Matins of Great and Holy Friday

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earlier), there are multiple suggestions that because of this the Jews have “perished” (like the fig tree) and been replaced by the Gentiles.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.

About The Groom's Family

I was born in Soviet Russia and grew up in Israel. I was baptized Orthodox Christian in 2006. Today my husband and I live in Northern Virginia. I would love to hear from you, so please leave a comment!
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5 Responses to Matins of Great and Holy Friday

  1. JWB says:

    You know, when the RC church redid its Holy Week services after Vatican 2 to inter alia take out a lot of allegedly insufficiently-philo-Semitic stuff, they didn’t really tamper with the Western parallel to that particular hymn, the so-called Good Friday Reproaches (which in the days of Latin liturgy was also the only point in the year when RC’s heard the Trisagion sung in Greek). You could perhaps argue that a few bits of wording in the Byzantine version are more problematic, but the Novus Ordo Western version is much longer than the present version in our Triodion (which may have been truncated or edited down), and even more detailed in the parallels drawn between Old Testament blessing and New Testament betrayal (“I opened the sea before you, but you opened my side with a spear … I led you on your way in a pillar of cloud, but you led me to Pilate’s court …”). I don’t know whether or not “Hebrew Catholics” tend to get weirded out by that text as a general matter; DMW commented favorably on the particular musical setting (I think by the awesome Tomas Luis de Victoria?) used for that text at the service he attended up in N.H. this past Friday. And as for the whole losing-patience-with-His-own-people theme, see Matthew 21:43.

    Btw, have you read the “Judaism, the Church and” section in Fr. John McGuckin’s “The Westminster Handbook to Patristic Theology”? It provides an interesting context in which to think about some of these seemingly problematic texts, esp. the differences between the earlier centuries when some of the stuff was written and the subsequent medieval period when the social/political dynamics were rather different.

    • Yeah, it’s the wording that’s the problem (and I wish I had space to cite all the offending passages, not just this one). The actual reproaches actually don’t bother me much – I think they are actually helpful for Jews to reflect on in light of their long history of prophet-killing (which may be why DMW likes it? DMW?). The problematic wording, to me, is that which refers to the “perishing” of the entire “Hebrew race” for their deicide and its replacement with the other nations.

  2. Pingback: Doubly Chosen IV and Final: They Put The Jew Together Again | The Groom's Family

  3. mark says:

    Christ is in our midst!
    Hello I stumbled upon your blog and have enjoyed reading several posts.
    I’m curious what you think of NT passages that refer to the evil actions of a small group of Jewish religious leaders as the actions of “the Jews” collectively?

    I have mixed feelings about the ostensively anti-semitic language of the Holy Week services. I am not Jewish and so this explains some of my more emotionally distant evaluation, but I feel like the language should of course be taken figuratively. So the whole Hebrew Nation perishing, in context, is of course referring to any persons who reject the Christ when He comes in the flesh. In this way then even non-Hebrews are part of the perishing “Hebrew Nation” being replaced by “other nations” which would symbolically refer to any peoples who accept Jesus as the Christ, and thus these “other nations” would included Christian Jews as well.

    As for the “fallacy” of lumping a whole people together, I’m not so sure this is a fallacy. It seems rather ubiquitous to Holy Scripture (Amalekites were all punished for the wrongdoing of some, and very often whole peoples were punished for the actions of only a subset- Egyptian first borns killed for the disobedience of their parents and more precisely their hard-hearted Pharoah).
    Also of course we are all guilty in Adam- or because of the one man’s trespass all have become ensnared by sin, sickness, and death.
    I see this as the mystical connection between all human beings and so do not bristle at the grouping together and ‘bearing oneanther’s burdens’– the idea that each should be guilty only for himself seems to be an individualism that runs in the face of Christ’s own sacrifice, where he identifies with his neighbour to such an extent that He the sinless one “becomes sin” for us, and is able to die for the salvation of the whole human race. (Thus it is because of our mystical participation in the One Son that we are made sons ourselves; just as Adam’s actions impacted every human person, so the second Adam’s actions also have salvific implications for all of human kind).
    Obviously this ultimately means that we need to extend our sense of identity further than the grouping of a whole people punished for the sins of a representative few. We need to transcend ethnic identity and take responsibility in loving self- sacrifice even for those who are not part of our ethnic identity, ultimately loving even our enemies and identifying with them as if they were our kin.

    All of this said, I still have misgivings about the language used in Holy Week and elsewhere, because whatever proper figurative, allegorical, ‘spiritual’ reading there may be, nevertheless at a very simple and demonstrable level this deeper and true meaning is missed, and long history of Orthodox anti-semitism demonstrates that people take such language literally.
    For pragmatic purposes then I think it would be worth eliminating the figure, and using literal renditions instead so “hebrew people” should be literally, “those people who reject their inheritance and deny Jesus is the Christ.” That’s a little clunky. 🙂

    Still I wonder if it’s a lack of homiletical and pastoral clarification that’s really the problem? Similar to language we use from the OT about destruction of our enemies, we do not change that language but rather we Christians understand it in a similarly figurative and spiritual way (so to ‘dash the heads of their infants against a rock’ is to destroy sinful impulses and passions when they are first born in us.). This is just to point out that there is a long legacy of interpreting scripture (psalms and prophets) in allegorical, spiritual, figurative ways that are not what was initially even intended by those who authored them!
    Could we settle for something similar with Holy Week language about the Jewish people? Again it may just be too late in the game given that so much damage is done with a legacy of anti-semitism… I dont know.

    -Mark Northey

    • Hi Mark,

      Thanks for commenting!

      The point about Scripture frequently “lumping” together whole nations is a valid one. But there are two reasons I don’t think it adequately answers my concern. First, when Scripture does describe whole nations perishing or being cursed (e.g. Amalek), it is generally implied that the entire nation was involved in a heinous crime (child sacrifice, sodomy, aggression against God’s people, etc.). With the Jews in the New Testament, it is made exceedingly clear that, while some Jews sought Jesus’ death, others followed him in the thousands. Second, the implication that the entire “Hebrew race” is cursed because of the actions of its leadership is not compatible with the writings of St. Paul about the Jews (see, for instance, Romans 9:3-5).

      As for whether this should be resolved pastorally or liturgically, to my mind “liturgically” is the right answer; of course I’m only a layperson, and stand to be corrected on this if need be. First, as you pointed out, much damage has already been done in terms of providing fodder for the anti-Semitism of many traditionally Orthodox societies, and a priest talking about how we don’t really mean “the entire Hebrew race” when we sing “the entire Hebrew race” is, in my opinion, a weak remedy that will give some people an excuse to dismiss the priest as a liberal (this is not a problem I worry about in the United States, by the way). Second, since the Orthodox church places such great emphasis on the liturgy as an instrument for theological instruction, it seems highly important for the words used in the liturgy to be clear and accurate. (I am always frustrated when we recite the litany of the catechumens in church, asking the catechumens to depart, when everyone knows that the priest has not the slightest intention of actually having them depart. Perhaps there is some reason for this that I’m not aware of, but it seems to me that we should either mean what we say or say what we mean.)

      To your point about seeing Scripture as being figurative – no one should try to change Scripture, and so we have ongoing conversation and discernment about what the violent passages in Scripture really mean. But we can and do change liturgical language, and it seems to me – again, with the caveat that, not being deeply steeped or professionally involved in liturgics, there may be many relevant things here that I don’t know – that clarity rather than confusion, especially of a sort that can feed hatred, should be the goal.

      Thanks for writing!

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