I believe we can tap in to and harness in our own lives in our hopes and actions for a better world.