Charles L. Cohen is E. Gordon Fox Professor of American Institutions, Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and author of The Abrahamic Religions: A Very Short Introduction.
This spring, a set of major Muslim, Jewish and Christian religious observances overlap. The month-long fast of Ramadan began on April 2, Passover started on the evening of April 15, and Easter Sunday – the end of Holy Week – falls on either April 17, for Western Christendom, or April 24, for Eastern Orthodoxy. This infrequent “convergence” has sparked some casual public notice, but more can be said about why it doesn’t happen more often and what it might suggest about the intricate connections between the Abrahamic religions.
Passover and Easter do not generally coincide with Ramadan (and, for that matter, the interval between the two shifts from year to year) because the Jewish, Christian and Islamic calendars rest on different schemes of calculation. The Jewish calendar consolidates a lunar year, based on the moon’s monthly cycles, with a solar year, which is based on the time it takes the Earth to orbit the sun (or, more precisely, the period between two vernal equinoxes). Since it may also include leap months, the Jewish year can range from 353 to 385 days. This system ensured that the three harvest festivals celebrated in ancient times at the Jerusalem Temple occurred each year at the proper agricultural season, if not on the same solar day.
The Christian calendar, on the other hand, is purely solar. Most holy days are fixed, occurring at the same astronomical time each year, but Easter shifts within that framework because of its links to Passover, the Jewish festival season during which the events of Jesus’s ministry in Jerusalem played out. The frequent discrepancy between Western and Eastern Christian observances occurs because, for Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, Easter follows the first full moon on or after the spring equinox according to the Gregorian calendar – instituted by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 – while, for the Eastern Orthodox, it follows the first full moon after Passover according to the old Roman calendar as reformed by Julius Caesar. Although Passover and (the two) Easter(s) usually occur close together, there can be some notable exceptions; in 2016, “Western” Easter took place on March 27, Passover commenced on the evening of April 22, and Orthodox Easter fell on May 1.
The Islamic calendar, in contrast, consists of 12 lunar months – as mandated in the Quran – and thus is shorter than either the Jewish or Christian calendars. As a result, its festivals migrate against the solar calendar in a 33-year cycle. By 2025, Ramadan will end in March, while Passover will not begin until the evening of April 12, and – in another relatively rare congruence – all Christians will mark Easter on April 20.
Along with the liturgical calendars in which they are embedded, Passover, Easter and Ramadan also betray different theological interests. Passover mixes agricultural and historical themes, marking both the spring harvest and God’s redemption of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. More generally, many Jewish holy days rehearse how Israel’s relationship with God is rooted in history, their observance renewing memories of the Temple even as its destruction forced Jews to change their ritual practices.
Although the Christian liturgical year is structured around the life of Christ, its emphases are theological rather than historical. Many days honour saints and martyrs, but rather than weaving an annual narrative of ecclesiastical history, the calendar highlights Christ’s salvific work. Easter itself – theologically the most important feast of all – celebrates the Resurrection, Christ’s triumph over sin and death, and the ground for Christians’ expectations of eternal life.
Ramadan commemorates the Quran’s revelation to Muhammad while urging Muslims to repentance and works of charity. The Islamic calendar’s deliberate divorce of sacred days from any association with the cycle of seasons illustrates, to reference the writer G. Willow Wilson, an iconoclasm so absolute that it guards against worshipping a recurrent time within the natural year rather than the transcendent God who created nature and exists above it.
Historical circumstances have figured importantly in how each calendar took shape. Much of the Jewish calendar’s mathematics (not to mention the names of the months) show the influence of the Babylonian exile. The Christian calendar reflects the Church’s origins as a predominantly gentile movement within the Roman empire, whose calendar it appropriated for its own purposes and, in the process, distinguished itself from Judaism. Islam’s adoption of a lunar calendar deliberately rejected the lunisolar calendar followed by the “heathen” Arabs and differentiated its sense of sacred time from those of both Judaism and Christianity.
You could argue that the current convergence of Ramadan, Passover and Easter is an incidental curiosity, hardly indicative of a more substantive relationship between the traditions – but there is more to the matter than that. In fact, the festivals’ current proximity provides the occasion for discovering deeper congruities between the traditions. The religions share some critical fundamentals: devotion to the one God, reverence for Abraham and sacred literatures that are inter-referential. Fasting may be central to Ramadan, but it is hardly a Muslim monopoly; Jews and Christians have fasts of their own.
The histories of the three traditions have braided themselves together for more than a millennium; adherents of each have shared ideas and customs even as they constructed separate religious identities. Whether or not the Last Supper was a Passover meal, some Christians have recently started to hold their own, Christ-centred seders to reflect on their faith’s Jewish roots. Ramadan echoes elements of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, both of them fasts that also recall the divine revelation of scripture.
The convergence’s newsworthiness might thus be interpreted as a popular acknowledgment that Judaism, Christianity and Islam comprise a family of religions bound together by their worship of Abraham’s one God even as they differ – often significantly – about details. That Ramadan, Passover and Easter all come close together this year – a transient phenomenon that will nevertheless come again – mirrors the dynamic that has characterized Abrahamic relationships throughout history: Jews, Christians and Muslims have continually drawn upon each other’s heritages to model, and remodel, their own.
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