Advent and Christmas are the seasons many Christians love best, yet they are shot through with an almost intractable challenge—and no, I’m not talking about the pressures of consumerism and secularism during the run-up to Christmas. In a way, that’s the least of the church’s problems in these seasons. I’m talking about our age-old reliance on a simplistic, often erroneous, and even disdainful view of ‘the Jews’ to make the seasons bright.
The problem is acute during Lent and Holy Week too. It always has been (it was the season of pogroms in the Middle Ages); but these days we are more sensitive to the issue of anti-Judaism in that solemn season, most of us having rejected by now the old libel that ‘the Jews’ killed Jesus, and many of us having started to speak more precisely about of the meaning of Jesus’ death so that we don’t claim the triumph of church over synagogue and the replacing of the ‘old covenant’ with ‘the new.’
But Advent, being a gentler and more subtle season, is also a sneakier one when it comes to this nasty business. Our Christian sentimentality is loathe to police our biblical texts, prayers, and hymns, and more reluctant to rework our assumptions about what is happening theologically in Advent and Christmas in order to redress the ancient wrongs of Christian triumphalism and supersessionism.
We may be aware of the issue in Advent and Christmas, but only in general terms, and we might therefore miss the telling details that add up to the ‘contempt’ we say we want to avoid so as not to add anything more, however small, to the historically violent mess we’ve already made of our relations with Jews.
And so we still rely, for example, on a few culled verses from the prophets, mostly Isaiah, to support our case for Jesus as the foretold messiah. For Christian purposes, of course, there is nothing wrong with this kind of fulfillment theology (fulfilling is not the same as superseding). It’s okay for us to read the Hebrew scriptures through a christological lens, as long as it’s not the only lens we ever bring to them, and as long as we fully appreciate that those texts remain the Testament of an ongoing tradition not our own, and that therefore they are not ours alone to interpret–i. e., we can’t monopolize their meanings. But there is plenty wrong when we then proceed subtly (and not so subtly) to blame ‘the Jews’ for not agreeing with us that those texts point clearly to ‘the’ Messiah, while we ignore a zillion others that do not point to Jesus as the one God chooses to redeem Israel, but to someone or something else.
We sing without a second thought about this (Christian) Messiah who comes to ransom ‘captive Israel,’ leaving the impression that without him, ‘Israel’ will be left to its captivity and perhaps be lost—as if God were not faithful forever, as if God has changed allegiances, switching to Christians and forgetting ‘the Jews.’
We proclaim that the Christ Child ‘came to his own, but they knew him not,’ and congratulate ourselves on having the perspicacity to see what ‘they’ could or would not, being a stubborn people; or because they are always looking for the wrong kind of Messiah in all the wrong places, being also an obtuse people.
We contrast Christ’s coming as a shivering child, hidden, humble, and poor, with the supposedly militaristic and monarchical messianic aspirations of ‘the Jews of Jesus’ time.’ We preach that they expected someone powerful in worldly terms, but God had a surprise up the divine sleeve. They got it wrong, but we out-Israeled Israel and got it right.
We say and sing and pray these things without once pausing to ask whether this contrast is actually true, or whether perhaps it is a libel against Jesus’ first century co-religionists, whose views of the Messiah and the messianic age were in fact rich and varied and often mutually contradictory and cannot be reduced to a few verses from prophets we find sympathetic to our cause.
We preach about the Gentiles coming into God’s embrace in the symbolic personages of the wise men from the East; and we give thanks that, in the person of our Messiah, God has overcome the supposed particularism and clannishness of ‘the Jews’ to open the gift of salvation to all. We particularly relish this idea in the progressive church, for we are exceedingly partial to inclusion and ‘extravagant welcome,’ and thus also much inclined to read Christian history as God’s rebuke of Israel’s supposed narrowness and exclusivity in favor of Christianity’s ‘universality’ and openness—another assumption we must somehow bring ourselves at least to question, even if the answer ruins our neat paradigms.
We also speak of God’s wondrous breakthrough into human history in the person of Jesus of Nazareth as if this were the first time God had ever made God’s person and presence known in human affairs, effectively reducing Israel’s long history of down and dirty dealings with God to insignificance, at most a pale preamble to Jesus’ appearance in the womb of Mary. We sing of the birth of Love among us, as if that love were a new thing, unheard of before the manger and stable, replacing ‘the God of the Old Testament’ who is so angry and mean.
I could go on. I won’t, because the question already rises—so if what I’m saying is in any way valid, what are we supposed to do, junk all our Advent songs and Christmas carols, our songs, liturgies, and texts?
All of them, no, but some of them, yes–and why not? Is it better to hold on to them and perpetuate the problem? Or is it a worthy aspiration to heal the season that intends to heal us? Why couldn’t we call upon Christian artists and liturgists and singers and poets and theologians to take this challenge seriously and reconstruct Advent and Christmas along different and more fruitful lines, maybe working with Jews to do it—wouldn’t that be something?
But first Christians need to get real about the problem, confess it as such, and resolve to do better. This means taking our Jewish critics seriously, setting ourselves a program of assiduous study, and working patiently, day by day, year by year, to overcome our nostalgic reluctance, review our assumptions, and skillfully revise our liturgical ways and means to more fully reflect the wondrous particularity of our Christian hope without falling into contempt, triumphalism, or bearing false witness against our Jewish neighbors.