Although CNEWA works on three continents and in many different countries, our name, Catholic Near East Welfare Association, betrays our deep roots in the Near East, the home of the world’s three great monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. For centuries these faiths have lived side by side — sometimes in peace, sometimes in fratricidal conflict and, very often in mutual ignorance of each other.
But what we are all experiencing now during this coronavirus pandemic is challenging how we live side by side, how we worship and, significantly, how we mark key feasts on our religious calendars. It is this last element that has particular resonance now, during a time of year when all three religions mark times of sacred communal prayer and celebration — celebrations that by necessity are being radically affected this year.
First, some background.
Related in history, belief in the same God and with common roots Jews, Christians and Muslims are in many ways unique among the religions of the world. Most notable is that each of these faiths worships the one, transcendent God — though admittedly in very different ways. One of the things common to each of these faiths is the use of a lunar calendar to determine feasts and festivals. This is, however, often very confusing for the average person and with good reason. While the cycle of the moon is one of the most obvious things in the sky, in many places the cycle of the seasons — spring, summer, autumn and winter — is also not only obvious but equally or more critical for things like planting, harvesting, etc.
The problem arises because the lunar and solar calendar to do not synchronize. Twelve solar months consists of 365 days, 48 minutes and 46 seconds while twelve lunar months consist of 354 days, considerably shorter than the solar calendar. Each of the three monotheist faiths deal with this issue in a different and, at times, complicated way.
Even with “social distancing” we have become painfully, frighteningly aware of how our fates are intertwined.
For Muslims, the calendar began with the Hijra, Muhammad’s move to Medina, in 622. It is a purely lunar calendar and the Muslim year and Muslim religious festivals are always calculated on the phases of the moon.
The moon is central to both the Jewish and Christian calendars but there is an important difference. In different but related ways, Christians and Jews use a lunar calendar that is periodically “corrected” over against the solar calendar. For Jews Passover, the central feast of the calendar, occurs on the 14th of the month of Nisan, the first month of the Jewish ancient liturgical year. It is a spring month and so brings together the lunar (Nisan) and solar (spring) aspects of the feast. Passover, therefore, depending on the full moon of spring can occur within a 28-day period in the spring.
Christians also use a lunar calendar with an interesting twist for determining the liturgical year. Since Christ died at Passover time, Easter Sunday is calculated as the first Sunday after the first full moon (lunar) of spring (solar). Easter and Passover, calculated in similar (but not identical ways) always fall within weeks of each other.
Because the Muslim calendar is purely lunar, Muslim observances such as Ramadan, the Hajj, etc. move “backwards” through the solar years. Thus, vis-à-vis the Gregorian calendar predominant in the west, Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, begins about 14 days “earlier” every year. Thus while Passover and Easter occur within relatively the same time frame every years, it takes the Muslim calendar about 33 years for a feast to occur on the same day on the solar calendar.
In the western, pluralistic world there is an increasing awareness of the religious observance of our fellow citizens. New and interesting practices have started to develop in parts of the world. Many Jews invite Christians and Muslims to attend a seder or Passover meal. During Ramadan many Muslims hold an iftar, the breaking of the fast every day after sunset, and invite their Christian and Jewish neighbors. All of this is to be encouraged and seen as a positive sign.
2020, however, is tragically unique.
Passover, Easter and the beginning of Ramadan begin this year within weeks of each other. Normally, this would be a graced time of interaction. Jews, Muslims and Christians are deeply related to their respective communities and Passover, Easter and Ramadan are not private observances but milestones in the life of each community, which comes together—often in great numbers—to celebrate the festival and to renew the bonds of faith which bind communities together.
This year Jews, Christians and Muslims are bound together in a tragic and unprecedented way. COVID-19, a virus first noticed perhaps in China, within a matter of months has encircled the globe causing suffering, sickness and death to potentially millions of people. Invisible — and no respecter of borders, political systems, armies and faiths — COVID-19 has impacted everyone on the entire planet. Passover, Easter and Ramadan 2020 will be remembered as unlike any other observed in hundreds, indeed thousands, of years.
There is perhaps in all this something dark and mysterious to be learned. If in the recent past Jews, Christians and Muslims used festivals to bring people together and to show similarities between faiths, COVID-19 shows us not merely how similar we are, but how incredibly identical we are in our vulnerability. Even with “social distancing” we have become painfully, frighteningly aware of how our fates are intertwined. We are assured that this pandemic — this global plague — will pass. When it does, I pray that we have a much deeper awareness of our shared humanity and our unexpectedly shared vulnerability. I pray that such a new awareness leads us to love for our fellow human beings,