Category Archives: Christian worship

Jews and Christians as the Theological Double Helix in Time

The period of Passover to Shavuot (for Jews) and Easter to Pentecost (for Christians) exemplifies the similarities that mark our two faiths, despite the obvious differences. It ought also to evoke some daring theology that we might share together. Recounting our intertwined history is commonplace; making theological sense of it is not.

Suppose, however, that our shared history does have theological meaning; and suppose as well that we took it seriously together. How might we transform mutual animosities of the past into faithful commitment to the future?

Take these days of counting in which we now find ourselves: the sefirah, as Jews call it. Jews are now “counting” the fifty days from Passover to Shavuot, the festival that marks the giving of Torah. It was on Shavuot as well – Pentecost, as Greek-speaking Jews called it – that the Christian Book of Acts identifies as the time when the disciples were visited by the Holy Spirit.

If you want revelation, expect it 50 days after Passover. Both Jews and Christians knew that.

There were differences, of course. For the Christian Fathers, these were days of supreme joy, an expectation of the second coming. For the Rabbis, they were eventually made over into a period of mourning. But in their own distinctive ways, both faiths saw these fifty days as anticipating the purpose for which they had come into being. The Jewish Exodus from Egypt was mere prologue to Sinai; the Easter miracle culminated in Pentecost’s gift of the spirit.

There are two ways to narrate the tale of this commonality of vision. The most common version sees Christianity as branching off from rabbinic Judaism. In that scenario, the author of Acts deliberately borrowed the Jewish understanding of Shavuot as backdrop for his account of the Holy Spirit. An alternative understanding, however, would see Judaism and Christianity as two parallel and alternative interpretations of Hebrew Scripture, with neither one preceding the other. Both Jews and Christians would trace their roots to the first- and second-century search for meaning in a common biblical heritage.

In the past, we have each found it convenient to emphasize the first and mistaken scenario – – the idea that Christianity broke away from rabbinic Judaism. Christians could then fault Jews for falling short of Judaism’s intended fulfillment in Christ. Jews could see Christians as going shamefully astray by misunderstanding what the Hebrew Bible is all about.

History, moreover, has not been kind to our relationship. Medieval theologies and the inequities in power have reinforced our sibling rivalries, virtually destroying the possibility of seeing ourselves as sister religions with a common past, now struggling in unison for a shared vision of a better world order.

But the Middle Ages are just part of a much larger story – not just the centuries when we were at each other’s throats, but our birth as twins in the womb of late antiquity, and our nurture through infancy on a single set of sacred tales, to the point of becoming virtual mirrors of each other: Passover is to Easter as Shavuot is to Pentecost, for example.

History is not just the facts but the story line connecting them. Instead of rivals in a zero-sum game, we might equally well devise a story that positions us together as potential allies. We are a double helix of history, constantly swirling round each other through time, never getting close enough to lose our separate identities but never flying off into totally independent orbits either. We are two religious traditions in dialogue from birth, each with our own language, lessons, and liturgy – but also, interdependent parts of a larger entity, poised to work together now in joint pursuit of a better human destiny.

The story we tell of who we are need not be dictated by the worst of what we were. These days of counting in which we both engage can be models of common hope and affirmation. Perhaps the world needs us now, locked not in mutual combat but in collaborative affirmation of divine purpose.

We are indeed the end result of scientific facts, but history is the narrative that links the facts together, and there is more than a single narrative to tell. Among them is the theological tale of being a double helix in time, with differently nuanced versions of a divine message guaranteeing human dignity and promise.

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The Royal Wedding: More Than an Unrehearsed Sing-along

What is it that attracted so many to the royal wedding Friday morning? An estimated three billion people tuned in to it. It averaged 67 tweets and 74 facebook mentions per second. Within an hour, the Washington Post’s Royal Wedding Blog listed “25,820 articles” on it! What was that all about?

The Los Angeles Times lamented “the hoopla” as “a lesson in just how many hours some of the highest-paid television journalists in the world can spend discussing a bridal dress they have not seen while watching people they do not know mill about in Westminster Abbey wearing large hats.” But the wedding was more than that. It was a reminder of nobility, not just the nobility of the British monarchy, but the nobility of human aspiration that most of us have forgotten we have.

I surveyed my own register of liturgical experts on both sides of the Atlantic. Rabbi Charles Middleburgh, an editor for the Liberal Jewish liturgies of Great Britain, spoke for many when he said, “The ceremony was a deeply traditional one, with some of the greatest hymns being sung and stirring music being played.” Dr. Paul Bradshaw, a British liturgist and priest in the Anglican Church himself, explained that “Prince Charles, the bridegroom’s father, is a lover of traditional language rites.” The couple therefore chose “our traditional language marriage rite, not the one authorized in 1662 which describes marriage as a remedy against fornication so that we should not be like the brute beasts of the field, but a slightly cleaned up version of that.”

Good thing they cleaned up the “remedy against fornication” bit, but, mellifluous language aside, the rite had other problems that left some carping. Haven’t we given up the antiquated notion of giving the bride away? Lutheran liturgist, Dr. Gail Ramshaw of Philadelphia, thinks they “missed an opportunity for Christians to witness meaningful contemporary liturgy. When I hear ‘wilt,’” she says, “I wilt! And, really, ‘man and wife?’”  Indeed, try saying “woman and husband” and you get the idea.

Still, Middleburgh is spot on (as they say across the pond) when he applauds the old language as “being so much finer than its deeply prosaic modern versions.” The soaring lines of Westminster Abbey reverberated with it — and with the sung words of William Blake’s Jerusalem.

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

This is a far cry from what we usually get in worship: folksy settings, dress-down gatherings, a guitar or two, and language by lesser lights than Blake. For one brief hour, the British Empire was resurrected from the dead, but without its imperial exclusivity. The Anglican liturgy once sought God’s mercy on “Jews, Turks, infidels, and heretics.” At Westminster, on Friday, Jews and Muslims joined Christians as equals, marveling together at religious ritual’s reach into the heavens. The wedding “expressed respect for monarchy, the Church [and] marriage,” comments Dr. Brigitte Sion, a liturgist in New York, “transcending race, class, religion and geography.”

“Monarchy, church and marriage,” mind you, none of which is doing very well right now. Bradshaw notes that it is “commonplace for couples in the UK to live together without marrying at all, or to marry only after their children are old enough to be bridesmaids at their own parents’ weddings.” Religions in the west have spent half a century downsizing rituals to the point where people may not think they are worth doing any more.

I understand that downsizing. It is part of the baby-boomer revolt against the sterile liturgies that relegated congregations to passivity and erected social distance between people at a time when they sought just the opposite: community, connection, and a God who meets and knows us intimately. But intimacy is one thing; sloppiness, even slovenliness, is another. People in charge of contemporary liturgies tend to forget the artistic care that even informal liturgies require.

In any event, our problem today is that public life in general has become slovenly — and not just aesthetically, but morally. Public debate has cheapened into mean spiritedness. Politicians become little thinkers who shrink our purview of the possible until whatever seems worth doing cannot be done. We are bereft of heroes to call us to our higher selves.

But on occasion, the human spirit whispers within us that it wants to soar again. And the wedding let us soar. Vicariously, at least, we all dressed up for a fairy-tale ending, prince and all; and celebrated it in something other than an unrehearsed sing-along. There is more to a calendar than holiday sales, more to the world than box stores and malls, and more to life than choosing between burgers and burritos. As the midrash puts it, we are all princes and princesses, all children of a divine ruler. On Friday we got a glimpse of royalty – not just the royal family’s but our own.

The Catholic Liturgical Controversy and Why We All Have A Stake In It

The New York Times of April 12, 2011 prepares the Roman Catholic communities of the English speaking world for a new translation of the mass. The maelstrom of charges and countercharges surrounding it illustrates how vital liturgy is in defining identity; at stake is a whole lot more than an ivory tower debate about the meaning of the Latin.

The “old” translation that the new one replaces followed a historic 1963 decision to authorize prayer in the vernacular in the first place. That ruling heralded a newly liberalized era for Roman Catholics. Among other things, it invited lay participation in a liturgy that had been dominated by priests; acknowledged the adverse impact of sexist language; broke down social distance between clergy and congregants; invited a new look at what united Christians rather than what separated them from each other; and abolished prayers that had fostered anti-Semitism.

The new translation heralds an equally significant shift in Catholic identity: a return of the Church to its conservative moorings.

Whereas Catholics now declare “Jesus Christ … one in being with the Father,” the new liturgy calls him “consubstantial with the father.” In the old liturgy, “he descended to the dead.” In the new one, “He descended into Hell.” In the old liturgy, the presider’s opening greeting, “The Lord be with you,” elicited the congregational response, “And also with you.” The new one has the people say, “And with your spirit.”

Critics of the proposed new liturgy charge it with (among other things) obfuscating meaning for everyday people (what’s “consubstantial”?); demanding word for word translation from the Latin at the expense of normative English word flow;  and actually missing the point of what the framers of the Latin would themselves have said if they had spoken twenty-first-century English. Advocates of change think the liturgy of the past forty or so years has twisted church doctrine and liberalized Catholic thinking to the point of encouraging moral laxity. The new texts are supposed to produce what the Vatican has labeled liturgiam authenticam, a liturgy that is “authentic.”

As an outsider, I have no legitimate standing in this internal debate. But as a liturgist, I know something about liturgical authenticity. It doesn’t exist.

We legitimately call a suspected Rembrandt or Ming vase “authentic” because we can compare them to a set of unarguably authentic specimens (the corpus of Rembrandt paintings or collections of undisputed Ming vases). When it comes to liturgical translations, however, there are no originals to point to. Nor can you point to the Latin, since it is precisely the meaning of the Latin that is at issue. The same is true of theology: what counts as authentic belief is what the argument is all about to start with.

Conservatives frequently use the word “authentic” to chide liberals for playing fast and free with “the real thing.” Using “authentic” that way is not, well, not “authentic.” It’s not the way “authentic” is authentically used.  By all means, let the Church do due diligence in debating what it wishes to pray, but not under the misleading rubric of authenticity.

The real issues are much deeper than a pseudo-debate on authenticity. What should Catholics believe about God, human nature, and the promise of salvation? What is the proper relationship between the laity and the clergy? Should Catholics be in communion with Protestants? What do Catholics believe about Jews?

How the church goes about deciding these deeper liturgical questions says a lot about who has power and who doesn’t. How hierarchical should the twenty-first century Church be? Who gets to weigh in on liturgical matters? Whose opinion counts and whose does not?

As a Jew, I have no say on Catholic doctrine, but I do have an interest in it. The whole world does. At stake is a great Church with a magnificent heritage. Under the impact of Vatican II, it apologized for anti-Semitism, and rejected its imperialistic past. It emerged from medieval triumphalism and sought common ground with others. Through the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, it has issued conscientious statements on matters of economic justice and human equality. We should hope that it remains a mighty force in the world, allying with good people everywhere in the fight for saving the planet, ending hunger, and achieving world harmony.

I don’t have to be Catholic to pray that the new translation does not further divide Catholics from others, or return the Catholic Church to the day when it thought Jews were damned, men counted more than women, and no one else had God’s truths. I hope the Church does not decide that “authenticity” to the Catholic past trumps possibility for the human future.