I remember when I was a kid growing up in the Flatbush area of Brooklyn, New York. I like to say that the Protestant Reformation hadn’t happened yet where I grew up. You were either Jewish, Italian or Irish, and if you weren’t a Jew, you were Catholic. Period. Oh, there were Protestants around, I guess, but they were invisible compared to the others of us—Catholics and Jews all.
Of course, Christmas made its freezing entrance every year, and snow was a yearly phenomenon. So were Christmas carols. And without anyone explaining anything to me, I just knew that when they sang, “Born is the King of Israel,” that somehow the Christians didn’t mean Israel the way I thought of Israel. When I thought of Israel, I thought of Jews, people like my Yeshiva attending cousins, and my grandmother, uncle and aunt in Boro Park. For them, and for me, somehow this infant born in a manger was a stranger, and the good news wrapped up in those swaddling clothes was good news for the other guy. Somehow we Jews were still out in the cold, along with Frosty the Snowman, Suzie Snowflake, Donner, Blitzen, Rudolph and Mr. and Mrs. Ho Ho Ho.
Somehow, in both Jewish and Christian thought, the coming of Jesus is seen as good news for Christians, but not for Jews, although some would say it was good news for the Jews once upon and a time and will be again in the sweet bye and bye. But meanwhile, the Israel of Christmas is not really Israel, and the coming of Jesus is somebody else’s good news.
For those interested in seeing Jesus rewrapped so Jews might gladly open the present as if it were really for them, read on.
Jesus has become a stranger to Jews just as he has become the property of Christians. What needs to happen is for many Christians to examine whether the Jesus of their faith has replaced Judaism or whether he is Judaism-friendly. It won’t be enough to say that Jesus was raised a Jew and that He kept Torah. The problem is that much Christian theologizing . . . and hymnody . . . enshrines a Jesus who outgrew or replaced Judaism. And as long as Christians think that way, don’t be surprised if Jews think of Jesus as at best a former Jew. And that is a concept as cold as a Brooklyn December.
Besides conceiving of Jesus as Judaism-friendly, there is a second challenge for those Christians who would have their Jewish friends see him as not only good news for the Jews, but also Jewish good news. And that challenge is for fine and aware Christians to reconnect with how the Christ who was born in Bethlehem, died at Calvary, and rose from the dead, remains the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, the Son of David, the King of the Jews who one day will return to bring to fruition all the promises God made to that chosen nation. The many Christians who deny that this is how the story ends should not be surprised when there is no room for their Jesus in the Jewish inn.
For the rest of you, who are more adventurous, read still further.
- Learn to talk about Jesus in biblical terms, as being good news for Israel and the nations. The Bible consistently speaks in these terms, rather than seeing the gospel as good news for an undifferentiated humanity. This is why Paul will speak in Romans chapter eleven of the fullness of Israel and the fullness of the nations—TWO fullnesses corresponding to this rhetorical rhythm of the Bible’s theological grammar. Jesus was, is, and will in the future be good news for the Jews first, and only therefore good news for the Gentiles.
- Whenever you discuss Jesus with Jewish people, stress the truth—that this is something Jewish which changed your people’s destiny. Jean Marie Cardinal Lustiger, formerly Archbishop of Paris, whose Jewish mother died at Auschwitz, consistently reminded Gentiles that they were from pagan stock. He wanted them never to lose track of the Jewishness of the salvation message, and of how they were by nature wild shoots grafted into a Jewish olive tree. Follow his lead: get reacquainted with the fact that once your people were without hope and without God in the world because you were separated from the Commonwealth of Israel (see Ephesians, chapter two). The Jewish people remain natural branches even apart from belief in Jesus—so there is no need to create a commonality between Him and them. You just need to rediscover and reemphasize it.
- I guess what I am saying is this: it is time to rewrap Jesus. Let’s return Him to being the kind of package about whom the angels sang, “Unto you (the Jews, in this context) is born this day in the City of David a Savior, who is Messiah, the Lord.” Good news for the Jews first . . . and also for the Gentiles. Ho ho ho.