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What you may not know about the celebration of Christmas

How Christians can respond to resurgent antisemitism this Christmas


This coming weekend, those of us who are Christians will gather for worship to celebrate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, known to us as the Christ, or Messiah.

It will be a celebration of what theologians call the incarnation -- God's presence with us in human form. Unfortunately, it also will be an opportunity for our words, our hymns, our beliefs to express a vile anti-Judaism that has plagued Christianity since its beginning.

Clearly, that is to be avoided. But more than that, Christmas this year gives Christian congregations and their leaders an opportunity to speak and work against antisemitism, which has been in resurgent mode for several years, in some ways because, as this opinion piece from The Hill notes, politicians from both major parties have allowed it to happen and in some cases even encouraged it.

As this Religion News Service article reports, just a week ago, "the Council of Centers on Jewish-Christian Relations — a group of roughly 30 member institutions dedicated to mutual understanding between Jews and Christians — issued a public statement calling U.S. churches to confront the crisis of antisemitism."

“The United States is facing the greatest crisis of public antisemitism in a century,” the statement says, warning that “we may be witnessing the normalization of antisemitism in American discourse, which recalls events that happened in Germany when the Nazis rose to power in the 1930s.”

What is there about Christian worship -- even at Christmas -- that can be seen as, at the very least, dismissing Judaism? Well, some of our liturgical language, including the words in some hymns, can be seen that way. And some of the scripture passages we will hear read to us can be heard as suggesting that the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus made Judaism unnecessary and irrelevant.

The RNS story to which I linked you above gets at this issue this way: "Elena Procario-Foley, professor of religious studies at Iona University in New York, told Religion News Service that 'O Come, O Come, Emmanuel' could also be read as hostile to Jewish people. 'So Israel is captive, and the understanding is they are in exile because of their sin,' she said, referring to the first verse. 'And Jesus is going to appear and solve all these problems.'”

Over Christianity's history, sometimes liturgical words have been directly anti-Jewish. For instance, for a long time, Good Friday services in Catholic and other branches of the faith referred directly to people the liturgy called "perfidious Jews."

The point is that we Christians can celebrate the birth of Jesus while being more aware of how certain aspects of our celebration can be seen by Jewish people as unfriendly or unnecessarily critical of Judaism, the faith tradition of Jesus himself and a tradition that has never gone away.

As someone quoted in the RNS article puts it, thinking about how Christian liturgy might be seen as anti-Jewish is "an invitation with high stakes. Words, lessons and theologies have real consequences, something that must be taken seriously at a time when anti-Jewish hate crimes are on the rise."

So it's also helpful to remember that although Christians read many passages of the Hebrew Bible as prophecy about the coming of Christ, Jews read it without attaching such meaning to it. That doesn't mean it's wrong to read it as prophetic, but it need not also be read as a condemnation of people who don't read it that way.

The alarming increase in antisemitism in recent years requires an active response. One way Christians can help is by making sure that our celebratory Christmas worship services don't add to the problem, even if just inadvertently. That would deny and dishonor our faith's deeply Jewish roots.

(The photo here today shows the old Nativity scene that my family of origin displayed each Christmas. If it doesn't look like it's of Mediterranean origin that's because it was purchased from the local Woolworth's five-and-dime store in Woodstock, Ill., and repainted by my mother.)

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Last night at my church, we held a service, as we do each year, called "The Longest Night of the Year." This year it was co-sponsored by The Open Table, a new worshiping community housed in our church building. It's an opportunity to remember that although this is supposed to be a season of joy and love, a lot of people aren't sharing the happy feelings because they're grieving and/or lonely. That's what this RNS column is about. "This year," the author writes, "collective loss and grief have been constant." I hope all of us will remember and be in touch with those living alone, those mourning a death or loss, those recovering from illness, those in some kind of trauma. That's what the baby of Bethlehem came to urge us to do. And it's what all the great world religions urge, as well, even as Judaism is in the midst of its annual celebration of lights, Hannukah.


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