The Jewishness of Christian Liturgy – by John Bacon
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Several evangelical friends have expressed to me their desire to “return to their Jewish roots.” Many such Christians have enjoyed such activities as a Jewish Seder in order to fulfill this longing.
I firmly believe that this desire is thoroughly biblical. In fact, it helps drive my participation in the Anglican, the Christian liturgy each week!
The Jewish Roots of Christianity
After all, Romans 11 teaches us that we Gentiles, wild olive branches, are grafted into the Messiah-awaiting company of the patriarchs and prophets—faithful Israel. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who delivered Israel from the Exodus, is the God who raised his Messiah from the dead, thus delivering the entire world from sin. How deep a heritage we have, extending back beyond Sinai!
In fact, I suggest, that we take the Jewish roots of Christianity more seriously! An isolated experience here and there is simply not enough.
As rich as the traditional Seder is, I believe that the occasional Seder celebration here and there will do little more than Donald Trump’s “Taco Tuesday” appreciation identifies him with the Hispanic community.
Tacos are good. Seders are good. Meals are emblematic of the cultures which they express.
Nonetheless, to experience a culture involves much more than the eclectic incorporation of isolated elements.
Liturgy and Community
A community’s culture is larger than the sum of the individual rites and rituals. The collective embodiment of a culture’s identity, through which they become a unified group, sharing a mutual story, is often referred to as liturgy.
This is why it is misleading to use the word “liturgy” as a stylistic term (i.e., liturgical vs. non-liturgical). Communities are inherently liturgical.
The communion of the saints is no different. When God redeemed Israel from bondage in Egypt, He led them to Sinai and gave them a liturgy—a communal embodiment through which they would experience Him.
Liturgy and Worship
God is known in worship. God is known rightly in right worship. The right worship of God incorporates the entirety of life. God, in His grace, taught Israel how to do exactly that.
Furthermore, all liturgy tells a story—whether the story is correct or not. In the case of Israel, their liturgy told the true story: the story of their God who had rescued them from Egypt and who would someday rescue the nations through them.
Architecture, seasons, feasts, fasts, holy days, responsive Psalms, priestly garments, bloody sacrifices, and burnt offerings – all of these collectively expressed a grand story. These holy mysteries communicated something of God which would be revealed directly in the coming of the Messiah.
And Israel’s obedient celebration of these mysteries would progressively deepen her faith in this coming Messiah. Her worshipful expression of the holiness and grace of God would strengthen her hope and purify her love.
Liturgy and Law
Perhaps this is part of what St. Paul means when he refers to the Law as a tutor—a pedagogue—in Galatians 3:24.
Let me suggest that the Law’s role was not deceptive; God did not give the Law to teach them how not to serve and love Him. God gave the Law to prepare them exactly for the Israelite who would fulfill every single bit of it perfectly: Jesus Messiah.
The Law was not a mind-trick. God did not trap the Jewish people in hopeless legalism, so that one day they would leap at the first offer of existentialist, anti-ritualist, individual expression!
Instead, the Law was grace. And though it had a particular function for a particular time, because it was given by the eternal God, it says something which must be eternally true about who He is, and how He relates to His people.
In other words, God was not in a “Law” mood at Sinai in contrast to a change of heart which was expressed in a “Gospel” attitude at Calvary.
God has always been up to the same thing with Adam. Reconciling him and redeeming him through all his failures to be brought back into the heavenly courts of New Jerusalem, doing what he was meant to do as a priest.
Perhaps this explains the contrast between the old covenant and the new covenant, promised in Jeremiah. What is the contrast between the old covenant and the new? A changed heart. And what would be different about the heart? Law—Torah—would be written on it, by the Spirit of God.
The difference between the Old Covenant and the covenant renewed and fulfilled through the blood of Jesus Messiah is not a difference between law and grace; it is the difference between promise and arrival.
Everything signified in the Law has been fulfilled. Does that mean that God’s people are thereby without a liturgy?
Fulfilled Law, Fulfilled Liturgy
By no means! If the story has arrived in its fullness, then the liturgy must be practiced in its fullness as well! The people of God still have a story, and they still have an opportunity to experience that story and to enact that story before a watching world.
If an ordained priest of the old covenant, who looked forward to the offering of the Messiah, could assure a repentant Israelite that his sins were forgiven, how much more can an ordained priest of the new covenant, who looks back to the cross in clarity, absolve a repentant sinner in the name of Jesus Messiah?
If the Passover meal was important back then, how much more important and more exciting is the bread we break and the cup we drink now, signifying Christ’s exodus from death itself?
If the Psalms were to be corporately recited by the people waiting on the Messiah, how much more so by the people who know that the Messiah prayed all these Psalms with reference to himself?
Israel celebrated the calendar in relation to the story of the Exodus, and God’s faithful dealings with her. How much more should we celebrate the calendar in accordance with the one Jew who epitomized and fulfilled every step, all the way from Israel’s testing in the wilderness to the Passover Lamb’s provision?
The shared liturgy of the Church—in prayer, word, sacrament, season, and vestment—is thoroughly Jewish. Why? Because it is the Jewish liturgy, present in many Gentile tongues and forms, on this side of the Messiah’s coming.
The difference between Old Covenant and New Covenant worship is not a difference between formal vs. informal, communal vs. individual. It is the difference between promise and fulfillment, expectation and arrival.
So I invite you to join me in my journey to be more Jewish—the journey that led me into the Anglican Church. Celebrate the mystery of Jesus Messiah at table with Abraham and Ambrose, Levi and Lewis, Miriam and Mother Teresa, and all the company of heaven.
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