Wrestling in prayer

Jesus and the Money Changers by Douglas Blanchard

Last week I took up again a spiritual practice that used to be a staple of mine, but has been out of the rotation for several years: Saying the Daily Office from the Book of Common Prayer. The Daily Office is Morning and Evening Prayer (and sometimes Midday and Night Prayer, or Compline), composed of Psalms, reading from Scripture, biblical canticles (such as the Magnificat), and prayers, with or without various kinds of elaboration. The reformers of the Church in England wanted daily prayers that could be said or heard and understood by everyone, not just educated clergy, without repeated absences from the working life of laypersons, so they reduced the eight-fold liturgy of Western monasticism to two times per day. The composers of the 1979 Prayer Book reintroduced midday and bedtime prayer, but stripped the services down so that they can be said in about fifteen minutes, if that’s all the time you have.

I tend to linger a bit more than that, but the point of the Office is not how long you take to pray it. The point of the Office is, it is daily; it is hourly, tied to certain times of the day; it is said in common with others, it’s a group prayer, even if you’re saying it alone; and it is fixed. The content of the service is set down in the book, not picked by any individual, and it gives you something to come back to year after year.

I have found a lot of comfort in the past week or so in returning to the familiar words and rhythms of the Daily Office. It was for a long time deeply important to me, the center of my practice as a Christian (when my practice was exclusively that). There are many psalms, canticles, and prayers I can recite mostly from memory, barely looking at the page. But I’ve also run up against a deep discomfort. For the first time, it is glaringly obvious to me that the Church attributes the fall of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. to the rejection and execution of Jesus.

Any Jewish person reading this is probably saying, “Well, duh!” right now. It’s not that I hadn’t come across the idea before. It figures prominently, after all, in the Paradiso of Dante, where the Roman destruction of Jerusalem is called “la giusta vendetta”, the just vengeance, for the Crucifixion. It lurks in the texts of some of the hymns I grew up with. But this time I’m face to face with it in the actual liturgy of my very own Episcopal Church. The Psalms of Holy Week, and the Old Testament reading from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, revolve around the Babylonian conquest and exile and thus foreshadow the Roman conquest and subsequent diaspora. In the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, Jesus’ teachings before the events of Holy Week are prophecies of the destruction of Jerusalem and of Israel as a nation, even a subjugated nation. I don’t think it took much foreseeing or divine knowledge for him to look at the situation in his occupied homeland and know that it was unsustainable, that it was bound to lead to an open conflict and that the Jews were not going to win. He was not going to be a secular ruler and military commander. No Messiah was going to show up who could beat the Roman legions.

Scholars have been saying for years that the Gospels, especially John, come out of an era when the early Christians already identified less as a group of Jews than as a new religion within the Roman Empire. They were already feeling the pressure to make nice, to play it safe, to assure the Roman world around them that they weren’t a threat (which they absolutely were). So the Gospels we have go a long way to take the moral responsibility for Jesus’ death off of Pontius Pilate, the Roman in charge, and lay it not just on the religious authorities of Judea, who justifiably felt threatened by Jesus, but on the Jewish people as a whole, to the point where Matthew has a whole crowd of Jews shouting, “His blood be upon us, and upon our children!”

As history, this is horseshit, to put it bluntly. Pontius Pilate was to the Emperor Tiberius as Mitch McConnell is to Donald Trump: He would never have dreamed of crossing him or failing to eliminate a potential threat, whether he personally found that threat credible or not. The religious authorities of Jesus’ own culture rejected him and found a way to set him up for the Romans as a terrorist, yes, but the Romans were as much responsible for executing Jesus as they were for razing Jerusalem some forty years later.

As theology, it’s just plain antisemitism. And I reject that, even as I uneasily recite the psalms and mourn the destruction of Jerusalem and find myself thinking how many of those bible verses could be describing my own city, my own nation, right now, besieged by a pandemic disease, running out of resources, deprived of effective leadership.

Jacob the son of Isaac got the name “Israel”, says the book of Genesis, because he wrestled with an angel of the LORD and would not let go. Tne angel pulled an illegal move and kicked him in the crotch, throwing his hip out of joint so that he limped ever after. In the Christian tradition I learned, as well as in Judaism, it’s necessary to keep wrestling with the angel, even though you’re liable to get kicked in the crotch and come away limping. I am limping my way towards Easter.

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