By Paul Murphy
The answer came only three days later with the resurrection, considered by Christians to be a celebration of spiritual rebirth. As time passes, Easter has been marked by confusion, as people strive to make sense of the doubt, death, hope and forgiveness that surrounds its traditions.
It’s easy to note that different religions mark Jesus’ death and resurrection on different dates, with different traditions and different languages. These differences, along with others, have formed barriers that have caused conflicts between the East and West for centuries.
Prague has examples of triumph and falling empires. Whether it is the throwing of Holy Roman Empire officials from castle windows or the bloodless Velvet Revolution of the Soviet Bloc, the vision to overcome injustice, to share life together and live in harmony is a workable goal. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, that is what I discovered last Easter in Prague.
I joined a group of Bulgarians, Russians, Greeks and Serbians to begin a three-day observation of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection in the Orthodox Church at the centre of Prague’s old-town square.
As tradition dictates, after the start of the 11 p.m. mass, the priest brought a lantern to begin spreading the fire and light throughout the overflowing crowd outside the church. My friend’s mother passed out candles she had brought, continuing the spread of light, which broke the darkness through the celebrating masses.
Following the mass we continued with tradition, which included a celebratory meal. Students and parents all reveled late into the night. While walking down the stone streets, cell phones began ringing and text messages began flowing from family, hoping to share wishes and words during a time traditionally spent with one another at home.
It was peculiar. I had an equal sense of urgency to celebrate this event that I had shared previously with my own Catholic family. Even though most students were without their kin, I felt a strong sense of connection among the group despite the foreign nature of the traditions.
These were all experiences that made that weekend together unique. Amongst the most memorable was our Sunday dinner together in an outdoor Greek restaurant. I realized that it wasn’t important that I understand all of the events and traditions of the people I was with, just that I enjoy them. The final Sunday lunch was a deep dive into my experience of the intertwining of culture and religion.
What had started as a traditional meal of lamb soon became a Greek celebration of dancing, music and song. Dancing together in a circle became a learning experience. The music and ouzo flowed- as well as the discussion- and it was clear that our differences had become the grace of our celebration in learning about one another.
These curious similarities had never really been satisfying and instead laid an egg of discontent inside of me. After my semester in Prague, this itch drove me to seek out why so many of us fail to understand each other and would die without ever having experienced the enlightening event of sharing a religious event like Easter together.
This search continued to torment me for the remainder of my travel, which led me to the Balkans. Coincidently, nowhere else in the world has experienced conflict over the difference between the Orthodox and Catholic Church as this peninsula has. With every church I visited and every individual I met, instead of following my original intuition to find similarities, I was consistently searching for differences in the great structures and images that man had built and destroyed.
Finally, I had a realization while visiting the holiest Serbian monetary, Studenica, with a family that I met in Montenegro, and essentially adopted me during their vacation. After entering the monastery, I found myself once again lost in trying to comprehend the significance of this small stone structure.
It was a bit overwhelming, considering it had endured several wars familiar to the region. On the walls were marks of vandalism on the faces of the portraits painted when it had originally been built in 1190 during the Byzantine Empire.
Nebojsa, the father, immediately recognized my unease. He pointed out that this monastery contained many signs of Roman artistic influence, common during the building of structures during the early stages of the Byzantines.
The conversation continued until the words coming from his mouth almost made me freeze.
“The only hope is if we unite, share and recognize our God, life and history are one.”
It is only a year later that I have come to realize how this connection between my Orthodox Easter experience with my friends and a family who cared for me had helped unearth the insignificance of our differences in a history that commonly separates us. We very rarely have the opportunity or courage to realize that our differences are so small, yet it is difficult for the vast majority to realize the ease with which they are overcome by ignoring the differences beyond our control.
While putting together my experiences, I decided to seek out Dr. Eliezer Segal from the University of Calgary religious studies department. Subsequently, he was able to share the experience about his presentation on the
Passover celebration he had done at a local church. As a follower of Judaism and a religious scholar, he brought a variety of important perspectives to the difficulties that separate religions during seasons of celebration. He stressed that beneath modern society’s understanding is
that “all traditions are valid and no single event is a direct test to one salvation.”
While his children’s book Uncle Eli’s Passover Haggadah is an attempt to share the simplicity of traditions, he noted that like any resource, it is the responsibility of the individual to seek out these new experiences.
“People are quite often prepared to share their experiences and their way of life with you,” he said.
Especially when we are willing to listen.
By celebrating life together with only one expectation: to enjoy one another’s company, no matter our backgrounds. It is important to realize that I never found our similarities in ancient relics, traditions, history, music or Easter bunnies.