This week, as we anticipate the Passion and Resurrection of our Lord, I’ll stick to reflections on the abundantly rich Holy Week services. The period from Christ’s raising of Lazarus in Bethany, which we marked on Saturday, to His cruficixion and Resurrection is a Jewish drama, rich with Jewish protagonists and Jewish symbolism. But it is also the time in which the nascent Church departs definitevely from the Synagogue, and the soil in which much of the Church’s liturgical anti-Semitism “blossoms.”
I’ll start with the Bridegroom Matins, which are usually served the evenings of Monday through Wednesday, or Sunday through Tuesday, of Holy Week. One theme that runs through the Matins is the commemoration of Joseph, son of Jacob. We sing:
While Jacob mourned for the loss of Joseph, his brave son was seated in a chariot and honored as a king. For he was not enslaved to the lust of the Egyptian woman; wherefore, he was glorified by God, who sees the secrets of the hearts and grants to them an imperishable crown.
Let us now join our mourning to the mourning of Jacob, and let us shed tears grieving with him, for Joseph his glorious and wise son, who was enslaved in flesh, kept his soul free, and became lord over all Egypt. For God grants to his servant an imperishable crown.
What I love about Joseph is that he is both a foreshadowing of Christ and an image of the faithful. Like Christ after him, he is rejected and tortured by his brothers and given up to slavery – slavery being the analogy of death, since both hold us in bondage. Like Christ, he bears his suffering with fortitude and repays his brothers good for their evil, saving his people. I particularly love the reference to Jacob mourning the death of his son while, unbeknownst to his father, Joseph reigns over all Egypt. What an encouragement this must have been to the myrrhbearing women who come to mourn the dead Jesus, only to discover that He has been resurrected!
At the same time, the liturgical text emphasizes Joseph’s self-restraint in the face of temptation by Potiphar’s wife. Joseph does not reject his calling, despite his brothers’ mockery; he does not defile himself with lust; and he bides his time in prayer to God until God rewards him richly. Joseph’s patience and self-restraint is an encouragement to those who, like the wise virgins, await the Bridegroom – which of course is the main theme of Bridegroom Matins:
Behold, the bridegroom comes at midnight: blessed is the servant whom he shall find watching. And again unworthy is the servant whom he shall find heedless. Beware, therefore, O my soul, that you do not fall into a deep slumber and be delivered to death and locked out of the kingdom. Watch instead and cry aloud: Holy, holy, holy art thou, O God, through the protection of the heavenly Hosts, have mercy on us.
Joseph is thus an image both of the Bridegroom and of the bride.
Which of course brings me to my perpetual theme in this blog, the way in which marriage as a way of understanding our relationship with God carries over from Judaism into the Church, and governs the convert Jew’s self-understanding (see earlier posts here and here).
Lest that should make the Christian Jew too comfortable, however, the Bridegroom service then drops this “bomb”:
On the holy and great Monday we commemorate the blessed and all-good Joseph and the fig tree which was cursed and withered by the Lord… Christ made the Synagogue of Hebrews like a fig tree bereft of spiritual fruits, and he withered it by his curse. Let us flee from a similar calamity.
This is a standard Catholic and Orthodox interpretation of the fig tree passages in Mark and Matthew: the tree that bears no spiritual fruit is withered, and the clear implication is that Israel, under the Old Covenant, is this tree.
What confuses me about this interpretation, besides the fact that it is unpleasant, is that the Synagogue shows no signs of being withered, but – despite attempts by the Gentile Church to wither it – has produced generations of lovers of God and martyrs for His truth. That, and it hardly squares with places in the Gospels where Christ indicates that He will gather the people Israel yet again, or with St. Paul’s insistence that God has not cast away His people.
There is also the curious fact that, as the Gospel points out, the time of Christ’s coming into Jerusalem it was not the season for figs (which I can confirm, given that the fig tree in my neighborhood has only just now sprouted leaves!) – with the implication that fruit may have been forthcoming from that tree at a later time. Finally, in the Matthew version of this episode, Jesus talks to the disciples about his treatment of the fig tree:
So Jesus answered and said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but also if you say to this mountain, ‘Be removed and be cast into the sea,’ it will be done. And whatever things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.
The lesson seems to have little to do with Israel and more to do with the power of God and of faith in Him to do great works and to command life and death.
I don’t mean to compete with the Church Fathers for their interpretation of this scripture – merely to raise some questions. I wonder, however, whether the intensity of the Passion, and of its anticipation, renders the lines of separation drawn during Holy Week between Old and New Israel needlessly sharp.