If you stand in the chancel of the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in Quebec City and look straight up, you’ll see four gilded Hebrew letters elaborately carved into the ceiling. Known as the tetragrammaton, they form the name for God most often used in the Hebrew Scriptures.
For the Anglicans who gather to worship there, that beautiful carving serves as a regular remembrance of Christianity’s Jewish roots. As theologian Stanley Hauerwas has said, “Christians can’t tell their story separate from the Jews.”
We’re reminded of how our Jewish and Christian stories are bound up each time we gather for a liturgy of the church, when during the Proclamation of the Word we hear a story from the Hebrew Scriptures, or we read or sing a portion of the ancient hymnbook of the Jewish people, the Psalms.
We’re reminded in many of our church’s eucharistic prayers, in which we hear a summary of the story of salvation—a story that turns on God’s covenant with the Israelites.
And we have Jesus, a Jewish rabbi born to Jewish parents, whom we believe and teach is also God’s Messiah for us, and the church’s head and cornerstone.
In a part of his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matt. 5:17).
Through most of Christian history, “fulfill” has been understood to mean “replace,” as if the New Covenant established between God in Jesus Christ and all humankind somehow invalidates the covenant God made with the Israelites. Such an understanding has led over the centuries to the forced conversion of Jews, pogroms, deportations and the Holocaust.
Persecution of Jews is not a thing of the past, nor is it restricted to other parts of the world. A bloody reminder came in last October’s murderous shooting rampage at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Penn., during which the gunman shouted, “All Jews must die!” In Canada, there were 1,752 recorded incidents of anti-Semitism in 2017 alone. More than a quarter of them occurred in my province, Quebec, where white supremacist groups—typically hostile to Jews, among other minority groups—are gaining ground.
Our own Anglican liturgies have sometimes reflected the notion that Christianity trumps Judaism, a belief known as supercessionism. Until its removal from the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) in 1992, a Good Friday collect asked for God’s mercy on Jews for willfully rejecting and denying Jesus. “Take from them,” we prayed, “all ignorance, hardness of heart, and contempt of thy word; and so fetch them home.”
The prayer much of our church now uses on Good Friday reflects a different understanding, one cultivated by dialogue with our Jewish brothers and sisters in the shadow of the Holocaust. It invokes the apostle Paul’s image of Christians being grafted into the tree of God’s chosen people, describing us as “joint heirs with them of [God’s] covenants” (Book of Alternative Services, p. 316).
Joint heirs, not usurpers. It is they who support us, not we who replace them.
Jesus Christ represents not an abrogation of the promises and demands laid out in the Law and the Prophets, but, for us Christians, their embodiment or incarnation. In Jesus, as Paul argued again and again, the God of Israel’s covenant was extended to the non-Jewish world, and with it the vision of God’s gracious reign.
In this same spirit, our church is being invited to change another prayer found in the BCP. Whether we have been conscious of it or not, the prayer entitled “For the Conversion of the Jews” (p. 41) continues to reflect an attitude that views Judaism as fundamentally insufficient. Such an attitude does not take into account our church’s renewed understanding of Christians as fellow heirs of God’s covenantal promise with the Jewish people.
Another prayer, “For Reconciliation with the Jews,” is being offered as a replacement. Its tone is repentant, asking forgiveness for persecution of our Jewish neighbours, which has all too often been carried out in Christ’s name. Rather than praying for Jews’ conversion, it asks God that we Christians, “together with the people whom thou didst first make thine own, may attain to the fullness of redemption which thou hast promised.”
Changing this prayer does not ask us to surrender our convictions about the uniqueness of Jesus Christ. Neither does it inhibit us in seeking to make Christ known, in the hope that others will join us in following him as Saviour and Lord.
It does, however, ask us to acknowledge and repent of the church’s participation in anti-Semitism, to stop singling out Jews as a target for our evangelistic efforts and to assume a humble and reconciliatory stance with our Jewish elders in the faith—for our story, and our future, is inextricably bound up with theirs.
Bruce Myers is bishop of the diocese of Quebec.