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25 Homiletic tips for Next Christmas, 2023


Can Christians find the words to honour Judaism at Christmas time?


Jesus was born a Jew. He was born in the first century of the common era, in the midst of Jewish family life, steeped in the traditions of Israel as expressed in the cultural customs of Jews of his day.


Scripture tells us that his place of birth was “in Bethlehem of Judea” (Mt 2:1; 2:5, NRSV), the town linked to David, Israel’s great king, and that he was circumcised on the eighth day (Lk 2:21), in keeping with Jewish ritual practice. From infancy, Jesus’ very body was marked by the sign of God’s covenant with Israel.


In the ‘hidden years’ of his childhood and adolescence, Jesus would be raised in the teachings of Torah. He would learn that he belonged to a people with a magnificent calling, who had received “the sonship and the glory and the covenants and the law and the worship and the promises” (Rom 9:4). Nearly two thousand years later, the Second Vatican Council would reiterate these words of St Paul regarding his Jewish kin; words that continue: “theirs are the fathers and from them is the Christ according to the flesh"… (Rom 9:4-5).[1]


What does all this tell us? Jewish people, Jewish kinship, Jewish traditions and Jewish sacred texts are integral to the Christian telling of the nativity of Jesus Christ. The universalist claims of Christian faith do not eclipse the particularities through which God’s Word is revealed. Christ did not enter our world “like a meteor that falls to the earth and is devoid of any connection with human history”.[2] Rather, Jesus was born in a specific time and place, embraced as the kin of an identifiable people, living in their ancient homeland, whose collective memory is expressed in the Hebrew Scriptures and passed down generationally, from parent to child. Thus, Christian self-understanding remains profoundly linked to the story and faith of Israel. Put starkly, we Christians cannot know who we are, without turning to the Jews (cf. Isa 2:3; Jn 4:22; CCC, 528 [3]). Our deepest memory is the memory of Israel.[4]

Christian self-understanding remains profoundly linked to the story and faith of Israel.

I felt moved to write this reflection after perusing a sample of 25 recently-published Christmas messages emanating from Catholic leaders across Australia. Surprisingly, the word “Jew” or any related term (Judaism/Hebrew/Israel) could be found in only three of the 25 messages, employed mostly in a positive or neutral sense, although one referred to “Jewish leaders” conspiring to bring about Jesus’ crucifixion.


I hasten to add that all 25 messages (typically a page or a 4-minute video) also spoke words of wisdom, insight, pastoral concern and unquestionable goodwill. Indeed, in the exercise of digesting them all in one sitting, I marvelled at the rich diversity of personality, spirituality, catechetical focus, pastoral style and sensitivity to local concerns.


Still, the overall silence regarding the Jewishness of Jesus in these and other high-level Catholic messages at this time of year is troubling. It reveals a wider pastoral concern: that we Christians need help in expressing the Jewish content of the Nativity story and the mystery of the Incarnation, in a way that honours the story of Israel, and that shows gratitude for Jewish covenantal fidelity, without supersessionist intent and without allowing modern-day geo-political disputes to stifle the voice of scripture and faith.


The chosen focus for many a Christmas message is contemporary social and justice issues: the nearness of God to us amidst flood, fire, war, climate change, pandemic and every manner of human suffering. This is a vital point and usually beautifully articulated. Yet, as Scripture attests, there is no Emmanuel, God-with-us, without the mystery of Israel, the long-attested historical involvement of Jewish lives in the designs of God. For us — as for the shepherds, angels and magi — this calls for wonder, praise and gratitude.


If there is ever a time for Christians to speak warmly and respectfully of Jewish tradition and of the magnificence of the history of Israel (with all its struggles and ambiguities that are part of every human community), surely it is the season of Christmas, as we contemplate the fact of a Jewish child, the miracle of God’s presence “according to the flesh”, and a salvific revelation that would be inconceivable without the story of the people of the Covenant centre-stage in our Scriptures. If there is ever a time for Christians to highlight the irrevocable, steadfast love of God for Israel, a truth that pervades the Hebrew Scriptures and grounds the Christian proclamation, surely it is at Christmas when we open our hearts to divine love Incarnate.


Without appropriating Judaism for supersessionist purposes, there are words by which Christians (and not only church leaders) can honour the enduring witness of Jewish communities to God’s faithfulness, then and now. Twenty-five suggestions follow this article, any one of which could be woven into a Christmas message, homily, catechesis or conversation.


It is important that we do this, not only for reasons relating to historical and biblical perspectives that define Christian identity, but also in response to the Church’s call to reconcile with the Jewish people. Our post-conciliar, post-Nostra Aetate task is to heal the tragic legacy of centuries of Christian antisemitism that sought to deny Jesus’ Jewishness, to portray Israel solely in terms of infidelity and as an obsolete religion replaced (superseded) by the Church.


Even a few carefully chosen words in a Christmas message can contribute to the healing of the relationship between Christians and Jews and give expression to the reality of ‘God-with-us’.

 

Homiletic tips for Christmas 2023

Twenty-five statements that acknowledge the Jewish roots of Christianity and the enduring covenantal life of the Jewish people:

  1. The child in the manger is a Jewish child.

  2. Elizabeth and Zechariah, John the Baptist, Joseph and Mary were Jews; the Apostles, “as well as most of the early disciples who proclaimed Christ's Gospel to the world, sprang from the Jewish people” (Nostra Aetate, 4).

  3. Jesus is “born under the law” (Gal 4:4, NRSV), that is, born as a Jew, and circumcised on the eighth day (see Lk 2:21; CCC, 527).

  4. Jesus is presented in Scripture as deeply ‘familied’: he is a descendant of Abraham, a son of Israel, a son of David, son of Mary and, according to Christian testimony, Son of God.

  5. Like so many Jewish parents, then and now, Mary and Joseph envelop the infant child Jesus in familial love, and in the faith stories and ancestral traditions of the Jewish people.

  6. “Jesus, a son of the Chosen People, was born, lived and died a Jew (cf. Rom 9:4-5). Mary, his Mother, likewise invites us to rediscover the Jewish roots of Christianity. These close bonds are a unique treasure of which Christians are proud and for which they are indebted to the Chosen People.”[5]

  7. “Christ, the Son of God, became flesh in a people, a faith tradition and a culture which, if better known, can only enrich the understanding of the Christian faith.”[6]

  8. Through Christian eyes, Jesus is unique as the Messiah and the Son of God. But let’s not remove him from his history or isolate him from his kin. To be a Jew is to be ‘familied’ to other Jews and Jesus is of “Abraham’s stock” (cf. Nostra Aetate, 4; Mt 1).

  9. This newborn child, Jesus, will soon be circumcised on the eighth day; his very body will be marked with the sign of God’s covenant with Israel.

  10. According to Christian faith claims, Jesus is the promised one of Israel. He is the Messiah who lights the way of justice and peace, in continuity with the prophets and Scriptures of Israel.

  11. “Jesus' human identity is determined on the basis of his bond with the people of Israel, with the dynasty of David and his descent from Abraham.”[7]

  12. “One cannot understand Jesus’ teaching or that of his disciples without situating it within the Jewish horizon in the context of the living tradition of Israel; one would understand his teachings even less so if they were seen in opposition to this tradition.”[8]

  13. “From her origins, the Church has well understood that the Incarnation is rooted in history and, consequently, she has fully accepted Christ's insertion into the history of the People of Israel. She has regarded the Hebrew Scriptures as the perennially valid Word of God, addressed to her as well as to the children of Israel.”[9]

  14. “Actually, it is impossible fully to express the mystery of Christ without reference to the Old Testament.”[10]

  15. The Hebrew Scriptures take shape in the life of Israel and continue to be interpreted, lived and held as sacred by Jewish communities today.

  16. Jesus was grounded, literally, in his Jewish homeland – his feet made footprints in the soil of Nazareth, splashed in the Sea of Galilee and trudged rocky trails going up to Jerusalem.

  17. “Thus [Jesus] became an authentic son of Israel, deeply rooted in his own people's long history.”[11]

  18. Pope John Paul II reminded us that “that the Church of Christ discovers her ‘bond’ with Judaism by ‘searching into her own mystery’ (cf. Nostra Aetate, 4)”.[12]

  19. As we contemplate the Nativity scene and the mystery of the One who “pitched his tent among us” (Jn 1.14), we cannot but encounter the time-honoured story of Israel and our indebtedness to the Jewish people.

  20. Watch any Nativity play and notice that, until the entrance of the magi, almost every character is a Jew.

  21. The coming of the magi “means that pagans can discover Jesus and worship him as Son of God and Saviour of the world only by turning towards the Jews and receiving from them the messianic promise as contained in the Old Testament (cf. Jn 4:22; Mt 2:4-6).”[13]

  22. “The Christian must know that by belonging to Christ he [or she] has become ‘Abraham's offspring’ (Gal 3:29) and has been grafted onto a cultivated olive tree (cf. Rom 11:17-24), that is, included among the People of Israel, to ‘share the richness of the olive tree’ (Rom 11:17).” A Christian who has this firm conviction “can no longer allow for Jews as such to be despised, or worse, ill-treated.”[14]

  23. Jesus was born into a troubled and dangerous world, of a people who knew persecution, suffering and exile. Sadly, still today, antisemitism persists in the world. The Christmas message of ‘God-with-us’ calls us to solidarity with vulnerable humanity, and to stand against every form of racism, antisemitism, bigotry and prejudice.

  24. We Christians are committed to living the Christmas message of peace to all, even as we look expectantly towards that future Day when Christ will come again, bringing all things to completion. We also know that God continues to steadfastly love and walk with the Jewish people, who offer a distinctive Jewish witness to the word of God as the reign of God unfolds on earth. In this way, Jews and Christians together participate in God’s saving activity in the present, and they share messianic hope, albeit understood in different ways.

  25. At Christmas time, as we Christians ‘dig deep’ into our 2000-year-old collective memory, we must surely find immense gratitude in our hearts for the Jewish people, then and now - for the gift of their Scriptures, their belief in the God who saves, their families and Torah traditions, and their immense contributions to the world.

 

Notes:

[1] As quoted by Nostra Aetate, 4, accessed at the Vatican website; emphasis added. Unless otherwise indicated, quotations from ecclesial documents in this article are from the Dialogika website of the Council of Centres on Jewish-Christian Relations.

[2] Pope John Paul II, Address to the Pontifical Biblical Commission, 11 April 1997.

[3] The coming of the magi “means that pagans can discover Jesus and worship him as Son of God and Saviour of the world only by turning towards the Jews and receiving from them the messianic promise as contained in the Old Testament” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 528, Vatican website).

[4] The term “Israel” has multiple meanings. It can refer to the name given to the patriarch Jacob in the bible, or to one of the twelve tribes issuing from his descendants, or to the biblical land, or to the political nation state named Israel (either in its ancient or modern context). “Israel” is also a theological reference to the Jewish people, from their origins in history to their ultimate destiny in accord with God’s design, and this is how it is used in this article unless the context indicates otherwise.

[5] Pope Benedict XVI, Ecclesia in Medio Oriente, 14 September 2012, 20.

[6] Benedict XVI, Ecclesia in Medio Oriente, 21.

[7] John Paul II, Address to the PBC, 11 April 1997.

[8] Commission of the Holy See for Religious Relations with the Jews, “The Gifts and Calling of God are Irrevocable”, 10 December 2015, 14.

[9] John Paul II, Address to PBC, 11 April 1997.

[10] John Paul II, Address to PBC, 11 April 1997.

[11] John Paul II, Address to PBC, 11 April 1997.

[12] John Paul II, Synagogue of Rome, 13 April 1986.

[13] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 528, Vatican website.

[14] John Paul II, Address to PBC, 11 April 1997.

 

By Teresa Pirola, ThD, a Sydney-based writer and faith educator. Published January 2023 by LightofTorah.net. This article may be reproduced for non-commercial use with acknowledgement of author and website.


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