Talk Two: Beginnings
How can Christians respond to the rise of antisemitism that we are witnessing at the present time? How can we avoid being complicit in it as, to our shame, we were during the dark days of the third Reich? How are we to avoid a repeat of the Shoah, the Holocaust in which six million Jews were murdered in concentration camps such as Auschwitz, while many endured unbearable pain and suffering?
Others are more competent than I am to describe the causes and events that led to the Holocaust. The Yad Vashem website has many helpful resources for any who wish to know more. Hopefully though, as a Christian leader, I am in a position to talk about the history of Christianity, and at least to express an opinion on how we should react to antisemitism today. In what follows, then, I speak unashamedly as a Christian. I am not a Jew, and I realize that my Jewish friends will not agree with some of what I have to say. What I hope is that they will be able to see that in speaking about my faith, I am not speaking against theirs. And, from the outset, I wish to distance myself as far as possible from the attitudes towards Judaism that have characterized many Christians in the past.
Ask most Christians to give a potted history of Christianity and they will, as likely as not, begin with Jesus’ baptism and his ministry in Galilee. This is not unreasonable. It is how St Mark, the first to write an account of Jesus’ life, begins his Gospel. Others will perhaps go back to the appearance of the Angel Gabriel to the Blessed Virgin Mary and to the announcement to her that she is to give birth. Again, it is not an unreasonable place to begin. However, it is the Blessed Virgin Mary herself who gives us a clue as to where we should begin. In giving thanks to God for what has happened to her, she says:
‘He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.’
These words are part of what has become known as the Magnificat, a hymn which is said or sung in Church services all over the world as part of Christian daily worship. We listen to many famous musical settings of it by the great composers here on Radio 4. Of course, Christianity centres on Christ. The clue is in the name. But it doesn’t begin with Christ, at least not in the sense that this is normally understood. Its specific earthly history at least begins with God’s promise to Abraham and with his dealings with Israel.
This, indeed, is how St Matthew explains it in his Gospel. St Matthew’s opening words are: ‘An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.’ He identifies Jesus using a Jewish title that comes from the great King of Israel, David, and traces Jesus’ ancestry back to the father of the Jewish people, Abraham.
Once Summer is over, we will start to look forward to Christmas. Christians believe that in the history of the Jewish people as recounted in the Hebrew Scriptures, there is a looking forward to the coming of Christ. This is why readings from the Hebrew Scriptures feature so prominently both in the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ birth and in the services that will take place in a few months’ time.
Gideon Klein, Divertimento: Tempo di marcia]
The Christian name for the Hebrew Scriptures, the Tanakh, is the Old Testament. Most Bibles are divided using this title. Fair enough. Christians believe that God did something new when Christ came. But old can also be understood in the sense of being no longer relevant, out of date, or even wrong. That is not how the first Christians thought of these writings. These were their Scriptures, they were all Jews themselves after all. They believed that what God was doing in their midst, through the person in whom they believed, could only be understood by studying and learning from these Scriptures.
Christians can only hope to understand their history by going back to where it all began in what we may call the Old Testament, but which remains strangely new and relevant to us today.