Astute Christian homilists and teachers know that one of the challenges of ‘breaking open’ the Scriptures during Lent, and especially Holy Week, is to do so without inadvertently wandering onto well-worn paths of anti-Jewish messaging. The accusation that “the Jews killed Jesus” — with its manifold expressions and violent consequences — is, tragically, a fact of Christian history, with shockwaves still felt in the present.
Great strides have been taken by Churches, over more than half a century, to cleanse Christian thought patterns of the distortions of anti-Jewish sentiment and to foster an attitude of respect for Jews and Judaism. The ground-breaking fruits of the Second Vatican Council and the legacy of Pope John Paul II are solid evidence of this.
But old habits die hard. Subtle bias continues to crop up in preaching and teaching, as in, for example, the mention of “Jews” and “Judaism” solely or predominantly as a contrast to the ministry of Jesus, without reference to the Jewishness of Jesus himself and the Jewish scriptures and traditions that shaped his person and mission. No offence to present-day Judaism is intended, of course; yet the centuries-long influence of anti-Jewish tropes found in Christianity make us susceptible to perpetuating past problems, and therefore the harm done to Jewish communities, in the present.
With this challenge in mind, the following points and resources are highlighted to assist with Lenten preparations:
1. Become acquainted with the topic at hand.
If new to the topic, a quick way to grasp the central issue is to read James Martin SJ’s short piece, “No, the Jews did not kill Jesus” in America magazine, 1 April 2022 (subscription may be required). Martin directs his readers to an engaging book by Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine, The Misunderstood Jew. The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2006).
Also, an excellent introductory series of short (20 min) video presentations by leading scholars in the field of Jewish-Christian relations, “Presenting the Passion without Blaming the Jews”, can be freely accessed at the website of the International Council of Christians and Jews.
2. Become familiar with proposed solutions and situate your response.
Scholars themselves grapple with the dilemma of how to interpret problematic Scripture texts which appear to cast “Jews” in a negative light. Again, Amy-Jill Levine is important reading in this regard, e.g.: “Holy Week and the Hatred of the Jews: Avoiding Anti-Judaism at Easter” (ABC Religion & Ethics, 2 April 2015). Faced with the array of scholarly responses, faith educators and pastoral practitioners must find their own ground, nuancing their approach over time as the issues continue to be studied. What is important is to make a start in consciously communicating the gospel in fresh ways, freed from the vestiges of classical anti-Judaism.
3. Create a plan for Lent, especially Holy Week.
This is where the rubber hits the road. Plan how you will create a formation opportunity this Lent that will alert your own parishioners or students to the problem of anti-Judaism in Christianity and enable them to digest the passion reading with sensitivity to the Jewish-Christian relationship and to the authentic gospel proclamation for their lives.
For example, a short statement could be read before the reading of the Passion, immediately prior to the liturgy or incorporated into a homily. It could also be printed in a parish bulletin or liturgical aid.
A sample text might include statements such as these:
As we prepare to hear the Passion of our Lord proclaimed, we are mindful that the Gospel account is not a simple history or biography of the life of Jesus. Rather, it is a text with theological intent, and arose in a first century environment that was in a state of turmoil socially, politically and religiously.
Negative references to certain Jews or Judaism should never be interpreted as a collective condemnation or denigration of the Jewish people, for this is neither the message of the Gospel nor the teaching of the Church.
Sadly, anti-Judaism and antisemitism have been given expression by Christians for many centuries. Historically, this was fuelled by distorted preaching on the passion narrative, including the unjust accusation that “the Jews killed Jesus” and a lamentable ignorance about Judaism and key Jewish beliefs, or worse, deliberate misrepresentation. Correcting these aberrations, and healing the deep wounds caused by Christian antagonism toward and persecution of Jews, is an essential building block for our Christian commitments today.
At the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church taught that “what happened in [Jesus’] passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today” and that “the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures.”
The Council continued: “Christ underwent His passion and death freely, because of the sins of humanity and out of infinite love, in order that all may reach salvation. It is, therefore, the burden of the Church’s preaching to proclaim the cross of Christ as the sign of God’s all-embracing love and as the fountain from which every grace flows.” (Nostra Aetate, 4)
We pray that, as we receive the proclamation of the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, our hearts and minds will be cleansed of any lingering anti-Jewish misconceptions in our Christian culture and be receptive to the true depths of God’s all-embracing love to which the word of God testifies.
A further step in our pastoral plan for Holy Week could be to urge “passion play” organisers in our parish/school/diocese to read the guidelines of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops: “Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion”. This document provides historical and theological context for dramatic presentations of the passion, including pointers for avoiding the creation of harmful caricatures — such as Jewish leaders dressed in black or portrayed in stereotypical ways.
The challenge of interpreting the passion narrative without flirting with anti-Jewish tropes could also be included as a focus of discussion for Lenten groups, bible studies, book clubs, teacher in-services, clergy conferences and other formation activities, drawing on one or more of the resources listed here.
Further, if creatively interpreting the Stations of the Cross, consider devoting a station to “sorrow for the sins of Christians against the Jewish people”, drawing on words similar to those prayed by Pope John Paul II during his iconic visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem on 26 March 2000.
4. Commit to an ongoing learning curve.
Beyond Lent, make a personal and professional commitment to ongoing education about the history of antisemitism in Christianity and the Church’s post-conciliar path of reconciliation with the Jewish people. If this seems like a daunting task, let’s make it manageable and achievable. Resolve to digest at least one helpful publication each Lent that elucidates the issues at stake. Consolidate and build upon your learning, year by year. A few suggestions follow:
- Guidelines on these matters have been issued by the Commission of the Holy See for Religious Relations with the Jews, such as: Guidelines and Suggestions for Implementing the Conciliar Declaration Nostra Aetate, No. 4 (1974) and Notes on the Correct Way to Present Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church (1985). These and many more official ecclesial documents can be found at the online library of the Centre of Councils of Christians and Jews, Dialogika.
- For a work by a number of contributing Christian and Jewish scholars, see Philip Cunningham, ed., Pondering the Passion: What’s at Stake for Christians and Jews? (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004). See, too, Philip Cunningham’s newly published guide for educators and clergy, Maxims for Mutuality: Principles for Catholic Theology, Education and Preaching about Jews and Judaism (New York/Mahwah, NJ Paulist Press, 2022). A small book, with big insights.
- In the Australian context, the Sisters of Our Lady of Sion offer a number of helpful video presentations to assist our awareness and handling of difficult bible texts.
- A pastorally-oriented work by Marilyn Salmon, Preaching without Contempt: Overcoming Unintended Anti-Judaism (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006) offers pulpit advice for preachers.
- A must for one’s day-to-day reference shelf is Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, eds., The Jewish Annotated New Testament, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), which includes the contributions of some 80 Jewish scholars.
5. Share helpful resources and educate others.
Finally, whichever useful article/book you read, video you view or website you consult, share it! Pass it on to parishioners, students, colleagues, friends with a word of personal recommendation. Your own testimony has impact on those in your sphere of influence. You can make a real difference.
Through practical steps like these, Catholics, in concert with the efforts of the broader Christian community, can put a united ‘hand to the plough’ to ensure that the goals of ecclesial reform initiated by Vatican II with respect to Christian-Jewish relations are applied and realised in the daily workings of dioceses, parishes, classrooms, seminaries, homes and other places of formation.
This is no mere academic exercise or optional ‘extra’. The healing of the Christian-Jewish relationship is a gospel imperative in our time, with real bearing on Jewish communities. Consider it collective Christian Lenten reparation for Jewish lives adversely affected and, in millions of cases, physically and spiritually destroyed due to the direct or indirect influence of anti-Judaism and antisemitism emanating from Christian sources; for it was this influence that prevented or muted an effective moral resistance from Churches to the evil of Hitler’s Third Reich.
We cannot undo the past, but we can take steps to shape the present and future. The annual rhythms of the Lenten season, and Holy Week in particular, present a vital opportunity to do so.
Teresa Pirola is a Sydney-based freelance writer and Catholic faith educator. www.teresapirola.com