passover easter ramadan

Rare Convergences and Sacred Calendars

The convergence of sacred calendars, rare as it is, should help marshal the will of believers in these traditions to live fully into human time fearlessly seeking reconciliation among their traditions even as these calendars offer the violent and death-riddled cultures a different setting of life.

By William Schweiker|April 20, 2022

This week, three major religious traditions celebrate and commemorate some of the most significant events on their calendar year. This rare convergence offers us an opportunity to reflect on human ways of marking time, the mapping of history onto the universe, and to discover “rare convergences” with religious traditions different from our own.

§1.

In 2022, Ramadan lasts from April 1 to May 1, Passover from April 15 to 23, and Easter on April 17 for Catholics and Protestants and April 24 for the Orthodox. This convergence, which is rare, has garnered little public attention.[1] No doubt as the High Holidays of these traditions, the general secularized public has less interest them than do devoted Muslims, Jews, and Christians. And that is true not withstanding Easter eggs and bunnies and new spring clothes. Religions work through texts and rituals and rituals need to be timed which, obviously, demands some way to make the passing of days and years. It seems that religions have much to do with time.

That is the point, of course. Different religions use different calendars given the different cultural and astronomical traditions as well as the central events and figures of a tradition. Consider the differences among the monotheistic traditions. Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam. It is a time of reflection and prayer that celebrates the first revelation to the prophet Muhammad. Holy Week and Easter conclude the Christian season of Lent, a time or prayer and penance, with the celebration of Christ's resurrection. Passover for Jews is the remembrance of the exodus from slavery in Egypt. It commemorates the saving of the firstborn sons of the Hebrews during the tenth plague to convince Pharaoh to release the slaves. Foundational events for these traditions must be marked for yearly rites of remembrance, reflection, repentance, and prayer. Hence the importance of calendars.

However, things get complicated precisely because these traditions have different calendars and for the reasons noted above. The Christian or Western calendar, or properly stated the Gregorian calendar, is based on the birth of Jesus. It has a year of 12 months and 365 days, except for leap year, and is a solar calendar. The Jewish calendar is a lunisolar calendar based, according to Jewish tradition, on creation itself and so about 3760 BCE. It has 12 months and between 353 and 385 days. The Muslim calendar is based on the lunar cycle and has roughly 354 days and 12 months. The second Caliph numbered the years of the Islamic calendar from the time of the Prophet’s emigration to Al-Madinah.[2] Notice: different accounts of the beginnings of countable time (Christ's birth, Creation, the Hegira), different orientation cosmologically (lunar, solar, lunisolar), and different foundational persons (Muhammad, Moses and the Exodus, Christ). Given this complexity, it is then rare, but nonetheless predictable, when the Holy Days of the three monotheistic traditions converge.

Such it is with this year even if these calendars inscribe human time and its religious meanings in different ways. In order to grasp the significance of this sighting of religion, we need to ponder that the religions do with human time through their calendars. And to ponder such requires that consider what is going on around us.

Tragically, the past weekend saw three mass shootings, leaving two dead and many wounded in Hampton and Columbia and Pittsburgh.[3] We know as well the violence visited on houses of worship of each tradition even as the religions also spark violence. Of course, there is the constant search for the reason why someone would rain bullets on unsuspecting victims or believers war against each other. But more is at stake than the motives for heinous actions. The question is, can we mark human time by something other than war and violence? Is Macbeth right that life "is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing?" (Act 5, Scene 5) Can people map their years through reflection, commemoration, and celebration? The rare convergence of sacred calendars should, for believers, mark the spiritual kinship of these traditions despite century after century of conflict, bloodshed, and oppression.[4]

§2.

What do converging sacred calendars have to do with the horror around us as well within and between these traditions? Two things standout in response to that question. Consider them as sightings of religion.

First, sacred calendars punctuate the relentless press of time racing from birth to death, what Robert Bellah rightly called "dreadful immanence," with events that resituate people in time.[5] These events, the Exodus, the move to Al-Madinah, and the Resurrection, expand and deepen the space of human existence. They testify that human life is not only being-toward-death, although it is that as well. Rather, these calendars announce the eternal in time that exceeds even the human imagination. The calendars plot the eternal in time with yearly rites and readings so that people will not forget the scope of their existence and let future generations live with only sound and fury.

Second, when sacred calendars punctuate time with the eternal, the space of human life is not only temporally expanded and deepened. In itself, that would just signify the smallness and fleeting nature of a human life within the expanse of the expanding universe. Sacred calendars are sacred precisely because the eternal for these traditions is a living, righteous, and loving God, and that grounds, it would seem, the hope and the conviction that murderous evil does not have the last word and that people are charged to seek justice and love in their own lives and that of their communities. Not only the scope but also the profound significance of human life is that disclosed in the punctuation of time by sacred calendars.

Sacred calendars inscribe human time with a horizon that exceeds dreadful immanence and, importantly, a horizon meant to call forth the best of the human heart and mind. The convergence of sacred calendars, rare as it is, should help marshal the will of believers in these traditions to live fully into human time fearlessly seeking reconciliation among their traditions even as these calendars offer the violent and death-riddled cultures a different setting of life.

§3.

In the end, perhaps the rare convergence between the high Holy Days of the great monotheistic religions is instructive for anyone who ponders them. The great religions know and probe the depths of human depravity as well as the heights of human goodness. That is why there is celebration of deliverance from captivity, from sin, from brokenness between humans and the divine used to reconfigure time even as the same yearly rites demand repentance and reflection. Perhaps we need sacred calendars and those who live by them to remind us that the human tale is not told only or completely by an idiot.


[1] https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-the-rare-convergence-of-ramadan-passover-and-easter-recalls-a-shared/.

[2] On this see https://www.iqrasense.com/islamic-history/islamic-christian-and-jewish-hebrew-calendars.html

[3] https://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/authorities-hurt-shooting-club-south-carolina-84135077

[4] Also see https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/17/world/middleeast/passover-ramadan-easter-jerusalem.html.

[5] Robert Bellah, Religion and Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (Harvard Belknap Press, 2017).

 

WS

William Schweiker

Columnist, William Schweiker (PhD’85), is the Edward L. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor of Theological Ethics at the Divinity School.