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How to avoid Holy Week blundering

12 April 2019

Christianity’s Jewish roots are most obvious at this time. Patrick Moriarty offers advice for those leading services

WITH intolerance and populism of all kinds increasing at home and internationally, it is no surprise to find anti-Semitism on the rise. Prejudices and hatreds that were thought long dead are once again finding voice in our time: on our streets, in scraps between schoolchildren, in bitter disputes of public life, and in bilious online abuse.

If hatred of the Jews is the oldest hatred of all, Christianity must bear a good part of the responsibility: although the blatant anti-Judaism of 20 centuries has abated, a deeply ingrained heritage in scripture, theology, liturgy, and hymnody means that we are probably resowing the seeds without even knowing it.

In Holy Week and Easter, Judaism and Christianity are at their closest and at their furthest apart. The story makes sense only in its setting of a Jewish festival in Jerusalem in the first century, but it has fuelled centuries of Christian mistrust, misunderstanding, and hatred of Jews.

Those of us preaching over the season have an opportunity and a responsibility to challenge narratives, and to be part of the solution rather than the problem. Here are some suggestions.

Know the history

Let’s be sure we understand Jesus in his first-century context, including all the political, economic, military, and religious forces at play. Before we can suggest what Jesus’s message might be for now or for eternity, we need to understand how his words and deeds might have been heard then.

And let’s not expect that to be a single, simple answer, when there are so many different groups and types of people involved, and powerful stories of identity and destiny stretching back hundreds of years. It’s complex, contentious, and conflicted, but that only makes the attempt all the more important.


Read the scriptures intelligently

They are partisan products of their time before they are universal documents speaking to all human history. They are much more election manifesto than history textbook. In particular, the New Testament speaks from a time when Christianity was a tiny minority sect seeking to distinguish itself from the Judaism from which it sprang, and needing to win acceptance and protection from Rome.

Small wonder, therefore, if “the Jews” come across as a monolithic discredited enemy. Let’s not imagine, then — still less preach — that that was the reality. Let’s instead read the texts with critical faculties that are shrewd and sympathetic.

Know the present time

Judaism is a living, evolving and hugely varied tradition. There is important continuity from the first century, but also very important discontinuity — not least the fact that there is no Temple, which was the main focus of Jesus’s final days and conflicts.

Let’s treat Judaism as we would like Christianity to be treated: as a diverse, sincere, and honourable corpus of belief and practice which, honestly, bears little resemblance to how it looked 2000 years ago.

And, if any of us are wondering whether Jews still slaughter paschal lambs, or what Pharisees and Sadducees do today, perhaps we are not yet ready to talk about Judaism from the pulpit. Find a Jewish community, and talk with them first.

Let the Seder be the Seder

By all means let’s go to a proper Seder led by someone Jewish, but please do not attempt to run one as a Christian. Think how it would feel if a non-Christian did that to the eucharist — especially if they had already incorporated the New Testament into their scripture and used it to prove that they were right and Christianity was wrong.

While we’re at it, the Last Supper very probably was not a Passover meal, and what is described in the New Testament has little in common with a Seder meal today.

However good our motives, we are better off letting Judaism interpret itself.

Look for the common features

Christianity can be good news without Judaism — or any other religion — being the bad news. Instead of using Jews as the foil (primitive, hostile, legalistic, Christ-killing — none of them true or helpful), let us seek instead the resonances between our two traditions.

The word “paschal” comes from Pesach (Hebrew for Passover), and Holy Week and Easter combine its theological themes with those of Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement): there is so much to be explored there in the common themes of redemption, liberation, sin, sacrifice, holiness, purity, or forgiveness.

Be alert, not scared

The more we look, the more we may find favourite hymns, scriptural passages, and liturgy or sermon themes that actually, now we come to think of it, draw on anti-Jewish ideas. We will probably find some that have helped to legitimise anti-Semitism.

But let’s not say nothing instead: let us use the privilege of the pulpit in Holy Week and Easter to call out the parts of our heritage that need repentance and forgiveness, so that Jews and Christians can both be freed from slavery, and find reconciliation and newness of life.

The Revd Patrick Moriarty is head teacher of the Jewish Community Secondary School in Barnet; a self-supporting Assistant Curate of St Stephen’s, St Albans; and a trustee of the Council of Christians and Jews.

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