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It was the morning after Passover and Reuben and Joseph, who were cousins, met to have the
inevitable post mortem on the celebration. They lived near each other and had just arrived back from college in time to join in the Spring festival. It was always a large family gathering with grandfathers and grandmothers and a host of children together with their nearby Jewish neighbours who had no family. For it was much more a family gathering even than the Christian Christmas. Year by year the Jewish community celebrated the liberation from bondage which their ancestors had experienced millennia ago in Egypt. The story was told how Pharaoh was forced to let the immigrants from Israel go from Egypt at the command of God and the insistence of Moses and Aaron. From the moment that the youngest child asked the question, 'Why is this night different from all other nights?' the stage was set and the flight from Egypt was re-enacted with unleavened bread or matzah, bitter herbs of horseradish and cups of wine with the Passover lamb.
It was a solemn but extraordinarily joyful, and even boisterous, occasion. For it looked to the future when the
Jewish people, now scattered among all the nations of the world, would receive the fulfilment of the promise from their covenantal God that they would be totally free and would enjoy the peace and prosperity forecast to be held in the
Land of Israel.
It was marvellous', exclaimed Joseph,' particularly the uproarious hunt at the end for the hidden half loaf of matzah which David had secreted away in the cellars! I always feel the family bonds so strongly on these occasions when we can be quite uninhibited as Jews together. The past really seems to come alive and one can almost feel the poignant sufferings and despair of so many of our people all over Europe and wherever they have suffered.'
'Yes', replied Reuben. 'There is something positively wholesome about Passover. It is like the Sabbath when we share the silence and the peace of the home or wherever we are on Sabbath, only it is a thousand times more piquant and meaningful, as if we were really cooperating with God in the bringing of peace and freedom to all. I thought that last night the Spirit of God was really with us to reach out to all who are lonely and suffering from injustice.'
They mused for a while in silence over their satisfaction with the celebration which ended well past midnight. Perhaps they were feeling a bit sleepy!
But then Joseph said, 'Reuben, I had an experience of a Christian service last term with our ecumenical group and the discussion afterwards was most interesting. It was a complete contrast to our celebration of Passover but some of the Christians said that it is based on what they called Christ's Passover.'
'What sort of service was it', asked Reuben warily. He had read quite a bit about what the Christians believed but somehow he drew the line at going to their worship.
'Oh, it was a Eucharist - a service of thanksgiving, you know. Some would call it the Lord's Supper or Mass but I gather that most people today use the word Eucharist because it is a neutral term. There has been so much disagreement about this service all through the centuries, as I expect you know. But I found it really quite a simple service. The first part could have been held at synagogue. It was composed of readings and chants and prayers. But it was the second part that I found strange. We went up to a table which they called the altar and stood in a large circle - I suppose there could have been forty of us (enough not make us feel embarrassed as we did not take part!). A dish of bread and a chalice of wine was placed on the table which was covered with a white cloth. The leading minister then led the long prayer which began with the versicle, 'The Lord is here - and that was significant in view of our later discussion. Then followed the main prayer of blessing and thanksgiving which was not too different in form to some of our blessings but of course the content was entirely different. This prayer was all about the liberation which God had brought about through Jesus' death and alleged glorification. At the end everyone except ourselves shared in the bread and the wine with the words which expressed that at that moment they were united to Jesus their Lord - the 'Body of Christ' and the 'Blood of Christ'. Then after a silent pause for prayer we all left, dismissed by the minister with a blessing to go out into the world in the name of God. It was quite striking in its way. But what did it all mean? One could see the similarities with our annual Passover, but this was a weekly service the Christians held and it was obvious that everyone there felt that it was always a special occasion for them.'
'I have read', said Reuben, 'that the Christians do feel that there is a special presence of God with them when they go to Eucharist. Some of them seem to think that the prayer of blessing is a memorial of the death of Christ and that to share in the bread and wine is the way to share now in the effects of the passion of Jesus. Others would go further and say that in their prayer of blessing they are offering the sacrifice of Jesus who then feeds them with his own life in the shared bread and wine. But there is another idea that takes for granted that Jesus is with them - as in that story of the two travellers to Emmaus - and the eucharist is a thanksgiving to the Father for all that he has done and continues to do in Jesus, and they participate with him in the shared bread and wine. I don't know which one of those ideas has an official acceptance. The one I find very difficult to understand is the offering of Jesus' sacrifice. How can any sacrifice that was offered years ago be recovered so that it is present today in worship? When we look back to the exodus from Egypt each year at Passover we tell the story in such a way that each of us feels that we have been through persecution and slavery and become free people. It is as if history had become recent memory or that we had been there. But we don't recover the original exodus, do we? I mean it won't do, it doesn't stand ........'
Joseph butted in, 'Reuben, I felt that during the Christian service there was an increasing emphasis on being united with Jesus. Now this is quite foreign to us. We know that God is present to all who do good and particularly to those of our own people. I suppose that a great deal depends upon whether you really believe that Jesus is no longer dead but alive. He was alleged to have been raised by the Father and that for a brief time he appeared to some of the disciples and even ate with them on occasions. I feel that these appearances must have been either visions or hallucinations, taking into account that his disciples must have been frightened at the way events had turned out, or at least totally disillusioned. But certainly what the Christians say happened at Easter makes them assert that Christ is their passover who died for all and is alive.'
'Well, of course', replied Reuben, 'we have had our mystics who have felt closer to God than most of us who just follow Torah. But I agree that the claims made by the Christians which find expression in Eucharist go well beyond the mystic vision. There seems to be some relation between the bread and the wine and what they assume to be the life of Jesus raised from the dead. Whereas for us the blessing of bread is a common feature of our daily meals in which we bless God for his goodness in providing us with food, for the Christians the actual bread, which has a blessing of God said over it, becomes more than just a symbol of God's goodness. Wasn't it Paul who said that at the breaking of bread they participated in the body of Christ? Also the cups of wine that we drank last night symbolizing the stages of our journey from slavery to freedom are quite different from what the Christians say happens for them. They say that the wine is a communion in the life of Christ who they say made a new covenant sealed in his own blood. Of course this goes back to that mysterious Last Supper held by Jesus with his disciples at Passover time when he had a premonition of his impending death.'
'So then, their idea of presence is more of a relationship with Jesus', Joseph exclaimed, 'rather than a sort of ghostly figure always with them. But to be in that sort of relationship you must have accepted him as Messiah and we know that Messiah is yet to come. What bothers me is that they believe that Jesus' death was a sacrifice and that the Eucharist is, as you have just said, a sacrificial rite. Their prayer of blessing at Eucharist has these words:
"Father you gave your only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the Cross for our redemption; he made there a full atonement for the sins of the whole world, offering once for all his one sacrifice of himself."
I don't think that a suffering Messiah was a generally accepted idea by the rabbis in the first century of the Common Era, was it? We had our martyrs and their sufferings were said to be for everyone's good, but not everyone was agreed that they were also for the wiping out of sins as Jesus' sacrifice was said to be. Besides, Jesus died by crucifixion and that meant that his death could not be meritorious because, according to Torah, anyone who dies on a cross is accursed.'
'Yes', replied Reuben, 'I agree. It is very difficult for us to understand the Christians' very common attitude to Jesus' sufferings as making atonement for sin until the end of the world. Sacrifices went out with us after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and although it seems likely that before then animal sacrifices and offerings of all kinds were taken for granted by most people as an essential part of worship at Jerusalem, yet afterwards we have managed quite well without them. And of course they were done simply in obedience to the Law without any great theory about what they were achieving. Sacrifice with us now means obedience to God and to Torah and that is surely much more human.
Joseph said, 'I was told that all the sacrificial vocabulary and imagery that they use was probably taken over from Judaism, first of all by the missionaries who could only speak in the terms they had learnt as Jews. Paul, for instance, writes about God setting forth Jesus as an expiation for sins. But then in the second century, when we were having to do without sacrifices, the Christians took over a great deal of Jewish terminology. So that is why in their celebrations they say that they have an altar. Apparently Justin, in Rome, made the claim that the Christians were the true inheritors of the promises made to Israel by God and that Jesus was the new Moses to lead all, including the Gentiles to freedom from death and sin. You and I know that arrogant claim is false. For of course Jesus had hoped that he would inaugurate the new age on earth - at Jerusalem, some say - and he was proved wrong when the Romans put him to death with unspeakable brutality. Far from being a sacrifice it is obvious that his death was a judicial murder of the worst kind and in which the authorities in Jerusalem connived to the great discredit of our ation.'
'Yes, the character of Jesus', Reuben said, 'would surely have been enough to commend him to God. Everyone, including Muslims, see him as a prophet. His teaching, as far as I have been able to grasp, was thoroughly grounded in everyday life. The woman kneading her dough or looking for lost coins in the dark corners of the house. Fishermen toiling all night without catching anything. His teaching in synagogue and the healings that happened. The crowds who followed him and were said to be miraculously fed by him once or twice. The birds and the vegetation, the farmer and the tax collector all appear in his stories. They are all so brilliant, equalling the teaching of our rabbis. That one, for instance about the younger son who wasted his fortune and returned repentant but was forgiven by his father before he was able to get half of his apology out. It is true that he also mentions judgement and there are some spectacular sayings, apparently, that speak of recalcitrant sinners being consumed by worms and the torment of everlasting fire! But his whole approach appeals greatly and his depiction of God is so reminiscent of our own prophet Hosea when he said that God loved Israel and had drawn them with the bands of love. Jesus mixed with the outcast and he and his disciples had meals with them, an unheard of thing. But he was not only a visionary he was claimed to be a healer, raising the dead and curing lepers and mad people. It would not be difficult for us to admire Jesus if only he had not been claimed by his followers to be the Son of God - of course I am just being devil's advocate, Joseph!'
After a pause he went on - 'I think that I would like to reason that Jesus' crucifixion - which he did not resist in any way, we are told - was a revelation of God who brings us through suffering to freedom and that his example is one of true human integrity in the face of great injustice. I know that the Christians feel that it was more than an example and that somehow a change came about through Jesus' death. But as I have said, surely his life was important to us all and his death was a consummation of it. He followed his call through to the bitter end as a freely willed choice. That is something we Jews can understand only too well. Perhaps there is some justification after all for calling his life and death a 'passover'.'
'One of the things about the Christians that strikes me', said Joseph, 'is that they appear to be continually looking backwards in a wistful sort of way to the times when the history books tell them that there was a Christendom in Europe. Jesus said that the kingdom was to be found in their midst and yet he also told them to pray for the kingdom to come! It really is very difficult to understand what he could have meant! But it is obviously a great delusion to maintain that the new order has arrived. One has only to look around at society today. However, in their worship at Eucharist they do seem to affirm that we can look for the fulfilment of blessing in the future. For them the supper is a foretaste of the banquet of all the elect in heaven.'
'All in all one must admire the Christian ethic as being in accord with what we Jews believe - that to help people in need is to hasten the kingdom and to bring freedom to others. There is an altruism about them which belies their muddled ideas about sacrifice and presence of God. In our discussions we felt that they were feeling their way back to the Jewishness of Jesus. They seem to have got over the exaggerated ideas that were put about in some of their writings that the Pharisees were a generally 'bad lot' and to recognize that some of Jesus' alleged utterances against our people were probably never spoken by him. So we have been exonerated in small ways, Reuben, from the centuries long denunciation of our ancestors as being mainly responsible for Jesus' death. Such open dialogue cannot do us any harm and may help the Christians to wean them away from the medievalism they have played with in the past two hundred years.'
The two cousins always enjoyed their holiday discussions and parted for the time being, looking forward to the remaining six days of Passover when they would still be able to eat matzah as a sign of their solidarity with all who were enslaved and to look for the future coming of God's reign here on earth.