It’s Palm Sunday in the Christian tradition as I write today, which means Easter is next Sunday. Palm Sunday begins Holy Week; we’ve still got Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Saturday, and then finally Easter Sunday to go. The most glorious day on the Christian calendar, Easter Sunday, April 1 this year, commemorates Jesus’ rising from the dead.
When I was little, I loved getting that long yellowish-green frond on Palm Sunday, and as I got older I even learned how to bend the palm leaf into a cross. In the Catholic tradition, because the fronds are blessed, they are saved and then burned and used for the ashes that are placed on foreheads on Ash Wednesday the following year.
As the gospels tell us, when Jesus arrived triumphantly in Jerusalem on a humble donkey, just days before his crucifixion, the townspeople spread palms in his path — something reserved for those who were revered and respected. Jesus was on his way to fulfilling his passion and destiny as he entered Jerusalem.
Maundy Thursday relives Christ’s Last Supper with his apostles, where his actions form the ritual of communion with bread and wine. He also entreats brotherly love, and washes the feet of his disciples on Holy Thursday. Next comes Good Friday, which commemorates the crucifixion and Jesus’ death. Holy Saturday and the Easter Vigil get a little more complicated, but I’d just settle for the fact that it’s the day before Jesus rises from the dead, and therefore a day to remember his suffering as we’re symbolically waiting by his tomb.
As Christians are commemorating Holy Week, members of the Jewish faith are preparing for Passover, a spring holiday in the Jewish calendar, from March 30 to April 7 on this year’s Gregorian calendar. Our Island congregation at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center will hold a Seder on March 31, a dinner that symbolically commemorates the Exodus, God freeing the Israelites from slavery. There are special foods consumed at this time, including unleavened bread, or matzoh. This bread signifies that the Israelites were in such a hurry to leave Egypt that they didn’t wait for the bread to rise.
This time of year is so important for these two faith traditions that I wanted to dig a little deeper into the meaning and the significance for today’s world. I’m very lucky to be able to reach out to Island clergy for some good conversation about these matters, so I sought some help from Rabbi Caryn Broitman from the Hebrew Center. She was able to explain how traditions thousands of years old have meaning today. I asked her what is the most important part of the Seder meal.
“The most important part is to tell the story that our ancestors were slaves in Egypt and then we were free,” Rabbi Broitman said. “And a part of the Seder is to celebrate that movement from slavery to freedom, and to identify with people who are oppressed all over the world, all different peoples, so that we can be a part of a movement where everyone moves from oppression to freedom.”
Like Easter, Passover is also a celebration of rebirth, she said. “I would say birth and rebirth is a shared theme of Passover and Easter,” Rabbi Broitman said. “Of course that’s not coincidental; Jesus was Jewish and celebrated Passover, and his disciples were Jewish and celebrated Passover.”
Passover also has political undertones, she said. When Moses went to the authoritarian Pharaoh and he refused to heed God’s command to free the Israelites, God punishes Pharaoh’s Egypt with those 10 plagues, the last of which is killing the firstborn of each family. The Israelites are spared this curse, and God “passes over” their homes, because their doors are marked with lamb’s blood. Finally, Pharaoh has had enough, and he chases the Israelites from the land. They head to Mount Sinai, where God gives them his laws. This is some complicated history, and I’m sure there are scholars who could explain it much more clearly than I have here. It’s not quite as simple as Charlton Heston would have us believe in “The Ten Commandments.”
Back to the here and now, Rabbi Broitman explains how Passover is a political holiday.
“It’s a very political holiday in the sense that Pharaoh was an oppressive leader who used his power for his own greed. He was very much a narcissist; the plagues hurt his own people, and he didn’t care,” she explained. “So it describes that political process of a leader really using his power for his own gain at the expense of the citizens of the country, and also using the fact that Jews were a minority and stoking fear against those Israelites so Egypt would support him. The use of fear by an authoritarian leader we see in many, many instances today. We see it here in the U.S., in Hungary, in Russia. That’s the story about Passover, people resisting that divisiveness of an authoritarian leader.
“I think that’s the power of that story. What happened in Egypt and the exodus from Egypt has been so important for people around the world. People in Haiti, when I visited, quoted the story. It was important to Martin Luther King Jr. God is on the side of the oppressed, and God will help the oppressed resist injustice,” she said.
Every time the Jewish people tell the story of the Exodus during Passover, they are telling the ubiquitous story of all of us.
“We tell the story over and over again because it has a deeper truth in the way humans struggle for freedom and justice, the way humans oppress and enslave each other and the way we struggle to be free,” Rabbi Broitman said.
When I think about the shared importance of this season, and especially in light of the struggles we see today, Easter and Passover take on deeper meaning. Much more than folding my palm frond into a little cross.
The Hebrew Center has many events planned in the upcoming weeks, and we’ll highlight a few now. There’s an interfaith Freedom Seder with the First Congregational Church of West Tisbury on Wednesday, April 4. On Sunday, April 8, at 10 am, Myra Stark gives a talk on Jewish American women writers with Allegra Goodman’s “The Family Markowitz” and “Kaaterskill Falls.” On Wednesday, April 11, at 7 pm, veteran journalist and producer Don Snyder presents “The Rise of Antisemitism in Germany.” May 6 at 10:30 am, Yehuda Yaakov, Israel’s consul general to New England, visits the Hebrew Center.
Easter around the Island
Everyone is welcome to come when three churches — First Baptist Church, Beacon of Hope Church, and Vineyard Assembly of God Church — come together on Good Friday, March 30, at 7 pm at First Baptist Church on William Street in Vineyard Haven for a combined service.
Beacon of Hope Church holds services on Maundy Thursday at Focus in West Tisbury at 6 pm, a Good Friday Tenebrae service with the Vineyard Assembly of God Church on State Road in Vineyard Haven at 7 pm, and an Easter Sunday service at 10 am at the Edgartown School with an Easter egg hunt during Sunday School.
Chilmark Community Church gathers for a sunrise service at Menemsha Beach at 6:15 am (if you want to walk to the beach from the church, get there at 5:30 am). There will be an Easter breakfast at the church from 7:15 to 8:45 am, with a worship service following at 9 am.
The United Methodist Church at the Campgrounds hosts a Holy Thursday service with communion at 7 pm on March 29. On Good Friday, March 30, the sanctuary will be open for meditation from noon to 3 pm. Everyone is invited to a 6 am sunrise service on Easter Sunday at Inkwell Beach, and there will be a 10 am worship service at the church, with Easter baskets for children following the service.
Grace Church plans a special service on Holy Saturday, the Easter Vigil. A press release from the church explains the tradition of this special weekend: “The traditional service begins in the darkness that began on Good Friday, and continues with the lighting of the new Paschal Candle and sharing of stories from the Hebrew Bible,” the release states. “The service moves to the baptismal font where new members to the Christian faith who studied throughout the season of Lent are baptized or baptismal promises to God are renewed. Then all the lights are lit and bells ring out with the Good News of the Resurrection and the first Holy Communion of Easter is celebrated.”
Children and their families are invited to this service at Grace Church, which begins at 7 pm in the church’s playground, around the light of a campfire. There will be singing, stories, and telling the story of Easter. Everyone then walks “to the front door of the church with lighted candles, knocking to gain entrance, walking through the darkened church to the Children’s Chapel and finally back to the fully lit church to greet the risen Christ with shouts of alleluia and the ringing of bells.”
The colored eggs and treats are saved for Easter Sunday, after the 10 am church service, with an Easter egg hunt on the church grounds.
At St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, the Maundy Thursday service with the choir begins at 7 pm. Good Friday services begin with a 12 pm service with music and a 4 pm service with the Stations of the Cross. There’s an Easter egg hunt on Saturday, March 31, at 9 am at 10 Bold Meadow Road in Edgartown. Then Easter Sunday, April 1, there are services at 8 am, 9:15 am, and 10:30 am.
The Federated Church in Edgartown offers a Maundy Thursday service on March 29 at 7 pm. On Good Friday, the church will be open for those who want to stop by from 9 am to 3 pm. There’s an Easter sunrise service at the parsonage on 75 South Water St. at 6:30 am and an Easter worship service at 10:30 am at the church.
Good Shepherd Parish hosts a Mass of the Lord’s Supper at 7 pm. On Good Friday, March 30, the most solemn day in the church calendar, from noon to 2:30 pm, St. Augustine’s hosts “The Seven Last Words,” a series of seven 20-minute segments reflecting on the last words of Jesus. Also on Good Friday there’s a service at 3 pm with liturgy of the word, veneration of the cross, and communion. Stations of the Cross take place in English at 6 pm and in Portuguese at 7 pm. Then Saturday, March 31, the Easter vigil service is at 7:30 pm. The high point of the liturgical year, at the Easter vigil the congregation watches as the catechumens receive the sacraments of baptism, communion, and confirmation. There’s an Easter Sunday sunrise service at Sheriff’s Meadow Beach at 6:30 am. Easter Mass is at 8 and 9:30 am at St. Augustine’s, and at 11 am at St. Elizabeth’s in Edgartown.
The next Meditations of Peace event will be held at the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital Chapel on Saturday, April 7, at 4 pm. It’s sponsored by the interfaith community of Martha’s Vineyard, and includes local artists, musicians, and clergy. All are invited to take part in a program of music, prayers, poetry, a Hindu Kirtan, and a healing journey.