Advent, and thus the liturgical year, begins with a whole flurry of liturgical readings, spiritual devotions, and popular hymns referring to concepts like “captive Israel” and “the curse of the Law.” In the New Testament’s theological and cultural language these phrases mean essentially what I said in last week’s reflection: moral law exists amidst a series of relationships that people have with one another and with God, if those relationships are not working well then moral law will not work well either, and at the time of Christ those relationships were not working well. Unfortunately, the fraught history between Christianity and Judaism has led to widespread use and abuse of that language to excuse antisemitism, to imply that Christianity owes nothing to Judaism and can no longer learn anything from it, or even to imply that insisting on a defined moral law at all is “legalism” and Christians should instead orient our moral lives according to vague ambiences. This is a thorny set of problems to which I think both traditionalist-minded and liberal-minded Catholics have been ill-equipped to respond.
The contributors to this website and other Catholics who defend and support the vision of Pope Francis are often critical of “legalism” and “rigorism,” terms with specific theological meanings that are all too often turned into snarl words. These words can see overuse or misuse in potentially bigoted situations, like the ones that leave many Jewish people uncomfortable with Catholic preaching about “the Pharisees” (who are the forebears of today’s Rabbinic Judaism), or simply in the sense of being used so much they lose all meaning. I would counsel our readers to understand our use of those words charitably and not assign these valances to them, but we are also responsible for seeking to monitor, criticize, and improve our own ideas.
Sometimes self-criticism in this area can lead to overcorrection, as in Mary C. Boys’s Has God Only One Blessing?, a book on Christian-Jewish relations that I otherwise love but that includes a proposed top-to-bottom rewrite of “O come, O come, Emmanuel.” I think the second line and the refrain of the hymn could stand to be revisited; asking for Christ to come and “ransom captive Israel” is a jarring and unsettling sentiment for many Jewish people since “Israel” can refer to, among other things, the Jewish people in particular and as a whole. I also think we need to be on guard against the spirit of novelty for its own sake that would throw out the rest of the traditional lyrics with the bathwater. It would be theologically dangerous, for example, to lose an idea of ourselves as “Israel” in the sense that the hymn means it. We do in fact mourn a lost connection with God and wait for it to be restored. In our incredibly fast-paced age this is perhaps the most reparative and counter-cultural self-image anybody can have. Boys’s proposed rewrite of the hymn dispenses with this core anthropology in favor of an appealing, but incomplete, call for Christ to be present in the worshiping community. It could technically be sung at any Mass and mean more or less the same thing.
John the Baptist in today’s Gospel is not content with Christ being present in a worshiping community. It is a daring thing for us to yearn for the return of the One who “burns the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Mt. 3-12). God wills our good but evidently is under no obligation to be soothing and gentle about helping or making us achieve it.
In order for that yearning for Jesus to “gather the wheat into His barn” to have shape and meaning we need to understand the peril and danger of that coming, the warning as well as the promise in John’s words. That danger is present in our days also; thus, we should be careful not to interpret the Baptist’s words as limited in scope to problems within Judaism. Christian antisemitism and “I’m okay, you’re okay” liberalism both provide far too many escape hatches from the hard work of repenting and reforming ourselves. The problem is not with Them, nor is it simply absent or already solved; it is present, and present in and with us all.
The second coming seems, from how the Bible and Church tradition present it, like a sudden, alarming, drastic event—the thief in the night, the tardy bridegroom, the threshing, Gabriel’s trumpet. We should not mistake its promise for one of easy validation of our superiority or virtue. We are all in danger and the only way out of that danger is to let go of complacency about ourselves, including any sense of being better or safer than others.
Image: A winnowing machine. From Wikimedia Commons.
Nathan Turowsky is a native New Englander and now lives in Upstate New York. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in the nonprofit sector. He writes at Silicate Siesta.