For the first time in 30 years, the three holy seasons of Easter, Passover and Ramadan are set to fall within the same period. In 2022, the 40-day Lent period of fasting for Christians broadly aligns with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. In fact, the Orthodox Christian calendar (in which Lent begins one week later than the West) aligns even more closely with Ramadan, with the end of Lent taking place on 23rd April whilst the end of Ramadan is expected to be 1st or 2nd May. Passover, on the other hand, begins on 15th April and ends on 23rd – the day before Orthodox Easter.
The dates of these celebrations differ slightly each year given their different and often confusing calendars. Whilst the Christian calendar depends on the solar equinox, the date of Passover follows a lunar calendar, using a corrective process to ensure that the date never drifts out of spring. The beginning and end of Ramadan also rely on the moon, with the beginning of the month of fasting marked by the sighting of the hilal (the crescent moon) for the first time after the end of a lunar cycle. Whilst Ramadan falls largely in the month of April in 2022, next year it will begin in March, and, by 2032, Ramadan is expected to fall within the winter solstice. The date of Easter also hops around each year (no pun intended!) because it depends on astrological factors, falling on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox.
“The fact that these two times of fasting fall within reach of one another provides a great feeling of solidarity since almost everyone in the country is observing a holy time.”
As a Christian who lives in a majority Muslim country, I find the overlap of Lent and Ramadan particularly significant. The fact that these two times of fasting fall within reach of one another provides a great feeling of solidarity since almost everyone in the country is observing a holy time. Moreover, whilst Muslims and Christians fast in different ways, the religious purpose is similar: to distance yourself from material needs in order to become closer to God. In Ramadan, Muslims fast during daylight hours, abstaining from food and water, as well as cigarettes – the latter making taxi drivers particularly grumpy where I live in Amman. This fast is broken after sunset, first with water and dates, then with a meal called iftar. In the West, Christian fasting for Lent typically does not involve a complete fast, but rather members are encouraged to ‘give up’ something specific – anything from TV to alcohol to rollerblading, as in my favourite episode of Father Ted. This differs quite significantly from the Orthodox practice of fasting, which can restrict the consumption of dairy, eggs, meat and wine, with the Friday before Easter often being a complete fast where members eat nothing at all.
However, whilst in an ideal world this intersection of holy dates would stand for religious tolerance, solidarity and acceptance, it can also remind us of the violence and division present even during times of observation. In no other area of the world is this division as clear as it is in Jerusalem, where the past week has seen “clashes” between Palestinian Muslims and Israeli forces at the al-Aqsa Mosque inside the Old City. This is just one in a trail of similar incidents that are chronically under-reported in the West. Last year, attacks in and around the mosque during Ramadan escalated to an 11-day war between Israeli and Palestinian forces. This year again, even during the holiest time of the year for Muslims (most of whom are Palestinian), religious buildings are no longer safe spaces to pray and worship.
Meanwhile, just a few minutes to the north, Christians celebrate Palm Sunday with a procession of palm crosses to represent the crucifixion of Jesus. As Christians in the West celebrated Easter on Sunday, Pope Francis said in his address: “May Israelis, Palestinians and all who dwell in the Holy City, together with the pilgrims, experience the beauty of peace, dwell in fraternity and enjoy free access to the holy places in mutual respect for the rights of each.” Yet however much we hope for this prayer to become true, the violence and tension between Jerusalem’s religious groups is a reminder that coexistence does not always lead to harmony – particularly under occupation.
“…it seems necessary now, more than ever, to speak to those whose religions are different to ours, to respect holy places and those who worship in them.”
But it is not all doom and gloom. One thing I have enjoyed about living in a Muslim country during Ramadan is an increase in people’s kindness and hospitality, in a culture that is already welcoming to guests and foreign travellers. Free water is available in many places on the streets after sundown, and in certain areas you find organisations providing a free meal for those who want to break their fast. The other day, I travelled in a bus during the hour before iftar, and after sunset a box of dates and water was passed around amongst all people who wished to share, regardless of whether they had been fasting or not. Amman may not be a good comparison to Jerusalem as it enjoys much greater religious and political stability, but even so it is an example of people coming together during a holy time, irrespective of background.
The convergence of holy dates might not mean harmony, particularly for those living in Jerusalem. But it seems necessary now, more than ever, to speak to those whose religions are different to ours, to respect holy places and those who worship in them. In this way, we might avoid arrogance and become aware of our misconceptions of religion and those different to us.
Image description: A Christian cross positioned alongside a Star of David and an Islamic crescent.