Paschal Musings

Coby Lubliner

Today is Easter Sunday, 2001, in both the Eastern and Western Christian churches, a coincidence that doesn’t happen too often. I first became aware of the discrepancy between the dates forty years ago, when I spent Easter in a small town in the Italian countryside near Rome and saw scores of black-clad women (in those days rural Italian women still wore black) flock to church while the menfolk stayed in the piazza chatting about soccer; and a week later I was in Athens, watching thousands of worshipers climb the paths along Mount Lycabettus to attend Easter services in the many small Byzantine churches that dot its slopes, with the chant Christos anestei ek nekron (Christ is risen from the dead) echoing among them.

Today is also the eighth day of Passover. Those familiar with the Bible but not with Jewish tradition may wonder: the eighth day? For in Scripture it is commanded, “seven days ye shall eat unleavened bread,” a commandment repeated (with changes in grammatical form) in Numbers and Deuteronomy as well. And in the Land of Israel – both before and after the creation of the State – the commandment is observed as written. But in the Diaspora the tradition has arisen of adding an extra day to all the major holidays (those on which no work is to be done) except Yom Kippur. In the case of Passover, the Torah specifies the first and seventh days as being such holidays. Consequently those Jews outside Israel who follow the traditional order of things (those who call themselves Reform or Liberal are not among them) celebrate a second and an eighth day.

If I remember correctly, Marilyn Monroe (who converted to Judaism when she married Arthur Miller) once defined herself, in response to a journalist’s question about her religion, as “a Jewish atheist.” I may not have much else in common with Marilyn Monroe, but I find that this description fits me perfectly. I am a Jew by ethnicity (that is, by birth and culture), but in matters divine I am a confirmed atheist. Nonetheless, I participate in religious Jewish rituals – not all, just the ones I like – as part of the culture that I consider mine; and on this day, the services in traditional synagogues (Orthodox, Conservative and the like) include a commemoration of the dead, called Yizkor. My sense of filial duty impelled me to remember my father, who died twelve years ago, in the communal setting that he, a devout Jew of the Modern Orthodox (no, this is not an oxymoron) persuasion, so enjoyed.

Today has yet another significance for me. References to Passover in the synagogue ritual call it hag ha-matzot, z’man herutenu (the feast of matzot, the time of our liberation). It so happens that April 15 marks the anniversary of the day in 1945 when I was liberated by the British Army from imprisonment in the concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen, and so it was important for me to hear z’man herutenu intoned by a cantor.

And so this year I deprived myself of attending Easter mass, Catholic, Episcopal or Orthodox. For, in general, I enjoy the musical drama of the showier kinds of Christian church service. The organ (and, in recent years, guitars, drums and other instruments), the choir, congregational singing (in which I join enthusiastically), taking communion (in which I do not join), the vestments, the processions, the incense – I love the spectacle of it all, and most of all in churches of the Eastern rite.

Some of the loveliest music I have ever heard was at vespers in the Greek Catholic church on Via del Babuino in Rome, at a Christmas service in the Greek Orthodox church near Taksim in Istanbul, and some overheard chanting in monasteries on Cyprus and in Bulgaria. And I certainly miss the mystery of the Latin mass and Gregorian chant of the pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic Church, which I am old enough to remember. Hymns sung to the tune of Blowin’ in the Wind, which I have heard in Spanish (in Mexico and Guatemala) and in Flemish (in Belgium), don’t quite do it for me.

The last church service I attended was last Christmas Eve, in the United Methodist church of a small wine-country town north of San Francisco. The choice of church was not mine but that of the hostess of the Christmas Eve dinner at which I was a guest, and the choice was motivated not by anything like theology but the convenient starting time – just after dinner.

The service was fascinating in its blandness. The congregation was completely Euro-American. The music was provided by a number of soloists, all with good voices and musicianship, singing solo, in duets and in trios – there was no choir – with accompaniment of piano, guitar and/or mandolin, in a kind of folk-country style. The songs, as well as the sermon and some brief speeches by congregants, were all about Jesus, of course. Jesus, it seemed, was born to Mary, only to become a kind of disembodied, luminous being who brings light to people’s lives and eternal salvation (whatever that means) for their souls. Of the human Jesus, who preached a revolutionary social message, who stood up to the priesthood, who confounded legal scholars, there was no trace.

The next morning’s news reported that President-Elect George W. Bush had attended Christmas Eve services at a United Methodist church near his ranch in Texas. A coincidence, no doubt, but one I found illuminating, because it answered a riddle that had been nagging me for months.

Candidate Bush, at some point in the campaign, had told a reporter that his favorite philosopher was Jesus Christ. In view of Governor Bush’s social and economic stance, I found this puzzling. I can see a born-again Christian accepting Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior; but as a philosopher? The Jesus who enjoined his followers to “go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor”? Who claimed that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God”? This, from a man whose first political priority was lowering taxes for the rich, and whose economic policy is aimed just about exclusively at helping business people get richer?

Now I understood. The social and economic philosopher Jesus never sets foot in a United Methodist church. Maybe there isn’t enough of Him to go around. His message certainly fills the hymns and sermons heard in churches such as Glide Memorial in San Francisco (nominally Methodist) and others of its kind. Bill Clinton likes to attend churches like that; but the gospel that is heard there must sound like a foreign language to the ears of President George W. Bush, to whom nothing seems to be more important than ensuring that in the country that he leads, in which the disparity between rich and poor is the greatest of any industrial nation, the rich get richer still.

Perhaps I did well to go to synagogue on the eighth day of Passover, not to church on Easter. At least I didn’t have to worry about which Jesus I would be told about.

April 15, 2001

© 2001 by Jacob Lubliner

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