One of the hardest parts of the liturgy surrounding Advent for me is the focus on sections of the Tanakh/Christian First Testament – ancient prophetic texts that came to mean something different for early Christians than for their Jewish ancestors. Both the Jewish and the Christian faiths use many of the same scriptures – the Tanakh for Jewish folks, the Hebrew Bible/First Testament for Christians. Same books of scripture (give or take, and depending on which branch of Christianity) but in a different order. In Advent, the Christian revised common lectionary focuses almost exclusively on the sections of the Hebrew Bible that, historically, have come to be interpreted as prophecies about the coming of Jesus. I love these scriptures. Here’s a little bit of the one for today:
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
In this excerpt, Christian theology has often interpreted the branch/root to be Jesus, coming from the lineage of Jesse/King David. It was a super important thing for early Christians who were themselves from a Jewish background to argue that Jesus came from this lineage. In my context, eh, not so much, if I’m being honest.
And Jewish interpretations of this text, and those like it, of course have nothing to do with Jesus. And of course, there are centuries of history of Christian persecution (and worse) of people of the Jewish faith, and centuries of religious arrogance to atone for.
I don’t have an answer for this and maybe that’s the point. I have Christian friends on the far left who refuse to read these scriptures during Advent out of respect for our Jewish siblings. I can respect that. I have other Christian friends who read them but don’t preach on the whole “lineage” or prophecy bit. I have friends who read them and do preach on the whole lineage and prophecy bit.
It’s so awkward and it’s so… not central to how I live and move as a Christian in this world.
Except it totally is.
Let me say why. A few weeks ago I was on the phone with a friend of mine, a rabbi. I had asked to talk with her about a pastoral situation I was involved with (synagogues and churches alike often have several inter-religious families, so it’s nice to depend on one another this way.)
We got to talking about terminology for the scriptures in question – the texts that Jewish tradition refer to as the Tanakh and the texts that the Christian tradition has historically referred to as the “Old Testament.”
Are these the same books? Yes and no. Same scriptures (at least for Protestant Christians), but different order, and with some books joined/separated in various traditions. All of this matters. It has theological implications.
So the texts are the same, but different. The Tanakh and the Hebrew Bible (aka “Old Testament”) are their own things.
As we were talking about what the best terminology was for Christians to use to refer to the Hebrew Bible, my friend suddenly exclaimed, “You know, none of it feels good to me. None of these terms feel normal.”
“Yeah, me too.” I answered, pausing for a second before I realized: yeah, that’s kind of the point. It would be nice to find the easy answer and solutions for all of the friction that can come from inter-religious dialogue… but more importantly, when we are forming relationships across religious difference, we need to just know that there are going to be things that just don’t feel good.
And we need to pursue those relationships anyway.
So that is where I’ve landed for now with these texts from our shared scriptures: I love them. I mean that. These are texts I have heard my whole life. I’ve studied them in seminary, I’ve preached on them. I’ve read them and felt angry and loved and inspired and despairing and everything in between. They are written on my heart.
And, I read them during Advent, I write on them, I have preached on them… holding together the perspectives of two religions that have much in common and yet are meaningfully different. I continue to learn from the Jewish interpretations of these texts and I continue to learn from the Christian ones. It doesn’t always feel good. But oh, my life would be so much the poorer without the depth and playfulness of the relationships that I’ve had with Jewish colleagues. I would be less of a Christian without them.
I would be less of a human.
Thanks be to God for religious difference.