This essay by Giles Fraser, the vicar of Putney, England, appeared in yesterday’s The Guardian. It makes several points that Jews have talked about and noticed for years, and I have Christian and Catholic friends who’ve noted many of the same ideas to me as well. Fraser puts it all together in a way that, I believe, is intended to compel action, change, and, at the very least, more thought.
For example, he opens with:
Jesus wasn’t a Christian. He was a Jew. The word Christian wasn’t known until years after his death. Which means that in order to appreciate Easter in its own terms, we must think of it as Jewish. The whole purpose for which Jesus went up to Jerusalem was to celebrate the festival of Passover. The last supper was a Passover meal. And it’s the symbolism of that meal that Christians must return to in order to understand the meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Many if not most of us know these details. But he continues:
Even in Jesus’s time, the celebration of Passover was well over a thousand years old. Families gather together to rehearse the story of the liberation of the people of Israel from captivity in Egypt. Bitter herbs are dipped in saltwater to remind them of the tears of slavery. Lamb is roasted in remembrance of that first Passover night when lamb’s blood was daubed on the door frame of Jewish homes to ward off a terrible plague of death that would sweep through the darkness, destroying all first-born children. Freedom is toasted with wine. Moses saves his people from oppression and slavery under Ramses II.
This is the archetypal salvation story in the Bible. “Are you saved?” ask evangelicals, as if the question’s meaning is obvious. “God save the Queen” we sing. Yes, but save her from what? In fact, theologians have given multiple answers. Saved from death, from sin, from the devil, from meaninglessness, from error, from guilt, from hell, from God’s wrath – the list is endless. For Jews the answer is clear: saved from captivity.
According to the Wikipedia entry, the vicar is an expert on Nietzsche and he applies that knowledge next:
Nietzsche argued that Christianity gets going by first inventing a religious-type problem – like hell – and then offering itself as the solution; that it’s a fictional/metaphysical deliverance from a fictional/metaphysical affliction. In other words: a racket. This may be true of some versions of Christianity – particularly the nasty evangelical salvation story known as penal substitution. But Judaism is not like this at all. There is nothing worryingly abstract about slavery or exploitation or oppression. In crying out for freedom, Jews (unlike many Christians) do not get tied up in arcane metaphysical knots. Which is why the story of Passover is a salvation narrative with real bite.
In addition to being a wonkabee when it comes to politics, I’d say I’m the same when it comes to philosophy. I agree with the vicar on this point and it’s a source of great conflict for me in regard to all religions, Judaism included. But that’s another discussion.
Then, Fraser takes us back, to recap and re-apply:
Let me rewind. Jesus goes up to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. This is Roman-occupied Jerusalem. In such a context the Passover celebration is political dynamite. The Romans are inevitably read as Egyptians. God will lead his people out of occupation. Salvation means regime change. Little wonder the Romans were quick to silence anyone causing religious trouble and especially someone they believed was claiming the title King of the Jews. Jesus was crushed by empire.
And then he gives it to us, more powerfully than I’ve read in a long time:
Christians have been so blinded by generations of anti-semitism that they’ve failed to recognise the Jewishness of Easter. Jesus is the new Moses who will lead his people from captivity. Of course, Jews also want to discourage the idea that Easter has a Jewish significance precisely because Christianity is seen as a perversion of Jewish theology. All too often, Christianity has hijacked the Hebrew scriptures and twisted their meaning. The idea that Christians might have hermeneutic designs on their beloved Passover feels like one more insult in a succession of historic insults.
Yet, insult or not, the heart of all Catholic Christianity is the Eucharist, the commemoration of the last supper. As the Passover host, Jesus takes unleavened bread and breaks it. He offers wine. He calls his followers to do the same in remembrance of Him. During the Eucharist, Christians recreate a stylised Passover meal with unleavened bread and wine. It’s the means by which we relive and retell the story of Easter. We may not have a use for roast lamb. Instead, Jesus is the lamb of God.
And here’s the call to action (and what completes what is an excellent example of a poignant, coherent, universal op-ed-style column):
Not much of this is readily apparent on a Sunday morning. Which is a pity, because the message of freedom so powerfully announced by the celebration of Passover is one that contemporary Christianity badly needs to reclaim. For freedom is the lost virtue of the Christian church. Sure, it’s easy for Christians to join in the celebrations of Wilberforce and the abolition of the slave trade. It’s easy enough to be a radical 200 years after the event. But on many of the issues of the day, the church stands against human freedom. For evangelicals particularly, freedom means licence. From the freedom of the market to the freedom of gay people to marry and adopt children: for too many Christians, freedom is sin. That’s why the church has always been obsessed with control.
Yet what’s promised through Easter is that condition described by St Paul as “the glorious liberty of the children of God”. Sure enough, this is not a commitment to outright libertarianism – for the freedom of some can be the bondage of others. Even so, a church that fails to proclaim human freedom is one that has lost sight of the good news of Easter.
And so the vicar synthesizes the essentials without padding or fabricating or fanaticizing either side, yet being honest about the pitfalls each side often encounters and sometimes embraces. This column represents the thoughts of someone living in the real world and a world that allows people to believe without disparaging or negating what others believe.
Now, I’m off to make yet more kosher for Passover food today (yesterday it was matzah balls, rocky road brownies, Passover popovers and Passover-ized eggplant parmagianno; today it’s apple farfal kugel and potato kugel – that last one can kill you if you eat too much though).
And eggs. Everything has at least four eggs in it.
I am sorry people’s Easter bonnets won’t glitter so well today, but I do wish you a very happy holiday.
Hattip to Yid with Lid although I’m pretty sure that I would not provide quite the same editorial as he does