It’s That Time of the Year Again: In Tone Four, “The murderers of God, the lawless nation of the Jews…”

by Bogdan G. Bucur

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Disturbing Words, Disturbed Emotions

The words in the title are from one of the stichera at the Beatitudes chanted on Holy Thursday evening (Triodion, 589). Similar references to “arrogant Israel, people guilty of blood,”  “bloodthirsty people, jealous and vengeful,” and “the perverse and crooked people of the Hebrews” occur in the unabbreviated English translation of the Lamentations service printed in the Lenten Triodion.

It is true that this kind of language appears less strident when considered within the context of Byzantine rhetoric; it is also true that the pattern is set by the prophetic literature of the Hebrew Bible (e.g., Micah 6:1-5; Amos 2:9-12); and it is, yet again, true that we must also take into consideration the larger context of the Church’s growth from a charismatic, egalitarian, theologically innovative, and administratively schismatic group within first-century Judaism into the increasingly Gentile reality of the second century. Indeed, during the early decades of the Christian movement, the context for the vitriolic anti-Judaism found in the Hebrew Bible, in some apocalyptic writings of the Second Temple era, and in the New Testament (e.g., “brood of vipers,” “synagogue of Satan,” “enemies of God,” “sons of the devil”) shifted gradually from harsh intra-Jewish polemics to polemics between the overwhelmingly Gentile Church and “the Jews.” All good and true—but today these invectives are deeply disturbing, and we know that rhetoric of this kind has at times been part of the explosive mix that led to violence against Jews.

The Heart of Our Theological Tradition

And yet … Should we really be scandalized by the Antiphons intoned with great pathos on Holy Thursday evening? Here is a selection from Antiphons 15, 6, and 12 (Triodion, 587, 583, 577, 584):

Today, He who hung the earth upon the waters is hung upon the Cross.
He who is King of the angels is arrayed in a crown of thorns.
He who wraps the heaven in clouds is wrapped in the purple of mockery.
He who in the Jordan set Adam free receives blows upon His face.
The Bridegroom of the Church is transfixed with nails.
The Son of the Virgin is pierced with a spear …

O My people, what have I done to you, and how have you repaid Me? Instead of manna, you have given me gall, instead of water, vinegar . . .  

Today the Jews nailed to the Cross the Lord who divided the sea with a rod and led them through the wilderness. Today they pierced with a lance the side of Him who for their sake smote Egypt with plagues. They gave Him gall to drink, who rained down manna on them for food.

Be not be deceived, O Jews: for this is He who saved you in the sea and fed you in the wilderness.

The very fact that the Lord’s reproaches to Israel (e.g., Micah 6:1-5; Amos 2:9-12) are placed on the lips of Christ points to the primarily Christological, not polemical, intention of the hymns. The point here seems to be that it is Christ who rained manna in the desert; it is Christ who divided the Red Sea; it is Christ who smote Egypt with plagues; it is Christ who fed Israel in the desert—in short, it is Christ who is the “Lord” of the Exodus account. One could say, indeed, that the theological program of Holy Week is precisely the bold identification of the Lord Jesus with the “Lord” (kyrios/ YHWH), He-Who-Is, the God of our fathers, the thrice-holy Lord of the seraphim (Isaiah 6), the Glory enthroned upon the cherubim (Ps 18:10 / LXX 17:11; Ezekiel 1; 10), the king of Israel (Isa 44:6).

This Christological interpretation of Old Testament theophanies, which lies at the heart of much Holy Week hymnography, constitutes one of the most potent, enduring, and versatile “ingredients” involved in the gradual crystallization of a distinct exegesis, doctrine, liturgy, and spirituality from the earliest stages of apostolic Christianity and throughout the first millennium of the common era. This is not simply one strand of tradition among others, but the very heart of Christian tradition!

It goes without saying, then, that today’s Orthodox Christians are to handle the spiritual treasure handed over to them with care and devotion; but, like the Sabbath, worship was made for man, not the other way around. 

Liturgical Reform with Faith and Love

Most non-Orthodox churches have sought to address the problem of anti-Jewish rhetoric in liturgical texts by way of liturgical reform. But rewriting or eliminating the problematic phraseology of some hymns can itself be deeply problematic. Replacing, as has been done by many of our separated brethren, the concrete references to God’s presence in the Old Testament (Passover, the Sinai revelation, the manna, the water from the rock) is simply unacceptable because it dilutes the Christological proclamation of the hymns—namely that Christ himself is the LORD (Kyrios) in the Exodus narrative.

Secondly, dealing with the offending verses is meaningless when done more or less secretly, by hierarchical decree, without taking on, openly, the underlying problem of anti-Jewish animus in our services. I think it preferable to engage in a theologically sound and pastorally responsible Church-wide discussion of the Orthodox Christian engagement with the Judaism of the Synagogue. Whatever can and must be said about the theological rather than socio-political significance of a line such as “the Hebrew race (genos Ebraiōn) was destroyed” (Great Friday Matins, Sticheron at the Praises [Triodion, 597]), our proclamation today must be guided by pastoral sensitivity to the sufferings inflicted, not so long ago, upon millions of people simply for belonging to the “Hebrew race.”

By the same token, we must have the necessary sensitivity for Orthodox Christians whose relationship with Jews and Judaism is shaped by the experience of being marginalized and oppressed within the State of Israel. The pastoral setting of some parishes in the Antiochian Archdiocese is particularly delicate: new immigrants from Syria and Palestine—people who equate the modern state of Israel with military occupation, police harassment, injustice, and humiliation—often worship side by side with Evangelical converts to Orthodoxy, many of whom retain the strong pro-Israeli convictions of their earlier (pre-Orthodox) Christian formation.

Liturgical reform might proceed in accordance with the criterion of maintaining the Christological message of the hymns (that Christ is the Lord of the patriarchs and prophets, the Lawgiver on Sinai, the enthroned Glory) while excising any anti-Jewish “flourishes.” It is noteworthy in this respect that one encounters the Christological interpretation of theophanies in festal hymns for Baptism, Palm Sunday, Nativity, Presentation, etc, where the anti-Jewish polemic is largely absent! In my opinion, this demonstrates (if it ever was necessary) that the anti-Jewish overtones are not essential to the theological message of the hymns.

In some cases, it might be helpful to switch to the passive voice; in others, to change the addressee from “Jews” to “believers” or “brothers,” without, however, changing the Old Testament reference. For instance, “Today the Jews nailed to the Cross the Lord who divided the sea … they pierced with a lance the side of Him who for their sake smote Egypt with plagues …” can become “Today is nailed to the Cross … the Lord who divided the sea … Today is nailed to the Cross the Lord who divided the sea … Today is pierced with a lance the side of Him who for their sake smote Egypt with plagues …” Or, similarly, “Do not be deceived, Jews: for this is He who saved you in the sea and fed you in the wilderness” could be changed to “Let us open well our hearts, O brethren: for this is He who saved Israel in the sea and fed then in the wilderness.” And what would be lost if, rather than chanting “when You were lifted up today, the Hebrew nation was destroyed,” the Church would instead focus on the fact that with the Lord lifted up on the Cross, death is destroyed and all mankind is summoned to inherit immortality?

The time has come for the Orthodox Church to exorcise the anti-Jewish animus lurking at the door, intent on defiling our worship and devouring our souls (Gen 4:7).

*A longer version of this essay is forthcoming in The Word, the monthly publication of the Antiochian Archdiocese. Both essays draw on my forthcoming study entitled “Anti-Jewish Rhetoric in Byzantine Hymnography: Exegetical and Theological Contextualization,” St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 62 (2017). Interested readers are invited to consult that text for the fuller scholarly engagement.

Bogdan G. Bucur is Associate Professor of Theology at Duquesne University and the pastor of Saint Anthony the Great Orthodox Church in Butler, PA.