Holy Thursday: Remembering Judaism in a Christian World

This evening will mark the official beginning of the Easter Triduum in the Catholic Church.  The Triduum begins the evening of Holy/Maundy Thursday, extends through Good Friday, and ends on the evening of Easter Sunday.  As these three days are undoubtedly the most important in the Christian liturgical calendar, I have decided to write a three-part blog post on something I find very troubling in our yearly commemoration of Christ’s death and resurrection: the undercurrents of antisemitism that run throughout American Christianity.  Let me be clear: I have never heard a pastor preach who is outrightly antisemitic.  Since the time of the Shoah (The Holocaust), obvious antisemitism has become, thankfully, far less prevalent in the United States.

Nevertheless, the mainstream manner in which Christianity is practiced in American society tends towards dangerous anti-Jewish practices which must be brought to light.  Ever since Christians began to realize the extent of the horrors of Christian historical stances against Jews and Judaism, we must remain constantly vigilant against any and all forms of antisemitism in Christian practices today…especially today, I would argue, because the Country of Israel is becoming an increasingly dangerous subject politically and outright antisemitism is practiced and preached by Muslims and Christians around the world.

So let us begin.

“On the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed, his disciples said to him, ‘Where do you want us to go and make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?’ So he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, ‘Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him, and wherever he enters, say to the owner of the house, “The Teacher asks, Where is my guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?” He will show you a large room upstairs, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there.’ So the disciples set out and went to the city, and found everything as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover meal.” Mark 14:12-16

On this holy day, I ask that we limit ourselves to these five verses of Mark’s gospel.  So often we skip to the breaking of bread, the betrayal of Judas, the washing of feet, the prayers at Gethsemane.  These are indeed seminal moments in the Passion narrative of Jesus, but they are each preceded by these five simple verses which frame the overall story.  They tell us, in short, that Jesus was truly Jewish and was preparing to celebrate the Passover meal in the tradition of Hebrew life and society.

I have been to church many times over the course of my life–thousands if not tens of thousands of times.  If I were to calculate the percentage of sermons or homilies I heard concerning the Old Testament–the Hebrew Bible–it would have to be around 1-5%…on the generous side.  I don’t mean sermons that included something from the Hebrew Bible, but those that were centrally organized around the Hebrew Scriptures that Jesus knew and preached devotedly throughout his ministry.  From Catholic homilies to Anglican sermons, from non-denominational Saturday evening services to daily Masses…by and large, pastors preach from the New Testament.  This should not surprise anyone.  But this is a problem.

Jesus did not preach from the New Testament.  True, many of Jesus’ teachings were included in the New Testament, and much of the character of God was revealed in Jesus’ life and ministry, interpreted by Paul and the other NT writers….but all of it, all of it, was based around the message God gave the Israelites in the Hebrew Bible.  Most of the famous lines in the Gospels are direct quotes from the Hebrew Scriptures. For example, Isaiah 61 is Jesus’ main ministerial focus (to proclaim a year of favor for the Lord); Deut 5 and Leviticus 19 comprise Jesus’ two greatest commandments (love God and your neighbor).

We can take this two ways: on the one hand, we could argue that Jesus already summarized everything that is good and holy in the Old Testament.  We don’t really need to read the Hebrew Bible because everything that is worth remembering was taught by Jesus and extrapolated by the writers of the epistles.  On the other hand, we could argue that Jesus showed the Hebrew people the true message and meaning behind the Hebrew Scriptures.  Jesus showed how the Hebrew Bible indicated that God loves all people, that God cares for the sick and the poor, and that the Law and the Prophets could not only be properly interpreted but how they could and were fulfilled.

The first interpretation here has obvious limitations–we simply don’t have everything that was said and taught by Jesus.  Even if we did, the numerous times that he indirectly and directly cites the Hebrew Bible would lead one to think that he holds the ancient texts in very lofty esteem.  As such, the last thing we should do is ignore them or use them solely to explain how Jesus fulfilled them.  Unfortunately, this is often what happens in churches around the country today.

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In theological studies, a “hermeneutic of suspicion” is an interpretive tool used to cast doubt on widely-accepted methods and practices in order to find any negative undertones or hidden meanings therein.  For example, applying a hermeneutic of suspicion to the commonly used metaphors of color, one would remark that describing a sinful soul as “dark” or “black” and a pure soul as “white” carries with it unacceptable racist implications in today’s world.  Whether or not these implications were intended, they teach everyday people–and often children–to associate “dark” and “black” with “evil” and “white” with “pure” and “holy.”  The problems with this should be evident.

Applying such a tool to the practice of preaching primarily from the New Testament instead–as Jesus did–primarily from the Hebrew Bible, one might reveal underlying reasons for the “long and bloody history” of Christians persecuting Jews.  After the 1st century AD, there is little evidence to show that Jews persecuted Christians.  For the remaining 1900 years, however, there is much evidence showing the opposite.

We must be vigilant, we must be bold, and we must revere and see as holy the books of the Hebrew people.  On this Christian celebration of Passover, the most Jewish of remembrances, we must never forget that when Jesus gathered his apostles for his “Last Supper,” he did so in the context of 1st century Judaism, at a Passover meal celebrating Israel’s escape from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land.  Jesus’ Jewish identity defined him to those around him, especially to those who saw him as the Messiah–the fulfillment and perfection of all that the Hebrew Scriptures proclaimed.

I do not hesitate to state that holiness can be attained through the Hebrew Scriptures alone.  Christ Himself knew only such scriptures and the grace of God.  Mary, His mother, said yes to God through the inspiration of the Hebrew Scriptures alone.  Prophets, teachers, and other holy women and men found their way to God long before Christ lived, and many more have continued to find their way to God through the Hebrew Scriptures since the time of Christ.  It is high time that our sermons, homilies, readings, and daily practices reflect this reality and respect the love that Jesus Himself had for God’s Word in the Hebrew Scriptures.

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Tomorrow: Good Friday: Assigning Blame for Jesus’ Death