By Jason Michael
Even in the darker periods of Christian anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic history the Christmas vigil – and Christmas in general – has been an unlikely location in the liturgical calendar for pogroms and anti-Semitic outrages inspired by the sinfully misguided expostulations of the Church or individual members of the Christian clergy. Holy Week with its gory emphasis on the arrest, trial, torture, and execution of Jesus of Nazareth has been, much to our eternal shame, a catalyst of some of the most disgusting acts of inhumanity perpetrated by Christians against their Jewish neighbours in Europe, but Christmas – with its narrative of the arrival of the promised Jewish messiah to a Jewish family in the historic homeland of the Jewish people – not so much. The general mood of celebration, feasting, and merrymaking, coupled with the cold winter weather, may have tempered the bloodlust. Who knows? Yet at midnight, as Christmas day descended on Ayrshire, I listened to a sermon that quite positively charged the atmosphere with its powerful undercurrent of vile anti-Semitism.
I’m neither a member of the Church of Scotland nor a Presbyterian (and I will add rather quickly that I doubt such understandings of Christian tradition are widely held among my Presbyterian sisters and brothers or indeed in the Scottish Kirk), but given that midnight Mass has all but become a thing of the past I decided to drop in on the local Church of Scotland’s ‘Watching Service’ at half past eleven on Christmas Eve night. On arrival the interior of the church was filled with the faithful at song – singing time-honoured carols led by a vested choir, and lit only with a huge and luscious Christmas tree and candles. It was as beautiful as it was marvellous.
Everything was perfectly Christmas up until the sermon. Don’t get me wrong; it was well delivered and the assembly listened attentively, but this may have been part of the problem. The reverend gentleman opened his homily by noting that the distance from Jerusalem to the inconsequential village of Bethlehem was a mere six miles, and this was the distance which the Wise Men completed their devotional pilgrimage from Herod’s palace to the place where the Christ child was. At this point my thinking was moved to a contemplation of those mere six miles today with all of their checkpoints and the unjust cantonisation of an Israeli occupied Palestine, but no mention was made of modern Bethlehem. No mention was made of the Bethlehem infants who have choked to death in recent months on the tear gas fired by security forces in the town. As we celebrated the birth of the one on whose shoulders are justice and sovereignty, the Prince of Peace, no words were spoken of either justice or peace.
A distinction was made between the Magi – symbolic of the coming of non-Jews to the Jewish messiah – and the “Jews” who – knowing the prophecies – did not come those six miles. It is true, of course, in the Gospel account, that these Jerusalem Jewish authorities did not come to Bethlehem, but at what stage must it be pointed out to a presumably theologically literate preacher that this account is, and has been for a long time, subject to all the rigours of historical and textual criticism? Was the preacher aware that in the text these “Jews” were the cyphers of religious authority, and at what stage have religious authorities – in the Church of Scotland or indeed in my own Tradition – always and willingly come to bend the knee to Jesus?
Adoration of God, as the Nativity account makes clear, has always been the prophetic action of the powerless on the peripheries – were not Mary and Joseph also “Jews?” Are we to assume that the shepherds in the surrounding Judean countryside were not Jews as well? This is absurd. Jews and Gentiles willingly came to the Nativity, and nowhere does the Gospel account fail to make this clear. Had the sermon stopped its interrogation at this point I might be more reticent and write this all off as an all-too-common laziness on the part of the exegete, but no, it went further.
After four and a half centuries of peaceful repose, the sixteenth century Reformer John Calvin was exhumed to deliver a coup de main. Right from the darkest ages of Christian anti-Jewish fervour we were reminded of Calvin’s commentary on Isaiah chapter 22 wherein this author penned on the flimsiest of textual excuses that the “Jews are doubly ungrateful, because they have not beheld the Lord even at a distance (see Isaiah 22: 11).” It was ingratitude, according to the preacher, that held [all?] the Jews from coming to the manger. At this point the sermon shifts from being simply misguided and ill-informed to being theologically problematic in the extreme and morally obnoxious.
Preparing my own homily for tomorrow I have been reflecting on the First Letter of St. John and its focus on love – the commandment sine qua non of Christianity – and its injunction that those who do not love do not know God, because God is love. It is a failure only in reading to have limited Judaism or Jewishness to the Jerusalem authorities, but it is altogether a failure of love to equate their absence from the textual scene with a sixteenth century opinion on the ingratitude of all Jews because they do not worship Jesus as their messiah. It is always sad to hear such words, even though – in all likelihood – they were not thought and spoken with malice, and it was more sad and frustrating to hear them at the beginning of Christmas.
Author: Jason Michael (@Jeggit)