At the end of February, I was asked to serve as short-term interim pastor of the Palisades Presbyterian Church here in the small town on the Hudson River north of New York City. My tenure here will be brief; I will serve only until mid-May when a new, full-time pastor will arrive. Part of my time in this position included Holy Week—where I experienced a magical Easter sunrise service on the banks of the Hudson. Yet, even against the creation song melodies—a gentle lapping of the waves on the river, the rustle of leaves in the wind, the birds singing merrily—the world is a fierce and desperate place.
Christians, Jews, and Muslims celebrated an unusual convergence this week as major holidays for the three Abrahamic faiths occurred at the same time, an intersection that only occurs about once every thirty years. For Western Christians, Easter was celebrated on Sunday; Eastern Christians still use the Julian calendar and are one week behind. For Jews, Saturday marked the “Passover,” which celebrates Israel’s exodus from slavery in Egypt. While Easter and Passover often fall on the same weekend, these holidays rarely coincide with the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which is based on an uncorrected lunar calendar.
Despite this Holy Convergence, the world is deeply troubled by violence and division, conflicts—sometimes generations old—that are often shaped and exacerbated by religion. The War in Ukraine pits Russian Orthodox adherents who follow Moscow’s Patriarch Kirill, a supporter of the Kremlin and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, against Ukrainian Orthodox priests and parishioners who denounce the invasion and its excesses.
And in addition to the horrific tragedies that we witness nightly on the news, the lingering impact of events in Ukraine, often referred to as the world’s bread basket, will have an impact far beyond the nation’s borders. Cem Özdemir, Germany’s agriculture minister, said that he has received “alarming news from Ukraine, where Russian troops are apparently also deliberately destroying agricultural infrastructure and supply chains.” These disruptions, Özdemir argues, could lead to global food shortages, as Ukraine is one of the world’s largest exporters of wheat.
Though it dominates the headlines, violence in Ukraine is not the only place where religious differences spur conflict and controversy. In Jerusalem, nine Palestinians were arrested and seven wounded when Israeli police entered Jerusalem’s Temple Mount complex to clear the way for Jewish visitors to the site, which is considered holy by both Muslims and Jews. Hundreds of Palestinian protesters had attempted to block Jewish visitors from accessing the site. And, in related incidents, more than 160 people were injured and 400 arrested as Palestinians threw rocks at buses carrying visitors to the Western Wall and Israeli police entered the Al-Aqsa mosque.
And intra-religious conflict is not confined to Eastern Orthodox Christians in Russia and Ukraine. This week, back-to-back bombings at schools in Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, killed at least six people and injured at least 11 others. The explosions hit outside the prominent Abdul Rahman Shahid school, targeting Kabul’s minority Shiite Hazara community.
Sadly, that magical Easter dawn on the banks of the Hudson was but a fleeting reminder of the hope and promise that this season represents. Developments on the ground, from Israel and Palestine to Afghanistan and Ukraine, remind us that we need more than the occasional convergence of calendars and majestic sunrises to secure a safe, secure and hopeful future for all the world’s people. Prayer is but a start; action is an essential next step. The former without the latter is self-defeating.