St. James Church in Manville is a stately Romanesque building that happily has not lost any of the dignity and solemnity intended by its original builders. The bright stained glass windows appropriately depict Jesus as Good Shepherd, Jesus in agony, Mary Immaculate, Joseph and the four Evangelists: Mathieu, Marc, Luc and Jean (note spelling). Each evangelist has a traditional winged symbol above a full-sized figure: Matthew — a man; Mark — a lion; Luke — a bull, and John — an eagle. The problem is that under St. Matthew’s traditional winged symbol of a man is the figure of St. Luke, easily identified by the written scroll dropping from his hand. The scroll reads “Since many have undertaken to write a comprehensive narrative…” These are, of course, the opening words of St. Luke’s Gospel account — not those of St. Matthew. But, since the phrase is written in Latin, the original installers might be forgiven their error.
This Palm Sunday, St. Matthew’s Passion account will be read, one which of course contains the Jerusalem crowd’s chilling words, “Let his blood be upon us and upon our children.” On Good Friday, the words, “We have no king but Caesar,” from John 19:15 will be heard. These words were indeed spoken by the Jerusalem crowd but they are words that sadly reflect upon all persons who reject the goodness of God. All sinners in every generation must bear the burden for Jesus’ death. The tragedy of Good Friday reflects on a much larger population than the Jerusalem crowd stirred up by a band of envious religious leaders. And even among the Jews who, along with the Romans, did have a hand in Jesus’ death, it was the Temple authorities, not the Jewish population at large, nor even the often criticized Pharisees, that finally engineered Jesus’ demise. The Second Vatican Council with its decree on Catholic-Jewish relations, Nostra Aetate, clearly exempts the Jewish nation as a whole from any direct responsibility for the death of Christ. Let’s be honest, it is sinners, not Jews, who put Jesus to death and clearly every nationality and every generation share equally in that unhappy responsibility. Instead of blaming even a few envious Jews for the tragedy of Calvary, it is much more fitting to note that it was some pious Jews who first embraced Christ — Mary, Joseph, Simeon, Anna, the Apostles, St. Paul, Martha, Mary, Lazarus, Joseph of Arimathea, etc. There would be no Church except for these courageous Jews!
In generations past formal Passion Plays like the celebrated one at Oberammergau in Germany graphically and dramatically re-acted the sufferings and death of Jesus Christ for the edification and instruction of the faithful. Local parishes have at times offered respectful and earnest passion plays mostly for the benefit of the young people who produced them. A famous local Passion Play entitled “Pilate’s Wife” was presented for decades at the Redemptorist Church, Mission Hill, in Dorchester, Massachusetts. Cardinal Cushing’s affection for Boston’s Jewish community would certainly have ensured that the production was not offensive in any way. A more solemn and ceremonial presentation of the New Testament’s passion accounts is the dramatic three-part reading of the Gospel passages that are proclaimed in Catholic Churches on Palm Sunday and Good Friday. Saints Matthew, Mark and Luke’s accounts rotate on Palm Sunday. St. John’s narrative is always read on Good Friday. These accounts are, of course, taken verbatim from the Holy Scriptures and, while they may not be altered, they can and should be explained so that any seeming anti-Semitic overtones might be eliminated. Especially in view of recent anti-Semitic activities throughout our own country, every precaution should be taken to present the full truth of the Gospel accounts and not allow any misinterpretation. Even Pope Francis recently received some criticism from a Roman rabbi for the Pope’s frequent denunciations of “Pharisees” and “doctors of the law.” The unintentional generic use of these and similar phrases could cause a step backward in relations between the Catholic Church and Jews.
Jewish persons are especially right to be concerned about ambiguous phrases and poorly explained words in the Bible. Persecutions that actually resulted from envy and resentment were sometimes justified by superficial references to handy Biblical quotes. But the Jews are not alone in incurring the Bible’s wrath. Other nationalities also have been slighted the Scriptures. Jesus himself remarks to a Syrian woman, “It is not right to take the food of the children and give it to the dogs.” Talk about politically incorrect! And Psalm 137 instructs the ancient people to take the children of their enemies and “…smash their heads against a rock.” An awful lot of explaining has to be done there! Assuredly, no explicit anti-Semitic remarks will emanate from any Catholic pulpit in Rhode Island this Lenten or Easter season. Rather, the broadness of mankind’s guilt for the death of Christ instead of a narrow focus on a few religious officials is well worth remembering and well worth preaching.