Attendance soars at the Christmas Eve service at my church and probably at most churches. What draws people? They know the story and they long to hear it again. It reminds them that God is a God of infinite tenderness, and God’s love embraces all people. Deeper still, they sense a mysterious Peace, a paradoxical mixture of stillness and joy, suffusing the whole Christmas Eve liturgy. When the last note has been sung they leave, uplifted.
Where are these people on subsequent Sundays? Past experience has taught them that the following weeks will start to qualify the message of God’s love. For instance, just three weeks after Christmas we will hear the Gospel of John put these words in Jesus’ mouth as he is meeting Nathanael: “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Even if we are not paying strict attention, an idea has been inserted into our subconscious minds: Israelites, on the whole, cannot be trusted.
This is only one of the subtler slurs on the Jewish people and on Judaism as a religion. The invective continues and becomes more blatant, especially during Holy Week. What happened to the God of Christmas? The Prince of Peace? Is slander not a form of violence? A slap in the face of the Prince?
It seems to me that two things happen as a result of these anti-Jewish passages. First, the typical worshiper takes on a negative attitude toward Jews. After all, do we not intone, “The Word of God” after the readings? If God casts a jaundiced eye on the Jews, surely we should also?
Second, the typical worshiper leaves the liturgy not uplifted. Most of us may harbor a touch of schadenfreude, but the overall effect of bad-mouthing others depresses our spirits. We are likely to leave church in a belligerent frame of mind, which is no incentive to return the next week.
I want seriously to suggest that Christianity has a lot to gain — not least in adherents — if it can put an end to these readings that pervert our souls. We do not need to depend for our identity on being superior to another religion. In fact, that line of reasoning is a sign of weakness and self-doubt. Christianity has huge reserves of positive material of her own that she can tap into for a true and uplifting identity.