29 March 2012

Why I Don't Pray the Bidding Prayer for Jews on Good Friday

Posted in Church, Tagged with church family holy week interfaith jewish lutheran

latin-missalThe "bidding prayers" appointed for Good Friday liturgy include this prayer for Jews:

"Let us pray for the Jewish people, the first to hear the word of God. Almighty and eternal God, long ago you gave your promise to Abraham and your teaching to Moses. Hear our prayers that the people you called and elected as your own may receive the fulfillment of the covenant's promises. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen."

It may seem innocuous enough, but this prayer has a long and dark history in the Church.

The "Faithless Jews"

As recently as 60 years ago, the prayer read like this:

"Let us pray also for the faithless Jews: that Almighty God may remove the veil from their hearts...Almighty and eternal God, who dost not exclude from thy mercy even Jewish faithlessness: hear our prayers, which we offer for the blindness of that people; that acknowledging the light of thy Truth, which is Christ, they may be delivered from their darkness."

The language may have softened over the years, but it's very presence on Good Friday harkens back to an anti-semitic strain in our church, which was once particularly terrible within my own Lutheran tradition.

This prayer perpetuated the belief that the Jews were not only "faithless" but also to blame for the death of Jesus - that they were Christ-killers. Over the centuries, Good Friday was a day when Christians would leave churches after services and visit violence and denegration onto Jews. (For more on this, I highly recommend the documentary Constantine's Sword by James Carroll. This blog post summarizes it and says why this is so personal to me.)

We have worked so hard to mend Jewish-Christian and Jewish-Lutheran relations. Scholarship has clearly demonstrated that the death of Jesus was a Roman execution. Why do we persist in keeping this prayer in our Good Friday liturgy? Is it only, as that typical church response goes, "We've always done it that way?" That's always an unsatisfying response and it is especially so in this case.

The occasion for this prayer, connecting Jews with the death of Jesus, is all the more obvious and unfortunate because we rarely pray for Jews at other times of the church year. My congregation has prayed the appointed Sunday prayers for eight years and I could count on one hand the number of times we have prayed for other religion traditions by name - and yet we never miss a Good Friday.

While less derogatory, I still find the prayer condescending. Describing Jews as "the first to hear God's word" is not itself problematic. However, coupled with "Hear our prayers that the people you called and elected as your own may receive the fulfillment of the covenant's promises" seems a thinly veiled prayer for Jews to accept Jesus, for their conversion to Christianity.

We are no longer in first century Palestine, where we are trying to convince Jews to accept Jesus. It's no longer the middle ages, when conversion was accomplished by coercion. It's 2012 and we recognize the integrity of the world's religious traditions. The languge of this prayer suggests that Judaism is an incomplete religion, which it is not. We aren't asking other religions to convert on Good Friday.

Under Different Names

In the prayer that comes just after we pray for those who do not share our faith in Jesus Christ, saying "gather into your embrace all those who call out to you under different names. Bring an end to inter-religious strife, and make us more faithful witnesses of the love made known to us in your Son." Isn't this sufficient for Jews as well? Why do we need a separate prayer?

I simply don't see any compelling reason why this prayer should appear in today's Good Friday bidding prayers.

So, I ask the Church - do we need to prayer this prayer any more? And I ask ministry practitioners - please consider removing this prayer from your Good Friday bids.

Do you pray this bidding prayer? Why or why not?

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