written by Frank M. Harron
The Passion according to John in the Good Friday liturgy requires more attention this year. As we approach the beginning of this Lent, we have experienced renewed anti-Semitic language and violence in our country. In 2020, which marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi camps, survivors warn about the perils of complacency.
Steps have been taken in recent decades to address the use of “the Jews” in John’s Passion Narrative. In the 1980’s protests and panel discussions in Europe and the United States frequently surrounded performances of the setting of the John Passion by Johann Sebastian Bach. Beginning in the 1990’s some Episcopal parishes and cathedrals began to add written statements in service booklets for the Good Friday liturgy that commented on the use of “the Jews” in John’s narrative. At the General Convention of 2009, it was resolved that our Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music “collect, develop and disseminate materials that assist the Church to address Christian anti-Judaism expressed in and stirred by portions of Christian scriptures and liturgical texts.” It was also resolved that working with the Commission on Ecumenical and Inter-religious Relations should prepare a “statement defining anti-Judaism and why it demands attention.”
The beginning of Lent can serve as a time to begin considering what congregations will do this Good Friday. For places that already have the tradition of providing a written commentary in service booklets or leaflets, perhaps it is time to re-examine those statements. For congregations that have not included a statement in the past, perhaps this is the year to consider adding a written commentary. Whether to renew or to add a statement, this Lent is also an opportunity for additional teaching and intentional preaching and for adult study to explore honestly the church’s legacy.
I highly recommend entries which have been added to the blog of our StandingCommissionofLiturgyandMusic.org. On the blog, search for entries which discuss anti-Judaism, especially in John’s Passion Narrative, by Ruth Meyers, Louis Weill, Daniel Joslyn-Siemiatkosi and Barbara Brown Taylor.
In January, I conducted a small but representative survey of current Good Friday statements in Episcopal parishes and cathedrals around the country. Some statements date back thirty years or more while many congregations still do not provide any comment. Some statements are succinct, some attempt to summarize complex,
nuanced Biblical and theological scholarship.
I have concluded that the most effective commentary is a plain statement that includes three points: John’s Passion has been seen to blame “the Jews” as whole for the execution of Jesus; that blame continued in Christian theology and preaching for centuries; today the church refutes any such interpretation and repents of the violence done.
Below is a generic statement. It is offered for those who wish to include or revise a commentary in the Good Friday service booklet/leaflet regarding the role given to “the Jews” in the crucifixion of Jesus in The Passion according to John. It may be adapted freely. Or, it may be used by a parish or cathedral to write its own statement. If attribution is made, the original writer is The Rev. Frank M. Harron, II.
A Statement for the GOOD FRIDAY service booklet/leaflet
The very earliest Christian customs place The Passion according to John at the center of the Good Friday liturgy. John’s Passion is distinct in several ways, including how it assigns to “the Jews” particular responsibility for the death of Jesus. While Matthew, Mark and Luke assign some individuals and some Jewish groups to play particular roles in the events that led to the trial and death of Jesus, those gospels equally assign complicit roles to some who were most intimate with Jesus as well as Roman political and judicial leaders. But the language of John’s Passion narrative singles out “the Jews” as a distinct category of people who bear unique blame.
Over the centuries some of the most influential Christian leaders, including John Chrysostom, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther, continued and elaborated on this blame trope. An assumption that all Jews, past and present, bore special and perpetual blame for the death of Jesus seeped into Christian liturgies and preaching, particularly on Good Friday. From Medieval times into the Modern era, Jews were reluctant to go out in public in many places on Good Friday.
After the Holocaust, Christians confronted more honestly assumptions that singled out Jewish people for the death of Jesus. Important scholarly work was done by individual Christian theologians and Biblical scholars. National and international Christian communities began to confront this heritage. In 2006, the General Convention of The Episcopal Church directed that “materials that assist members of the Church to address Christian anti-Judaism expressed and stirred by portions of Christian scriptures and liturgical texts be developed….”
Because there is unfinished work and because anti-Semitism continues, this commentary is provided.
On this day, the Church confronts the failures in the whole human condition that result in injustice and violence. In the appointed prayers in the liturgy we pray for those who have persecuted the followers of Jesus and we also pray “For those who in the name of Christ have persecuted others.”
The choice we Christians face this Lent is to confront the heritage from the past and its impact or to be silent. For the faithful who have heard over many years the Passion according to John, it can be heard differently this Good Friday. To the seeker who might hear this narrative rarely or even for the first time in our church, what must we say? What will we choose to say— in writing?
In her latest major study, The Lost Art of Scripture: Rescuing the Sacred Texts, (2019, Knopf), Karen Armstrong quotes the chief Rabbi Emeritus of England, Lord Jonathan Sacks:
Every scriptural canon has within it texts which, read literally, can be taken to endorse narrow particularism, suspicion of strangers, intolerance toward those who believe differently than we do. Each also has within it sources that emphasize kinship with the stranger, empathy with the outsider, the courage that leads people to extend a hand across boundaries of hatred and hostility. The choice is ours. (p. 229)
The Rev. Frank M. Harron, II is a retired priest who served in university chaplaincy, parish and cathedral ministry. His writings have appeared in many Episcopal publications, including Episcopal Life, The Witness, The Living Church, The Journal of the Association of Anglican Musicians, Vestry Papers, (The Church Foundation), Cathedral Age (Washington National Cathedral), and Spirituality, (Trinity Church Wall Street). He edited a four book series in ethics for Yale University Press.