Among the greatest blasphemies ever constructed by humankind was that of Nazi Germany. Not satisfied with their political dominance, they also sought a religious dominance as well. The notion of an “Aryan Christ” was perhaps the depths of their theological blasphemies mirrored in their dehumanization and murder of the Jews. At many points in the past two millennia, the relationship between Christians and Jews has hit low points – with the Jews almost universally at the short end of the stick. But to seek to create a Christ who Himself was not a Jew is (for a Christian) the worst of insults.
The second Sunday before the Nativity, in Orthodox Tradition, is set aside as the Sunday of the Holy Forefathers in which the Church remembers all those who are of the ancestry of Christ.
These are the ancestors of Christ according to the flesh, who lived before the Law and under the Law, especially the Patriarch Abraham, to whom God said, “In thy seed shall all of the nations of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 12:3, 22:18).
In this modern century it also stands as a stark reminder that Christ was a Jew and as He said, “Salvation is of the Jews” (Jn. 4:22). There is a tendency (seen at is worst in Germany of the 1930’s and 40’s) to divorce Christ from His history, to treat Him as though He simply appeared on earth, full-grown. This same tendency diminishes the role of His mother in the events of our salvation, contrary to the witness of Scripture.
For most of the Christian Church divorced from the fullness of Orthodox Tradition, the saints are only those of the New Testament, the Old Testament having been relegated to a questionable status (not questionable as Scripture, per se, but often divorced from its proper role in the story of salvation). Many Christians, on the popular level, distance themselves from the Old Testament saying, “I believe in the God of the New Testament.” This last statement is, though unknown to many, a heresy (Marcionism).
The theological maxim: the law of praying is the law of believing, is again manifested in its proper manner in Orthodox worship. There, the ancestors of Christ are remembered in a singular way, understanding that the plan of our salvation stretches through the whole of human history (indeed it is prophesied in Genesis). Added to this is the Orthodox custom of celebrating Old Testament saints, many with their own singular feast day (Churches are named for them as well). Unless the Church actually incorporates the whole life of the people of God into its own worship life, its people will begin to think that those prior to the New Testament have some lesser value – occasionally to a disastrous conclusion.
It is true that for Christians, the New Testament is the means for reading the Old (a neglected practice by those who practice a number of the so-called historical approaches). We must learn to see in the Old the shadow of the New and in so doing, not to despise the shadow because it was yet looking for its fulfillment. To despise the shadow is to despise the image is to despise the very reality itself.
Related to a theme I have touched on several times lately – to preach the fullness of the Gospel of Christ – the Christian story must not be truncated in any manner. Thus to remember the ancestors of Christ is to remember that the Gospel of Christ, the salvation accomplished on the Cross, is a Divine work, taken up by generations who preserved the Torah, who observed the Law, who suffered under Egyptian, Philistine, Babylonian, Persian, Alexandrian and numerous other oppressors as well as struggling against their own temptations (no less than we must ourselves). There is a great line of faithfulness that runs throughout those generations, despite any lapses, that finds its culmination for Christians in the Theotokos, the one whom all generations will call blessed. She recapitulates the whole of human history that had gone before, and unlike the primordial ancestor Eve, she responds to the initiative of God with, “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord, be it done unto me according to Thy word.” And thus the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. But let us tell the whole story that the fullness of the mercy of God might be remembered and the full company of His faithful children recalled. May they be blessed forever.
Today, as we celebrate the memorial of the Forefathers, let us the faithful raise a hymn to Christ the Redeemer, the Lord who magnifies them among all the nations, and faithfully performs extraordinary wonders, as he is mighty and powerful; and he showed forth from them a rod of power for us, pure Mary the Child of God who alone knew no man, from whom the flower, Christ, came forth, blossoming life for all and pleasure without cost and eternal life.
Stichera on Lord I Call for the Sunday of the Holy Ancestors, Tone 8
Your post here reminded me of another blog that I was recently introduced to and thought you might like to take a look at. It is a blog by an Orthodox priest in Jerusalem who serves the Liturgy in Hebrew. Reading his blog has certainly opened my eyes to the depth and beauty of Christianity’s Jewish past. The blog is at: http://abbaaw.blogspot.com/
Thank you for this, Father. This seems like a good occasion to make a request that’s been on my mind: some day would you please write about the texts about the Jews in Holy Friday Matins and Vespers? I expect I’m not alone in being uncomfortable every time I hear them.
Is that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob on the icon?
Yes it is Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
MRH, I can look at it. I saw a discussion last year between a number of Orthodox clergy on the subject. If I find something helpful perhaps I can write about it. I know that the texts have undergone some scrutiny and discussion for change or omission.
I too was startled to hear, at first, the Church’s references to “the disbelieving and impious Jews” (I think this is the gist) about those who crucified our Lord.
Perhaps the greater question is, why are we uncomfortable when we hear these verses?
I am uncomfortable because I know of the Holocaust. I know of the pogroms and I know that some people who have acted as officials of the “Church” have persecuted Jews.
Therefore, when my Church states historical facts about the passion of my Lord and Saviour and the acts that the Jews committed during that time, it rams home what occurred.
The Orthodox Church is considered antisemitic because of St John Chrysostom and “replacement theology”, changing some verses wouldn’t help anything. The Church is the church and what happened happened. How we act to our history makes all the difference.
Well said, Mary Leah! It is tough to resist revisionism when it costs you something. In this case, being associated with the horrors of Nazi anti-Semitism and the brutality of pogroms within Slavic nations, which some fear may soon return. The problem with revisionism in general is that it retrofits the record to agree with reaction, which in time will have its own reaction, and so it goes with fashion. More insidious is that once tweaked, where does the tweaking end? Whole volumes of literature have been stripped from libraries to mollify related enthusiasms, while ignoring the value of the in situ. Samuel Clemons and William Faulkner come to mind.
We even see revisionists fast at work to sensitize Holy Writ, perceived as misogynic, xenophobic and uncharitable to alternative lifestyles. Yes, our Orthodox liturgical poets have chosen many “startling” phrases, which we repeat during Holy Week and in our Resurrection troparia on Saturdays and Sundays. What to do? Recant history? In my long friendship with three Orthodox Christian priests, whom their very Jewish mothers reared in Kosher-keeping homes, I have never heard them make a fuss about John Chrysostom’s verse. And yes, we do talk about such things; it’s not just a polite agreement among friends to pretend these jarring phrases don’t exit
Not to make light of the profound blog message from Fr. Stephen that raises great concerns about Christians failing to give honor to the anscetors of Jesus Christ, I am imagining euphemistic versions of texts now in use:
“When the stone was sealed by the [people who shared the same genealogy, ethnicity and DNA as Jesus] … etc.”
Sometimes the burden of Orthodoxy, in its 2000 year history includes carrying language that reflects a different time. Part of that, sometimes, is asking those in our services to transcend their own circumstances or history, and worship with the Church through the ages rather than the Church of what is now happening. I am certain that in the long run, we will be better off with less change than with a constant worry that seeks to make comfortable those who refuse to see beyond the moment. I think it is expansive of the human spirit to transcend itself, thus I tend to be less concerned about texts, translations, etc. If your heart is on God, these things tend to be fine. Our hearts (mine especially) are frequently where they should not be.