Category Archives: Lent and Holy Week

Memento Mori

St-Francis-Contemplating-a-Skull-by-Zubaran1“Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” — Psalm 90:12

In the Middle Ages, many Christians practiced a spirituality summed up by the Latin phrase, memento mori: remember that you die. Our forebears figured that cultivating an awareness of death was the best way to keep themselves bracingly honest about life and deeply engaged with the world.

The proximity of death taught them that nothing is secure or permanent. The democracy of death taught them that power and privilege mean nothing in the grave. The finality of death taught them that on this side of the grave they might as well risk everything.

Such realism, they believed, was essential for grounding an authentic love for God and neighbor. But it doesn’t come naturally to us, we have to work at it. It’s an everyday discipline.

So, for example, if a medieval nun kept a companionable human skull in the alcove where she prayed, she was not being morbid, and she was not depressed by her daily contemplation of its unmistakable message. It ushered her instead into a realm of radicality, clearing her mind of the world’s nonsense and her heart of egoistic clutter.

In its shadow it seemed foolish to aspire to the unnecessary; it became easier to refuse ephemeral delights and savor lasting ones, easier to gain the freedom of soul to respond to the urgent claims of her neighbor. By a practice of discernment and detachment in the light of our common end–a practice of distinguishing impulses from needs, needs from wants, and wants from entitlements–she prepared her heart to offer the least possible resistance to the Holy Spirit.

She believed that Jesus asked her to live in such a way that when death came it had very little left to take from her.

She would be surprised that we find that notion grim. What she would find grim, as another writer has noted, is a culture like ours that considers the accumulation and protection of wealth to be so serious as to merit the efforts of a lifetime.

What she would find depressing is the way that the material things we collect and store away like cadavers in a morgue captivate our hearts.

The big question is why we don’t.

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Image: St Francis Contemplating A Skull, Francisco de Zuruburán, c. 1635

 

Terminal

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Last Ash Wednesday, my mother went to church to receive ashes and was told by her priest that she was going to die: ‘You are dust and to dust you will return.’

A couple of days later, a young physician with a too-loud voice told her the same thing—‘You have stage four metastatic cancer and at best eight weeks to live.’

It was six.

Pastors explain Ash Wednesday as the day the church reminds us that we’re mortal, that someday we’re all going to die. I used to say that too, but after last year it feels a bit too theoretical. Now I think of Ash Wednesday as the day we receive a terminal diagnosis: You’re dying now, and it won’t be long.

When my mother first got the news, all she could say was ‘Unbelievable.’ Over and over: ‘Unbelievable.’ So fast. She was ninety, but she felt cheated. So did I.

After a day or so of digesting the news, she told us that the only way she could do it, her dying, was if she took things one day at a time. It’s the way we’re all doing it, I thought to myself, except we try not to know.

She also told us she couldn’t do it alone. She asked us not to leave her. We didn’t. From the day she entered Hospice House until the moment she died, we accompanied her in round-the-clock shifts. We did it for her, but not just for her: she wasn’t the only one who couldn’t do it alone.

Tomorrow I’ll go to church and get a terminal diagnosis. I hope the minister won’t get all progressive about it, change up the old words to soften the blow, use flowers instead of ashes, or mingle them with glitter to remind me I’m stardust, or some such trendy thing. It will ring really false to me after last year when things suddenly got real. I might get visibly pissed, and that would mess up the contemplative atmosphere.

Just give me my burnt cross of ashes and let me cling to it grieving for a while. In time I’ll come to. I’ll decide I can do it one day at a time. I had a good example. I’ll ask for the company I know I’ll need, and with any luck I’ll have it.

Christ, in whom I died to rise, will take it from there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Give Up

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Image: God Clothing Adam and Eve, Book of Hours, William de Brailes

“’By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’ And the Lord made garments of skins for the man and the woman, and clothed them.” Genesis 3:18, 20

Is this you? You get out of bed planning to be good, but your intentions fall apart before lunch. For all your striving, there’s still too much white space between your values and your deeds. Your life is littered with casual compromises. You rail against idols one minute, pledge allegiance to them the next. You skirmish with your demons, secretly relieved when they win. You’re the grass that flowers by day and withers by night, inconstant as the moon and, as an old hymn puts it, “prone to wander.” Whether purposely, haplessly, or a little of both, like Isaiah’s wayward sheep you go astray. You repent sincerely, and it starts all over again.

After they ate the forbidden fruit,  Adam and Eve found out they were naked and felt, for the first time, ashamed. They were probably scared too. They were about to abandon the Garden for a hard world in which nakedness is a big liability. But God, we read, was unable to let them go like that, defenseless and exposed. They were guilty, not unloved. So God makes clothes for them, personally bending to the task, original mercy for original sin.

It was the first mercy. It won’t be the last. God is relentless: the mercy never ends.

Lent is for repentance. One way to repent is to contemplate your condition, feel guilty and ashamed, and resolve with gritted teeth to become a better person by this time next year. (Good luck with that.)

Or you could repent this way: Contemplate the mercy that has always covered your shame and surrender to it, giving up not beer or Nutella or swear words, but yourself and all your striving. Let God be your holiness, your healing, and your hope.

‘Do This’ [Luke 22:7-23]

dark bread on white

The night of the last supper, all was not well among Jesus’ disciples. Everyone was on edge. They all saw the handwriting on the wall—soldiers and swords, crosses and nails. One of them had already sold Jesus to the authorities. And Peter was boasting he’d be brave and follow Jesus, even if it meant certain death. Every time he said it, eyes rolled. It was Peter, after all. But they were all off kilter, scared and queasy. None of them felt much like eating.

The Bible says Jesus was aware of their fear and confusion. He loved them. He knew their hearts were in the right place, but he also knew he’d end up alone. They were so frail.

As was he. He would have given anything to escape what was coming, and in prayer he begged God that it might pass him by. The Bible says fear ran down his face like drops of bloody sweat. He had seen crucifixions. He could imagine his.

The only difference between Jesus and his disciples was that when the time came, he didn’t run. But that doesn’t mean he welcomed his fate. He didn’t feel much like eating either.

But that’s what they did. On the night Jesus was betrayed, they shared a meal. They gathered at a table. Because that’s what they’d always done. A large part of their three years together was spent at tables.

In Jesus’ ministry, the table was where things got real—eating together, they began to understand that God’s love for them was full of mercy, no matter who they were or what they’d done. There they were, saint and sinner, rich and poor, all welcome to eat.

The table was where truth got told—Jesus would tell you stories about invited guests who were too important and preoccupied to come to a king’s banquet, so the riff-raff took their places, going into the kingdom ahead of the privileged and powerful. And so the last are first.

The table was where the vision of Jesus’ movement got spelled out in object lessons of service and humility. Jesus on his knees with a towel around his waist, dragging a bowl of water from foot to foot, washing his disciples clean. ‘Servants,’ he told them at that table, ‘are not greater than their master. What I have done for you, now do for each other.’

The table was where pardon was given—to a sinful woman who could not stop bathing Jesus’ feet with her tears, to an odious little tax collector who’d climbed down from a sycamore tree to welcome Jesus to a meal in his home.

At table with Jesus it somehow felt possible for hard things to get better, and lost things to be found. At table with him, you could imagine a time when you would be able to forgive just about anything.

And so that queasy night they ate with him. And while they were at table, he took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body broken for you.’

The bread, his broken body. A sign of broken dreams, broken promises, broken hearts. A sign of mercy and presence to show us that in things that break, God is there.

‘Take, eat, all of you. Here is frailty made blessing,’ he said. ‘For you.’

And after the supper was over, he took a cup, blessed it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘Take, drink, all of you. This cup is a new covenant in my blood, poured out for you for the pardon of sins.’ Medicine for what ails you. And a covenant, a promise that we can begin again. And we will.

’Take, drink, all of you. Healing and the dawn of a new day,’ he said. ‘For you.’

And then he said to them, ‘Do this.’

Do this. To remember me.

Do this, and I am with you.

Do this when you’re broken. Do this when you sin. Do this when you get sinned against. Do this when you’re afraid. Do this when you just can’t believe the way hard things have dropped into your life uninvited. Do this when you disagree and fear you won’t find common cause or a clear way forward. Do this when you want good company, when you don’t want to be alone. Do this when you’re joyous and want to multiply your joys. Do this when you’re grateful and want to taste again the goodness of the Lord who’s been so good to you.

Do this. Come to the table. Sit down. Eat and drink.

And so on that awful night they did.

Now, if I were making this story up, I’d tell you that after eating with Jesus, all the disciples got up from the table, repentant, converted, faithful and brave. I’d tell you they were loyal, loving Jesus and each other with a love that could withstand anything. I’d report that they didn’t abandon him, but were with him to the end.

But ‘m not making this up.  And that meal didn’t make the weak strong, or cowards brave. It didn’t give Peter a personality transplant or any of them more wisdom than they had when they first sat down, which was pretty much zero. They shared with Jesus a meal of love and memory; a meal whose heavenly food and intimate company was all they should’ve needed to find a faith nothing could shake. But it wasn’t. They went out that night and failed him, and he went to his death alone.

After Jesus rose from the dead, they ate together again. At Emmaus he took bread, blessed and broke it and gave it to them, just as he did that last supper. And just as on that night, they were still who they were—betrayers, deniers, deserters, willing spirits with weak flesh.

In Galilee, he grilled fish and bread for them, and they ate breakfast in the cool dawn air by the lake. And just as on that last night, he fed Peter, who had sworn just two days before that he did not know and had never met his tender Lord. The table isn’t magic. But it is necessary. We have to eat. Jesus knows we always have to eat.

Jesus and his disciples ate together many times after his rising. And after he ascended to heaven, they keep on eating with him in the Spirit, in the church, in a holy communion.

For two thousand years Jesus has been eating and drinking with disciples like us whose hearts are in the right place but whose lives are still kind of a mess. Two thousand years of ‘doing this,’ and we’re still suffering the small cuts and deep gashes of our human frailty. It hurts. The damage is real. There’s no denying the pain or evading the consequences. And still he comes to us. Still he says, ‘Sit down. Eat and drink. You, just as you are. You, just as I find you. Come. Do this. Do it again.’

What matters to him, it seems, is what’s real. What matters is that we are who we are. That we don’t hide our wounds in the dark where no light can reach them for healing. What matters to him is not that we have the right answers or the right opinions, or even the best behaviors, but that we do this. That we come to the table, come together, come as we are, and do it again and again and again.

It might take us another two thousand years to fully grasp the table’s lessons, two thousand more to perceive the table’s truths, two thousand more to be transfixed by its mercy, transformed by its grace, caught up in its dynamics of self-gift and resurrecting love. But he is patient.

And in the end—who knows?—it may be that becoming perfect, or even becoming ‘better persons,’ isn’t the most important thing. Maybe just being together is. Maybe just eating and drinking is. Maybe just the fact that he is with us is enough. All he asks is that we don’t stay away because of our weaknesses, and that we don’t prevent others from coming because of theirs. ‘Do this,’ is all he says, ‘even when you don’t feel much like eating.’

Anchor your hearts here, he commands us. In bread and cup. At a table. And so we do. For as long as we meet here again and again, as long as we are together giving thanks for the amazing grace that so willingly embraces the poverty and beauty of our hearts, as long as we are sharing the meal of life, all will be well, even when it isn’t, he is so kind.

So come to the table today, lay it all out, everything you have—your emotions and questions, your strengths and weaknesses, your beauty and your struggle, your joy and praise and thanksgiving. Here with each other and with him, in the embrace of the Holy Spirit, you will taste and believe again, like never before, the trustworthy Word of the Lord—that as many times as we stumble, we’ll be helped up; as many times as we fail, we’ll learn and grow; whenever we sin, we’ll be pardoned; when we’re sinned against, we’ll find a way to offer pardon; when we’re full of joy, our joys will multiply. And when we die, we’ll rise.

Do this, our Brother said.

Sit down. Eat. Remember me.

Do this.

I am with you always.

Do this.

Again and again.

Until I come.

You Don’t Have to Be A Woman [Exodus 1:7-2:10]

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Image: Pharoah’s Daughter Rescues Moses from the River–Synagogue Dura-Europos

Our story begins with a demographic problem in Egypt. The minorities are having too many babies. Something has to be done about them before they become a security problem. So the king gets Congress to take away their driver’s licenses, deprive them of health care, and make them clean office buildings for minimum wage with no benefits.

But you know how those people are. They’ll work three jobs if they have to. The Hebrew people survive and keep on breeding. So the king orders two of their midwives to smother male infants right after they’re delivered. They say, “Yes, Sir!” (he was the king, after all), but they know they’re not going to do it. And they don’t.

When Pharaoh finds out, he calls them on the carpet. They wiggle out of it by telling him with straight faces that Hebrew women are prodigious earth mothers who have fast deliveries, so the midwives never get there in time.

When the king realizes that they’ve been scamming him, he adopts a more straightforward strategy. He has his minions throw the boys into the Nile. As it turns out, this is a badly flawed approach to the problem. He makes two huge mistakes—he underestimates women, and he messes with a river.

You don’t mess with water. You don’t foul it with death. Water is life, it nourishes, cleanses and renews. It also kills, of course; but unlike kings, it never kills for ambition, security, or sport. If you defile a great body of water, it’s bound to come back to haunt you. Somewhere, somehow, you’ll pay a price. And when water turns on you, it won’t be impressed that you’re a king.

No, you don’t mess with water. And that’s just Pharaoh’s first mistake. He also underestimates women.

It seemed so self –evident: get rid of the males and there’ll be no one to father new baby Hebrews. No more babies, and it’s the end of the line. And while you’re waiting for the genocide to run its course, you’ll only have to deal with girls. And girls are not a threat. The thought of girls won’t prevent you from sleeping soundly behind your walls.

See what I mean? Pharaoh fails to take into account some important facts. Fact: girls grow up to be women. Fact: women tend to outlast you. Fact: at some point women will put their foot down. They will not join your procession to the grave.

Sick of being hemmed in and pushed around, repulsed by casual violence in the name of order, power, principle and pride, they will finally refuse to budge. “Not our babies!” they’ll say. “Not our people! Not our future!” If Pharaoh had half a brain, he’d leave the boys alone and go after the girls.

But he can’t imagine women thwarting his plan. He can’t imagine midwives inventing a way to bamboozle him. He can’t imagine that at least one mother of one Hebrew baby boy might rummage through her closet and come up with a basket, line it with pitch, test it on the water to see if it will hold him, then hide the basket in the reeds. It’s a measure of how little he knows about women that Pharaoh can’t imagine at least one mother giving that basket trick a try, one mother trying something, anything, to preserve her child.

No, he doesn’t know much about women. Or water, either. He doesn’t take into account that even clogged with blood, rivers still hold things up, still carry things along, even fragile things like a little ark, a bobbing basket with its tarred-over bottom and tucked-away child.

He doesn’t take into account that even sullied and sinned against, a river still attracts bathers. So he can’t imagine that a woman wading womb-deep in the current—his own daughter—will not be able to resist the whimper of even a foreign baby adrift. He can’t imagine that in the reeds on the bank, a guardian and a watcher will crouch, a big sister, Miriam: a quick thinker and a fast runner; a girl with patience and a plan and the nerve to see it through.

If Pharaoh were a man of imagination, if he were wiser about women and water, he might realize that, sooner or later, a floating Hebrew baby boy, snatched by women from the water, will grow up to be a Moses, and that such a Moses will make him let the people go.

He might see that one day this Moses will extend an arm, and there will be a wall of water on the left, another on the right, and a dry seabed in-between where an oppressed people will get to the bottom of things and find their way to freedom. He might see that sooner or later a terrible trap will spring, and that his mighty, mindless army will wash up lifeless on the shore.

But pharaohs don’t usually have much imagination. And so this king doesn’t know that women and water will have the last laugh and the last word, and that while he presides over a drowned army, that baby’s sister will improvise again, this time on her tambourine. Master only of broken chariots, on the far shore he will watch Miriam do her dance and sing her victory song: “Sing to God all the earth! Sing to God a fresh song. God does marvels for us! Horse and rider God throws into the sea!”

Poor Pharaoh. He should never have messed with the water and he should have got rid of the girls.

Well, that’s it—the story of a king disposed to violence to solve a dilemma. It’s what happened to him for ignoring the rules of water and for taking women for granted, not factoring them into his plan. It’s a story about Moses, too, of course, and about God who directed the whole drama from backstage.

But mostly it’s about what happened when an impromptu conspiracy of women decided that enough was enough. It’s about what happened when they decided that there’s never anything to be gained by standing around wringing your hands and cursing fate. It’s about the risks they took to assure a future, not just for a boy named Moses, but for a whole people; and, you could say, also for us. And it’s a good story for celebrating the gifts and courage of the Bible’s women, and of all women everywhere.

But you don’t have to be a woman to have this story be about you. This could be anybody’s story. It might be yours if you understand that Egypt is not some strange land far away, and that what goes on there has something to do with you. It’s yours if you know that Egypt is every place where tyrants large and small oppress human bodies and human spirits so that the powerful can hold onto what they’ve got, acquire even more, and sleep peacefully at night.

It’s your story if you decide that enough is enough and put your foot down, if you resolve to try something, anything, to save a life, and not just your own.

It’s your story if you’re clever enough, determined enough, cheeky enough, angry enough to devise delaying tactics against injustice; if you decide to join the small persistent band of God’s beloved who lie awake at night, thinking up ways to bamboozle the king.

It’s a story about you if against indifference and despair, you’ve chosen to be a launcher of life; if every day you float a frail hope for the future on the vast waters of the world’s pain; if you discipline yourself out of love to wait and watch and pray until, against the odds, all those small hopes in all those little baskets come back, grown strong to liberate and save. Because they will come back. They will.

You don’t have to be a woman for this story to be yours. It’s already yours if you’ve ever had some mindless army breathing down your neck—some sin against you, some sorrow out of control, some intimate danger in your hurt or hollow heart, and you thought that the only way out was to curl up and give in, neither asking nor expecting mercy. It’s your story if, against everything your frightened heart hoped for, the waters you were sure would drown you pulled back and let you through, and you found yourself finally at the bottom of things, on a seabed path to freedom.

It’s a story about you if you’re tempted to think that you can’t make it through another day, not one more step: I’m telling you, this story is about you, and for you it can end well. You can see the break of day from a safe and lovely shore. You will see that day, the day of God’s victory. And when you do, out of your mouth a fresh song will rise: ” God has done marvels for me: horse and chariot he tossed in the sea!”

No, you don’t have to be a woman to sing that song. You only have to believe that it’s wrong to foul life’s currents with death for the sake of something as insubstantial as undisturbed sleep behind a guarded wall.

You only have to believe that it’s unspeakably wasteful to stand by wringing your hands while a procession to the grave goes by, day after hopeless day.

You only have to decide that sticking your neck out to try something, anything, to halt that appalling parade won’t finally destroy you, even if you fail, even if you lose your life. You have only to understand that it is doing nothing that will destroy you. Doing nothing will destroy us all.

No, we don’t have to be women to sing that victory song; to have, like Miriam, the last laugh and the last word. But we do have to believe that no matter which Pharaoh’s army is arrayed against us, no matter the tyranny threatening our hearts—the big questions of justice and peace, the ordinary hardships of life, the misunderstanding or malice of others, the illness or grief we did not cause or want and cannot fix, or the self-defeating troubles of our own making—we are never adrift with no one watching.

Someone who once launched us like a faint dream on a great river is keeping track of us, the same Someone who will, like a woman, know how to seize just the right moment to reach for us, and save.

Watching at Graves

 

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Mark 15:46-47

After Joseph bought some fine linen, he took Jesus down and wrapped him in the cloth. Then he placed him in a tomb cut out of rock, and rolled a stone against the door. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses were watching. They saw where he was laid.

Reflection

Jesus’ death has weighty theological meaning, but when all is said and done, it is also, simply, the death of someone we loved. That’s why Joseph, who gives Jesus’ body a decent burial, is remembered so affectionately in Christian tradition.

We care about the way our beloved dead are treated. We attend devotedly to the practicalities of their deaths, performing for them the last loving services affection requires. Because Joseph does these things for Jesus, all four gospels make sure we know his name.

But Joseph isn’t alone. Two women who loved Jesus watch where he is laid. They take note. They remember the place. They will come back with spices in the morning.

Jesus’ death was cruel, but at least it was noticed and mourned. Countless other deaths, the expendable refuse of indifferent empires, go unnoticed and unmourned. Deprived of the loving obsequies of friends, no one knows where their bodies are. No one can come back to them with spices in the morning.

On this holy Saturday, Jesus sleeps like a seed in the earth. We know where they placed him, and we’re keeping vigil there. It’s a good day to ask who is keeping vigil with the rest.’

Who is taking note of bodies not interred with tender care, but flung aside by hatred, power, and pride? Who is tracking down the precious places where they sleep? Who is brave enough to go there, resolute enough to stay, witnessing, until the dear Life that tomorrow raises Jesus from the grave summons them up also from the dead?

Prayer

Remember the dead, known and loved, O God; and the dead injustice casts aside and willfully forgets. Make us watchers with you over every body, finders with you of every grave, life-givers with you to all who lie unnoticed behind such heavy stones.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No “Christian Seders,” Please!

155NOTE: In March 2013, I posted a series of Facebook Notes about so-called “Christian Seders” and the special obligation Christians have in Lent and Holy Week especially to be vigilant about the way our observances may have an impact on Jews, Christian understandings of Judaism, and related matters. I have been asked by several colleagues to re-post these reflections this year. I am happy to do so. I need to make it clear, however, that I am not an expert on these matters. What I say below is my take on controverted questions, born mostly of my own reading and of my interfaith relationships. Please take them as such.

No “Christian Seders,” Please!

With Holy Week on the horizon,  many Christian congregations have started announcing “Christian Seder” meals to observe Maundy Thursday. People of good will recognize this as a devout and well-intentioned attempt to honor the Jewishness of Jesus, and the Jewish roots of the Christian communion meal which was, Christians say, instituted by Jesus on the night he was handed over–a night that fell, according to the gospel accounts, during the annual Passover observance. It is understandable, therefore, that Christians would desire to commemorate this institution with a nod to its original context.

There are many difficulties attaching to the practice of a Seder meal by Christians, however (the biggest being that a Seder is simply not for Christians, but we’ll get to that later). Some of them are historical. For example, we really do not know for sure what the “original context” of Jesus’ so-called Last Supper was.  We think we do: since Sunday School we’ve been taught it was a Passover meal, or Seder; but scholars continue to debate the precise character of the meal Jesus shared with his disciples that night. One thing we know for sure, however, is that, although it may have been a Passover meal of some sort, it was not a Seder in the modern sense. We know this because the introduction into Jewish ritual life of the Seder we know today came generations after the time of Jesus

Modern day Jewish celebrations of the Passover are a melding of traditions that arose after the destruction of the Temple, and developed through Late Antiquity into Middle Ages. It is a still-developing tradition, too, with additions being made to the Haggadah even to this day. Ironically, some scholars believe that the modern Seder developed in part at least as a reaction and resistance to the growing influence of the Christian church and its sacred meal, the Eucharist. If that is true, Christians celebrating a Seder in the form their Jewish neighbors are using are celebrating, at least in part, a meal that was meant to criticize them and establish the distinctiveness of Jewish rites over against Christian ones. This anti-Christian critique is no longer prominent in most contemporary Seders, but this curious history of the Seder still makes for a polemical mish-mash that, if known by the organizers of “Christian “Seders, might take away some of the romance of the night!

So for starters, to hold a Seder as a way to commemorate the “background” meal Jesus shared with his disciples and which he “turned into” a Communion meal (as I have heard some Christians say) is anachronistic—it is a tradition Jesus did not know. More precisely and significantly, however, it is a tradition that developed into its present forms after Jews and Christians had taken separate religious paths. It’s a tradition, therefore, that Jews and those who became Christian never shared in the first place. It belongs to Jews only and distinguishes them as Jews in ways that make any Christian usage of it seem presumptuous, especially given the fraught and violent history of Christian usurpation and replacement of all things Jewish that we call supersessionism.  Given this history and this ongoing supplanting of the Jewish covenant, I wonder if we would do better to spend our time reflecting on what often befell Jews in Holy Week in many places in medieval Western and Eastern Europe—the pogrom—than to spend time appropriating one of their characteristic rituals and making it our own.

Holding a Seder in a Christian church as a Christian event during Christian Holy Week is dicey. Dicier still is  celebrating a Eucharist in the course of the Seder meal or finishing the Seder with a Communion service. This  sends an unintentional but real message that the important thing about this Seder is what Jesus did to transform it and make it into something else. In other words, what we imply is that the Seder’s real value is to point towards or usher in Communion– that Communion is really what it’s all about, when all else is said and done. This is to write Jews out of their own story. We have already succeeded in often writing them out by the way we often use “Old Testament” texts in preaching and teaching—let’s not turn their meal into our meal for our devotional agendas, just because it feels more authentic or rootsy for us to do so.

Ritual is, after all, lodged in and arises from a community’s corporate experience; and in this case, it is the experience of suffering and liberation, slavery and salvation that Christian share with Jews in a kind of mythical and mystical sense, but not in fact: we are not Jews (the vast majority of us, anyway) and we cannot and do not celebrate a Seder out of anything remotely resembling the lived experience of Jews, or with the theological and spiritual worldview such experience generates. We can and must appreciate it, revere it, admire it, learn about it, even participate in it (for example, when invited into a Jewish home during Passover), but it is and never will be ours, and we ought not treat it as if it were. Just because we are a “successor tradition” doesn’t mean that everything that “they” have is or should also be ours.

There is a danger that in a well-intentioned attempt to honor the church’s Jewish origins, and (we think) do what Jesus did that night, we may end up caricaturing the Jewish ritual we claim to honor. It can be a kind of pious play-acting that is a very far cry from the profound communal anamnesis that is proper to “this night unlike any other night.” Only Jews can experience Passover in such a way that those who ate in haste and fled the Egyptians through the Sea have no spiritual  advantage over those who sit at the Seder table today.

Beyond all this is the basic question of why some of us feel we need to hold a Seder in Holy Week in our Christian congregations in the first place. The treasure chest of Christian liturgical ritual that pertains to the Paschal season is so enormously rich that one wonders why we would turn to someone else’s. Perhaps it is because so few of our churches celebrate this range and depth of options that we cast around looking for something meaningful and rich like we imagine a Seder to be.

What could Christian do instead during Holy Week if we take seriously the objection that a “Christian Seder” is anachronistic, a contradiction in terms, and a potential offense to Jews today for whom the Passover rituals are a living tradition, and not a sort of curious antiquarianism?

If we really want to understand the mysteries of Jesus’ last days, we might consider participating in the classic liturgies of the Triduum, the Great Three Days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil. It is there, in the experience of those ancient liturgical traditions that we encounter the meaning, depth, and power of our salvation. In the rituals associated with Passover, Jews recount their story of redemption. In the liturgies of the Great Three Days, and especially in the Easter Vigil, Christians recount and relive our own.

In the end, congregations that hold “Christian Seders” may simply desire to learn about Judaism, better understand their Jewish neighbors, and grapple with the Jewish roots of Christianity—all of which is commendable, even urgent. They should go ahead and do so, not with a Christianized Seder, but with a visit to their local synagogue for a talk with the Rabbi about how best to facilitate that understanding with respect. Perhaps the Rabbi would come and talk to a group in that congregation about what a Seder entails and what it means to Jews. Or perhaps a Jewish friend might have an extra place at their Seder table for some folks from the Christian congregation this year.

And if Maundy Thursday still cries out for a meal, hold a potluck, an agape meal, a love feast, an elaborated Communion service—choose from the Christian repertoire of feasts to celebrate with— but let the Jews have their feast. No Christian Seders, please!

More on “Christian Seders”

At the risk of overdoing it (I am not in fact persuaded that we can ever overdo this), I want to add to my previous Note about “Christan Seders” the following precision:

On Maundy Thursday, many Christian congregations hold “Christian Seders” in conjunction with Tenebrae, Holy Communion, and other liturgical commemorations of the night Jesus was handed over.  They give various reasons for doing so, but in general they use the Seder as a way to recall and explore the Jewish roots of our faith, to honor the Jewishness of Jesus, to lend historical context to the institution of the Christian Eucharist, and to learn about Jewish ritual practices (i. e., “teaching Seders”) in an open, interfaith spirit.

In some cases, these Seders are led by Jews—a local rabbi, or Jewish friends of the congregation—but the majority are not. They are a wholly “in-house” affair, for Christians by Christians. My objections are directed at these in-house kinds of  “Christian Seder” celebrations.

Congregations that borrow or adapt the modern Jewish Seder for their own devotional purposes on Maundy Thursday during Holy Week need to understand that what they are doing is not a neutral act. Apart from other significant theological and historical objections that should be made to a “Christian Seder,”  [see my previous “Note”] the long, violent and painful story of Christian appropriation of Judaism itself—replacement theology or ‘supersessionism’—should be enough to make us think twice about doing it.

It is no accident that many a medieval pogrom erupted during Holy Week. It was a time rife with anti-Jewish preaching that placed the blame for Jesus’ death on Jews—not just on the ancient Jews, but on all Jews— and, in some cases, directly called for unsparing violence against them. Whenever Christians celebrate a “Christian Seder” that includes or culminates in Holy Communion, it is also chillingly instructive to recall that one of the great medieval slanders against the Jews is that they routinely committed sacrilege against the communion wafer in all kinds of horrific and bloodthirsty ways. This is the history we ineluctably carry with us whenever we do something like celebrate a “Christian Seder.”

My objection to the “Christian Seder” is not about the potential it has for offending Jews. It has that potential, and it does offend many Jews, and avoiding this offense is a good thing to want to do, and I do want us to avoid giving it! But the bigger issue for me is the insidious impact it can have on us Christians.

Let’s face it, despite years of interfaith  efforts, many Christians continue to assume reflexively that Christianity has supplanted Judaism in God’s plan and affections. We might not say it that way, but it shows in the way we use certain biblical texts, talk about a God of Love (Christian) and a God of Wrath (the “Old Testament God”), and juxtapose Law and Grace—in these cases and others, the clear implication is that Christianity has not only succeeded Judaism, it has superseded it.

In their everyday dealings with Jews (if they have such connections), most mainline Christians probably don’t regard the religion of their neighbors, friends, and coworkers as inferior to their own; but in church, in the course of hearing scripture and sermons on scripture, during certain liturgical seasons, and in devotional conversations, an old reflex asserts itself. Our inner Marcionite emerges, and as long as no one corrects us, we continue to operate in the universe of stereotype and slander that for centuries made it possible for Christians to see it as a religious duty to defame and slaughter Jews. And the fact that we do so often unwittingly makes it all the worse.

This is my point: not only because we have a long history of appropriating Judaism for Christian  ends, making of it a mere preparation for the true faith and regarding its characteristic practices as mere foreshadowings and symbols of the real things, we are still doing it today. The practice of a “Christian Seder” is a good example of just how unexamined this fraught relationship remains, and thus how easily its consequences could be visited on our neighbors again, even in our enlightened, interfaith, tolerant, and inclusive age.

That it could never happen here, that it could never happen again, that we would never do that—these are the lazy assumptions that allow us to meander through Holy Week up to our necks in the dangerous waters of supersessionism, playing out again and again the old patterns of reflex disdain.

Contempt takes many forms: I think the celebration of a Seder by Christians and for Christians for our own Christian agenda is one of them. It may seem devout and altogether benign, even constructive, on the surface; but it is just one more in a long sad line of things we have tried to steal from Jesus’ people in his name, as we have systematically written Jews out of their own story because, we say (not without truth), it is also in a deep sense our story too. And if it is also our story (and here we go wrong) we can do with it whatever we please.

Although holding a Seder (for Christians by Christians for a Christian agenda) may seem like a devout and constructive thing to do, and no doubt for many Christians it lends meaning to the Holy Week journey, it is an unavoidably fraught activity. Our anti-Jewish history has earned us a particular responsibility to make sure that our embrace of the Jewish heritage is serious, respectful, self-conscious and well-considered. We may not borrow, play-act, adapt, or otherwise appropriate anything Jewish like a Seder without carrying with us into that activity this whole history.

Remembering and telling the Jewish story is one of the Seder’s most characteristic features. Maybe instead of holding a Seder we should make time in Holy Week remembering and telling our own story, lamenting and repenting the sad history that haunts us still, and looking to Christ for the grace to change it, once and for all.

Postscript on “Christian Seders,” supersessionism, and reading Scripture

Some of you asked me to make more widely available this comment I left in a thread about the “Christian Seder” business. It concerns supersessionism and the Bible. Here it is:

I do not mean to say that we Christians cannot read texts from the Bible (”Old Testament”) and find in them Christological meaning. I think it is perfectly appropriate for us who hold (and have tenaciously held since the days of Marcion) to both ‘testaments’ as one Bible to read ‘backwards and forwards’ in this way.

Within the household of the Christian church, I believe we can own and interpret Hebrew Scripture faithfully, without  contempt, even when the meaning we find in the texts is not its “original” meaning for the people who gave the world the Bible.

I don’t think it is necessarily a usurpation of a supersessionist variety for us to cherish, for example, the suffering servant text in Isaiah as having something to do with the way we think about Jesus, or the text about the young woman conceiving as having something to do with the way we think about Mary, as long as at the same time we also know that it doesn’t in fact have to do with Jesus or Mary, and that it has a meaning of its own not only for the Jews “back then,” but also for the ongoing community for whom the Book is a living testament.

What we cannot do is say ‘This (Mariological or Christolical reading) is THE meaning of the text.” We must say instead, “This is the way we (Christians) read it in the light of our religious experience and tradition.” There’s a difference, I think, between reading the ‘Old Testament’ in a Christian way and circumscribing its universe of meaning to the Christian reading.

In short, no Christian in the pew should ever come away from a sermon on the suffering servant text thinking it is a Christian passage, even if they’ve been helped to see that, while it does not refer to Christ, it can and does help us think about, know, and love him.

To avoid “writing Jews out of their own story” when we engage in a “Christian” reading of the Hebrew Scriptures, then, we need to operate on two levels at once: on the level of the text as an expression of a particular people’s religious experience, which is not ours; and on the level of the text as the Church hears it in the context of its its particular experience of Christ.

This double-vision may oblige us, for example, to refrain from a too-easy juxtaposition in liturgy of certain texts, “OT” and “NT,” that suggests that the NT text explains or fulfills the OT text in a way that exhausts all other possibilities of interpretation (this happens way too frequently in some lectionary pairings).

It may oblige us to speak of certain figures and events in the Hebrew Scriptures less as archetypes, allegories, or foreshadowings of Christ and his ministry, and more as evidence of the consistent pattern of God’s activity throughout ”salvation history,” with which our Christian experience of God in Christ is wholly consistent .

It may simply mean that we take the time to put a short note in the bulletin giving the original context of  the text, or explaining the way the texts are used in, say, The Messiah or other Christian sacred music.

Before all else, however, it means that we have to spend more time as pastors,  educators, leaders in and of Christian congregations helping people to love the Bible, read the Bible, and to read it with prismed glasses, since for Christians, no one lens suffices.

Of course, this is a super-challenging activity for many contemporary Christians who barely know the Bible at all any more, let alone its hermeneutical complexities, but we can’t expect anyone to read “without contempt” if we don’t teach with urgency.