Celebrating the Baby Born to a Good Jewish Couple

I sang what was for me a new verse to an old hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” last Sunday.

O come, O come, O Adonai, who came to all on Sinai high,
And from its peak a single law proclaimed in majesty and awe
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel!

O Come O Come Emmanuel NCH
from New Century Hymnal; vs. 3 is where Adonai is used.

It was for me the first time I had heard in church this term for God, Adonai, which I often say and sing during Shabbat services in the synagogue.

As one-half of an inter-faith couple, and as a pastor/theologian acutely aware of the deep links between Judaism and Christianity (links so often abused by Christians and understandably denied by Jews), I am always grateful when a connection between these two faiths I cherish is made.

Research about the origins of the verse (and the entire hymn) revealed that they are based on an ancient seven-verse antiphon that was in use, according to some scholars, as early as the sixth century. By the eighth century, these seven verses, known as the O Antiphons, were in regular use in Rome, as part of daily preparation at vespers for the celebration of the birth of Jesus, each one using a title that the faithful attribute to Jesus:

  • December 17: O Sapientia (O Wisdom)
  • December 18: O Adonai (O Lord)
  • December 19: O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse)
  • December 20: O Clavis David (O Key of David)
  • December 21: O Oriens (O Dayspring)
  • December 22: O Rex Gentium (O King of the nations)
  • December 23: O Emmanuel (O With Us is God)
o_antiphons_advent_4
blueeyedennis-siempre.blogspot.com

Interestingly, some see in the first letters of the titles, taken backwards,  a Latin acrostic, “Ero Cras,”  which translates to “Tomorrow, I will be [there].” But scholars do not believe this was the intention of the original writers.

Moreover, from an interfaith perspective, this interpretation is tricky at best: Jews would never use the term Adonai to refer to Jesus. Thus, although I was excited when I sang this verse in church, I became concerned as I did this research to think we Christians, or some of us, might once again be appropriating, or misappropriating, that which is not ours.

Jewish Jesus
theguardian.com

What is undeniable is that the birth of Jesus is a Jewish birth. He is dedicated, circumcised, in the temple as a Jewish boy/man. He goes to temple at age 12 and converses with the rabbis. He never calls himself a Christian. Nowhere in any holy text do we find an indication that he intended to start a new religion.

I want to think, and pray, more about how to be sure that these Jewish roots are not lost or ignored–certainly at Christmas but also throughout the liturgical and spiritual year of the Church. I want Christians to stop using the Hebrew Scriptures to proof-text why they believe Jesus is the Messiah (and really only value those Hebrew texts that they claim do this).  And please do not read this as an endorsement, or repudiation, of Jews for Jesus (any more than Rabbis engage in the arguments between various sects claiming to be Christian).

At this very moment when Christmas overwhelms our culture–of course, much of Christmas as it is enacted culturally has little to do with Jesus or any other faith–and creates a situation where our Jewish siblings can feel claustrophobic, it is vital that we give thanks to God, to Adonai, for the historic and contemporary ground of our faith in Judaism.

Let us celebrate the birth of this Jewish baby who grows up into a beautiful Jewish man and rabbi, from whom we continue to learn and grow spiritually!

Let us celebrate the One who is with us, and is coming yet again.

The Humility of Christmas

springborofestivals.org
springborofestivals.org

I often feel a bit Scrooge-like at this time of year.

I’m not stingy with gift-giving, and I am certainly willing to wish people blessing and good cheer (and am more than willing to adapt my greeting to accommodate the existence of religious traditions and beliefs, or the lack thereof, that are not my own). But I do become grumpy about what seems like the over-commercialization of a sacred time.

It feels to me that the spirituality of Christmas gets lost in all the office parties, shopping, and even some of the good cheer (maybe the kind of excessive cheer that gets people drunk).

It’s not that spirituality need be glum or only serious without any fun, but there is in living spiritually an inherent depth that is lost in the marketplace. And Christmas has become very much a marketplace event. It is the most important sales event of the year for most retailers.

I know another blog or article bemoaning what has become of Christmas is probably not needed–I don’t think all the ones prior to this have done much good– and it is not my purpose anyway. But is the context in which I write today.

spiritualityandpractice.com
spiritualityandpractice.com

Like many before me, I am in search of the spirituality of Christmas. Or perhaps better, I seek the spiritual practice of Christmas. I often like to think of a spiritual practice as a path to a closer connection with the Divine, the one I call God.

What is the path of Christmas? Please note I am not asking what is the path to Christmas, but the path of Christmas. Christmas is not a destination, not a date on the calendar, but a way of living more deeply, more spiritually.

It begins in humility, the humility of Joseph accepting the child in whose creation he did not play a part and the need to leave his home in Nazareth and journey to Bethlehem by order of the government. And the humility of Mary, accepting a child for which she did not plan. Then there is their shared humility of being consigned to a stable for the birth, and being overwhelmed (I would think) by angels, shepherds, and wise man from another land and religious tradition coming to celebrate this event (something neither of them could have anticipated).

kellyneedham.com
kellyneedham.com

The first path of Christmas is humility, a way of being open to, and grateful for, the wonders of God, knowing we did not create these divine gifts, freely given to us without regard to our merit.

Hospitality is a path of Christmas, too. We have no name for the innkeeper, but he responded with kindness and the best hospitality he could muster (probably more likely a cave than a barn-like stable).  We could even say the other animals in the stable were hospitable, by making room for the unexpected visitors. The visitors from the East also practiced the hospitality of guests by bringing gifts. And every birth is a form of hospitality by God, welcoming a new life into the world.

Of course, peace is a path of Christmas–the peace that descends after a successful birth when mother and child can nestle with each other and the father and others can gaze adoringly. And love, too, in much the same way. And surely joy.

blog.birthplaces.com
blog.birthplaces.com

But I want to focus on hope as a significant path of Christmas, specifically the hope of God and others inspired by God–shepherds, wise men, angels–that somehow this birth, this particular birth, would change much in the world for the better. Every birth is transformative, certainly for the mother and the newborn, and usually for others affected by it. In this sense, every birth is marked by hope that the changes wrought will be part of creating a new and better life, not only for the child and the parents but for others as well.

This birth is laden with meaning, however, that goes beyond the immediate persons involved. Whether the details in the biblical accounts are accurate in our modern/postmodern sense of historical truth is really beside the point because the story has become imbued with great power and portent. As the tradition has unfolded, Christmas hope for a world filled with love, peace, and joy is divinely inspired. Such are our hopes, yes, but their source is God. That makes the hope powerful, indeed, provided we continue to acknowledge the source of the power. The same can be said of hospitality.

creation Sistine ChapelIn some ways, then, we are back at humility, recognizing God as the source of all that is good and holy. This is not the humility of groveling at the feet of God but an awareness that God is the author of good, a humility that leads us to sing songs and give thanks and share generously what we have received and are receiving.

So let me be as clear as I can be. There is nothing wrong with buying gifts to share with others, or receiving them either, or to having parties where we welcome friends, family, and neighbors to celebrate and are welcomed by others. There is nothing inherently wrong in buying things from merchants, for ourselves and for others. That is part of being in community, and it is a way of generosity.

07 Jan 2012, Lalibela, Ethiopia --- Pilgrims making a queue at the corridor into a cave church at Christmas. Simple farmers, many of them have camped around the churches for as long as a week. --- Image by © Kazuyoshi Nomachi/Corbis
07 Jan 2012, Lalibela, Ethiopia — Pilgrims making a queue at the corridor into a cave church at Christmas. Simple farmers, many of them have camped around the churches for as long as a week. — Image by © Kazuyoshi Nomachi/Corbis

But the path of Christmas is so much more than those activities. The path of Christmas is quiet and deep and self-giving, leaving (even breaking) us open to change we cannot predict or control (think about Mary and Joseph starting out on the journey of parenthood and where they ended up).

That is the Christmas I seek, the one I cannot control, the one that brings new revelation and spiritual health and depth into my life, new peace into the world, new love between enemies and those alien to each other.

I feel like a Christmas pilgrim, enjoying the glitter and the sounds and swirling bodies all around me, on my way into a neighboring land where the glitter is of deeper hues, the sound more angelic than even the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the energy more organic and less frenetic.

That is my Christmas path, beautiful and challenging. I hope your Christmas path is too. Perhaps we can even share some holy gifts.