Christ is risen!
Holy Week has resolved gloriously in Pascha and Pascha is gracefully settling into Bright Week. I’m nursing that funny feeling of emptiness I get every year at this time: the Resurrection is so incredible, and the celebration surrounding it so rich, that it feels almost impossible to go back to life as usual.
The upside of doing so, however, is that now I can finish the task I set for myself early last week! That is, to reflect briefly on some aspects of Holy Week services that concern the Jews.
At the end of the Matins of Great and Holy Friday, the service commemorating and re-enacting the Passion on Thursday night, a friend said to me: “God bless you for converting to Orthodoxy… I could never have done it if I were Jewish!” She was referring to verses such as these (the whole service, and other Holy Week services, are here):
Thus says the Lord to the Jews, ‘My people, what have I done to you? Or in what have I wearied you? I gave light to your blind, I cleansed your lepers, I set upright a man lying on a bed. My people, what have I done to you, and how have you repaid me? Instead of the manna, gall; instead of the water, vinegar; instead of loving me, you have nailed me to a cross. I can endure no longer; I will call my nations, and they will glorify me, with the Father and the Spirit; and I shall grant them eternal life.
Here and elsewhere, the “Hebrew race” – not even the synagogue – is accused of murdering Christ. Scandalously, no note is taken of the facts that the mob that demanded Jesus’ crucifixion constituted only a small portion of the Jewish people, or that the Mother, disciples, and thousands of followers of Jesus, along with the Man himself, belonged to that same race (apparently, the blame and subsequent curse falls on them too, and on Christian Jews today!). Perhaps more importantly, and in no smaller contradiction to Scripture (as discussed earlier), there are multiple suggestions that because of this the Jews have “perished” (like the fig tree) and been replaced by the Gentiles.
The fundamental fallacy here, of course, is the treatment of the Jews as a collective. Some Jews, along with the Jewish leadership, angrily demanded Jesus’ crucifixion – just as in centuries prior some Jews, along with their kings, ignored and murdered God’s prophets. But God has always been faithful to the remnant that followed in the path of righteousness; for their sake He continually pursues the salvation of the entire Jewish people.
Perhaps what leads to this fallacy, besides naked anti-Semitism, is an exaggerated tendency to treat nations as corporate persons. God has revealed Himself to humanity by appointing for Himself a chosen people, not a collection of unrelated individuals personally committed to Him. It is little surprise then that the Greeks, the Holy Roman Germans, the Russians, the American Mormons, and other Christian ethnic groups have always been tempted to believe that divine chosenness, of the kind that attaches to a whole people, has been transferred to them from Israel – which, by this logic, must have perished spiritually in order for the transfer to occur. And to what can the perishing be attributed, if not to the role played by some prominent Jews in the Crucifixion?
Yet the Scriptures are so clear that Jesus came to save those few individuals who walk the narrow path – Jews and Greeks, male and female, slaves and masters – not to transfer special status from one collective onto another. Christ’s family and disciples, along with the faithful centurion and the other Gentiles who join the Church, are evidence of the transcendence in Christ of the need, from God’s point of view, for a particular ethnic group to have special status.
To me, the anti-Semitic verses in the Great Friday matins point to confusion with regard to the simultaneously individual and corporate nature of our relationship with God. On one hand, Christ frees His worshippers from the ethnic boundaries that constrained spiritual identity in the pre-Christian world. On the other hand, we naturally desire to worship Him corporately: I wrote earlier about the natural and laudable desire to serve God and be united with Him along with one’s whole household, whole family – and whole nation. Striking the balance between these truths to properly describe the way in which we worship God corporately, but find justification and salvation, or “chosenness” in the eyes of God, individually, is a delicate task; liturgical or theological anti-Semitism is a symptom of failure at it.
It is little surprise that it is the Orthodox Church that still includes this anti-Semitic language in its commemoration of the Passion. Orthodox ecclesiology centers on the local church, an administrative and episcopal unit of the universal Church, headed by a patriarch or metropolitan, that serves a particular region, and hence – as history played it out – a particular ethnic group. As a result, the various Orthodox churches forged deep and fruitful relationships between particular peoples – their traditions, their sense of identity – and the Christian faith. One of the salutary effects of this is the absence of radical individualism from Orthodox theology and practice. By the same token, however, the Orthodox are particularly prone to confusion on the complex issue of our corporate relationship to Christ.
I know this is a little jumbled; thanks for bearing with me, and I would be glad to clarify as best I can via comments.
On another quick note: I’ve never paid attention before to the fact that the Church describes Christ’s dwelling among the dead – from Friday night and throughout Saturday – as the “great Sabbath rest.” On that day, God has once again rested from all His works – greater works than even those done at the creation of the world. What a beautiful fulfillment – and endorsement – of the commandment to keep the Sabbath. (Apologies to those for whom, unlike me, this is not news.)
And finally: If you haven’t seen it yet, check out this wonderful post by Simcha Fisher in the National Catholic Register about growing up Hebrew Catholic and celebrating Easter and Passover together.