Monday, March 21, 2016

Passover, Easter and the “Apocalypse”


Springtime is a season that's all about rebirth and renewal, and it also has as its spiritual centerpiece two religious holidays, Easter for Christians and Passover for Jews. But hardly anyone recognizes that each of these holiday has much in common with the other, though not as one might think. What I mean by that is that both Passover and Easter share an undercurrent of apocalypticism, the origin which is in Judaism itself. Indeed, the whole concept of eschatology, that is the “end of days,” normally associated with Christianity, is at its core Jewish, and intimately connected with the springtime feasts celebrated by both Jews and Christians. Take Passover, the great Jewish commemoration of the Exodus from Egypt. Hardly anyone thinks of Passover as apocalyptic, but it is, and that fact is underscored by the mystical presence throughout the festivities of the prophet Elijah. At the heart of the Passover observance is a festive meal, and it's no accident that a place at the table is to be set at the beginning for the prophet Elijah, just in case he shows up at this home on this evening. Later, at the end of the meal, the door is opened to see if perhaps Elijah has come. It is then that everyone raises a final cup of wine and declares, "Next year in Jerusalem!”

The meaning of all this is lost on many modern observers of Passover, but the core of the tradition is the belief that one day Elijah will herald the arrival of the Messiah. In most Jewish circles today, little is said about the Messiah or the messianic age. But among the Orthodox there is a sincere belief that the "anointed one" is destined to arrive at some point in history. The tradition goes back to ancient Israel, when the prophet Isaiah wrote of a future king who will sit on David's throne. But what most people don't recognize is that even among the ancient Israelites there were two competing traditions about the Messiah.

According to one, the “Messiah son of David” will come with signs and wonders, as a mighty judge at the end of the age, The prophet Daniel depicts him coming with the clouds of heaven. The prophet Zechariah, by contrast, presents a very different view: "Behold, your king comes to you… humble and riding upon a donkey.” The sages of old call him “Messiah son of Joseph,” and reconcile the two by saying that if Israel is worthy, the Messiah will arrive accompanied by miracles from On High. If, however, Israel is unworthy, the Messiah will come in deep humility.

In such a case the coming of the Messiah will be accompanied by birth pangs – considerable travail and suffering, known in Hebrew as Hevlei ha-Mashiakh, literally, the “pangs of the Messiah.” There are specific predictions in Jewish writings of what such pangs will include:

• Parents and the elderly will be disrespected,
• The old will have to seek favors from the young,
• Those in a person's household will be counted as enemies,
• Insolence will increase,
• There will be no one to offer correction,
• Religious study will be despised and used by nonbelievers,
• The government will become godless,
• Academies will become places of immorality,
• Pious sages will be denigrated, and many people will leave the faith,
• The Jewish people will be split into factions,
• Atheism will sweep the world,
Others will remain steadfast.

Amazingly, there is even an early Jewish tradition, recorded in the Talmud, that this “Messiah son of Joseph” will be slain. There is also an ancient stone inscription, unearthed just a decade ago in Israel, that declares that after three days the “prince of princes” will live again. Sound familiar?

Now, think about the meaning of Easter. What does the "passion of Jesus" represent but the "pangs of the Messiah" on a personal level? Many scholars scoff at the idea that Jesus prophesied his own death. Such details must have been added by later editors, to make Jesus “seem” like a prophet. But what if Jesus actually understood himself, prophetically, as the “Messiah son of Joseph”? Could it be that he knew that it was only a matter of time until the Romans apprehended him as a “troublemaker,” and that he would surely be executed, yet live again, as the stone had predicted? Could it be that he saw this as doing his part in fulfilling the "pangs of the Messiah"? Could it be that the one disciple who understood this prophetic “destiny,” yet who gets the “bum rap” of all history, was none other than Judas Iscariot? Could it be that Judas was actually part of the larger prophetic plan in Jesus’ mind, acting as his friend, not his enemy? Mind-blowing, isn't it? But that's where biblical scholarship often leads – headlong into controversy!

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