In 2020 both the Christian Holy Week/Easter and the Jewish festival of Passover fall very close in time together. It has, at least in past centuries, been a season marked by hostility, and sometimes violence on the part of Christians towards their Jewish neighbours. This was partly generated by the reading of the Passion narrative – the version in Matthew’s Gospel, which is this year’s lectionary Gospel, is especially difficult because of its suggestion that the crowd present at Jesus’ trial had willingly accepted blood guilt for Jesus’ death (Matthew 27.25). Notably that reference is not in any of the other three Gospels, and its inclusion in Matthew may owe more to Jewish-Christian tensions at the time Matthew’s Gospel was written than to historicity. The highly charged atmosphere of Holy Week led also to several instances of the ‘blood libel’ – the accusation that Jews killed Christian children to use their blood in the making of the matzot (unleaven bread) for Passover. Ridiculous as this libel may now seem, in the Middle Ages it led to several instances of deadly attacks against Jewish communities.
Of course things have now changed. At least we hope so, although recent attacks on Jewish groups have made it clear that violence is never far beneath the surface. But with such a fraught history of relationships Christians need to be very aware of Jewish sensitivities, and acknowledge that the passion provoked by the Passion can be very dangerous. Most churches have revised the traditional prayers used especially on Good Friday – so that (thankfully) we are no longer asked to pray for ‘perfidious Jews’. One of the most important steps Christianity has taken in the last 75 years is an institutional willingness to be self-critical, a step which is a prerequisite if a religion is not going to allow itself to be used as a tool in religiously motivated violence.
Nevertheless there is still ‘room for improvement’. The vexed question of Christianity’s theological relationship to Judaism rears its head during Holy Week. It is expressed most visibly in the increasingly popular practice in some Christian circles of holding what might be called a ‘Christian Seder’. This is a celebration on Maundy Thursday, or a day very close to it, normally by a church, of elements of the Jewish Passover Seder, but with Christian additions drawing on the account of Jesus’ Last Supper. Whether intentionally or not such celebrations often end up conveying to the participants a sense that Christianity has ‘superseded’ and replaced Judaism. For Jews, very conscious of being a small minority, the practice has elements of what some call ‘theological genocide’ about it, a sharp term, but one which reflects the fear among the Jewish community of the damage that well-meaning but clumsy Christians can inflict.
Dr Clare Amos
Until her recent retirement Dr Clare Amos was head of the interreligious office at the World Council of Churches, Geneva, and currently Hon Director of Lay Discipleship of the Church of England Diocese in Europe