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For Christians, this is Holy Week. For Jews, this week is Passover. Two thousand years ago, these were the same events: Jesus’ celebration of Passover was at the center of the original Holy Week. Yet this week our Holy Week services at our church in Squirrel Hill will have a distinctly Christian flavor, while the Jews in our neighborhood will celebrate Passover according to their traditions. And though these two celebrations are deeply related, most of us will remain ignorant of what our neighbors are doing. Why is this? Should it really be this way?

Rabbi David Zaslow’s book Jesus: First-Century Rabbi seeks to remedy this ignorance by reminding its readers of the common heritage of Judaism and Christianity. Jesus was thoroughly Jewish, and so were the first “Christians.” But since the first-century, the divide has continually grown between followers of Jesus and Jesus’ Jewish brothers and sisters. In some cases, this has led to tragically violent manifestations of anti-Semitism. Seeking to build bridges between Jews and Christians, Zaslow writes from a place of optimistic belief that deeper understanding of each other’s faiths can help lead us to greater harmony, calling us to “ask God together to turn Constantine’s sword into a pruning hook” (p.xxiv).

For one example of our common heritage which is relevant for this week, consider how Zaslow’s description of the Hebraic understanding of time illumines our understanding of Passover and our practice of Eucharist. At his last Passover meal, Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to his disciples saying, “This is my body which is broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” As Zaslow examines what remembrance would have meant to first-century Jews, he quotes Lawrence Hoffman, saying “the rabbis saw zikarone [remembrance] as anamnesis: making the past present. Continuing, Zaslow writes,

This same sense of anamnesis, time past experienced as time present, is central to the annual Passover seder, the yearly retelling of the Passover story accompanied by a festive meal in Jewish homes. In the Hagaddah, the book containing the stories and prayers to be read at the seder, it is written, ‘In every generation a person must regard himself as if he came forth himself out of Egypt.’ The annual retelling of the Exodus story is accompanied by wine and foods emblematic of slavery and liberation, and has the effect of a spiritual time machine.  (p. 102)

This worldview in which zikarone makes the past present is the same worldview that enabled early Christians to speak of the “real presence” of Jesus in the bread and wine of communion. Though it runs contrary to the sensibilities of many modernist Protestants, this “spiritual time machine” was part of the worldview of the early Christians and is at the root of our practice of the Lord’s Supper.

Zaslow of course presents many other interesting examples of Jewish roots of Christian teaching which make it worth reading. But I have to observe that Jesus: First-Century Rabbi also has a few serious limitations. As a Christian, I found myself objecting to many of the caricatures of Christian theology Zaslow makes when comparing Christian beliefs to Jewish beliefs. There’s not room even in 200 pages to accomplish what Zaslow sets out to do, so doctrines such as the Trinity receive only two pages. Zaslow himself acknowledges his limits in the book’s introduction, and asks his readers to grant him some poetic license. I can do that in many places, but not all.

I struggled especially with Zaslow’s very short chapter on the Apostle Paul. Describing Paul as “antinomian,” Zaslow wonders, “Did Paul really love his own Jewish faith,or was he just pretending to practice Judaism in order to win people over to the new gospel?” (p. 174). Such a question reveals a very shallow reading of Paul. Zaslow makes no mention of Romans 9-11, where Paul himself shares his theology of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity and expresses a deep yearning for his brothers and sisters to see Jesus as Lord. Why would Paul pretend to be Jewish when all that brought him was persecution? As he lists in 2 Corinthians 11, Paul endured floggings, stonings, sleeplessness, and hunger for the sake of telling others about Jesus. Zaslow writes wisely earlier in the book that “Christianity is at its best when it is expressed from the cross – from the place of sacrifice, suffering, failure, and not from a position of power” (p. 130). This was exactly the position taken by the Apostle Paul, who suffered even to the point of martyrdom for his faith in Jesus.

While I admire Zaslow’s bridge-building intentions, and am grateful for the insights this book gave me into the Jewish roots of Christianity, I cannot minimize the differences between our faiths as Zaslow wants to do. I grant that Jesus: First-Century Rabbi was supposed to be about the Jewishness of Jesus, not Paul, but Zaslow’s difficulty with Paul still reveals how great the difference is between Christianity and any other faith. So much depends upon how we answer Jesus’ question: “Who do you say that I am?” Zaslow writes from the perspective of one who believes Jesus was a righteous Jew. I read this book from the perspective of someone who believes that Jesus is the Son of God incarnate. I pray that this Passover, this Holy Week, God will grant Christians and Jews the grace to learn from each other and grow in relationship, while still answering Jesus’ question clearly and honestly. Who do we say that he is?

 

 


 

Thank you to Paraclete Press for sending me a review copy of Jesus: First Century Rabbi.

 

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Worship should take us on a journey into the Light of the Kingdom of God. This movement towards heaven is the driving force behind Father Vassilios Papavassiliou’s new book Journey to the Kingdom: An Insider’s Look at the Liturgy and Beliefs of the Eastern Orthodox Church. At the surface level, the book is a clear and readable explanation of Orthodox beliefs and worship. But at the heart of the book lies an invitation to be transfigured in the Light of Christ through worship.

As the subtitle suggests, this book is an insider’s look at Orthodox liturgy. As an outsider, I found Papavassiliou’s descriptions of the liturgy clarified both my understanding of and questions about Orthodox worship. While I’ve read a good amount about Orthodoxy, I still feel dizzy when I have the cross-cultural experience of an Orthodox worship service.  When I’ve worshiped at Orthodox churches or at the Byzantine Catholic Seminary here in Pittsburgh, I’ve known that I should simply ask more questions, but I haven’t known where to begin. This book asks and answers many of those questions. Papavassiliou also has a gift for succinctly communicating Orthodox theology in ways that any Christian can understand, often using sidebars in the book for deeper explanations of certain topics. For example, the sidebar on page 22 is the most concise and clear explanation of the veneration of icons I’ve read.

Papavassilou also explains the nuances of what happens behind the iconostasis in ways that would enrich even an insider’s understanding of Orthodoxy.  For example, chapter 7 is dedicated to explaining the use of Psalm 50 (Psalm 51 in Hebrew and Protestant numbering) in the Divine Liturgy.  This psalm of repentance is recited before the consecration of Eucharist because, “It is repentance that opens the gates of heaven to us” (p. 65). But there’s more than meets the eye going on here: Anyone familiar with the psalm may have noticed that there seems to be a change in tone between verse 17 and verse 18.  Before this change we read “For You do not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it; You are not pleased with burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise” (NASB). Then verse 19 speaks of God delighting in “righteous sacrifices, in burnt offering and whole burnt offering” and “young bulls” being offered on God’s altar. The first portion of this psalm is recited during the Divine Liturgy when the not-yet-consecrated communion elements are processed throughout the church. Then there is actually a pause between verses 17 and 18 during which the priest places the bread and wine upon the altar. Then he completes the psalm demonstrating symbolically that Christ is the one righteous sacrifice Who replaces all earthly sacrifices with the offering of Himself. As the book demonstrates, this sort of poetic beauty permeates Orthodox worship, with deeper nuances always awaiting discovery.

Such beauty is a reflection of the Light of the Kingdom, the Light into which worshipers enter through the liturgy. With the liturgy’s “very goal and purpose being participation in the divine Mysteries” (pp. 82-83), all of the elements of the service are explained as preparation for entry into the presence of Christ. The hymn which follows reception of communion says, “We have seen the true light! We have received the heavenly Spirit. We have found the true faith, as we worship the undivided Trinity. For the Trinity has saved us!” (p. 169). The reception of Christ in the Eucharist transfigures Christians that we may bear His Light to the world. And this means that there is a missional component to even the other-worldly worship of Orthodoxy. As Papavassiliou writes, “We leave the world that we may return to it renewed and illumined, fit to bring light to those in darkness” (p. 18). Amen. In the Lord’s light may we see light, and may others see Christ’s light in us.

(Thank you to Paraclete Press for sharing this book with me.)