25 December 2009

The Light

Last night I participated in the Christmas Eve service at Old First Reformed Church, having been invited by my dear friend the Rev. Dr. Daniel Meeter. I will admit to both externally accepting the invitation with great joy while internally contemplating for a few weeks the symbolism of the gesture and I want to share some of those thoughts with you, dear reader.

The first thought is about the practice of being able to accept the gift of hospitality. A friend invited me into his home--his spiritual home--and on one of the holiest days of the year, no less. The intimacy of this gesture is great.

The second thought is that the music for Christmas Eve is just out of this world--and being so close to it, watching the cues, behind the scenes, as it were, made those aesthetic moments that much better.

Then the third thought dawned on me: I'd be wearing a kippah in the church on the holiday that celebrates the birth of the messiah I do not accept. I wondered if this was hypocritical; or syncretistic; or confusing for those witnessing the event. Would theological lines be crossed?

The text I was invited to read was from Torah. In years past, members of CBE had read or chanted the lines in Hebrew and I would do the same. They are the lines spoken by God to Abraham after the Binding of Isaac. Isaac is spared the sacrifice and in his place, the ram is offered to God. But because of Abraham's faith, God rewards him with the following blessing from Genesis 22:15-18:

"And the angel of the Eternal called unto Abraham a second time out of heaven, and said, 'By Myself have I sworn, said the Eternal, because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son, that in blessing I will bless you, and in multiplying I will multiply your seed as the stars of the heaven and the sands upon the seashore and your seed will possess the gate of your enemies and in your seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed because you have listened to My voice.'"

Sacrifice your son, your only son. Uh-oh. This I had to figure out. Here is a text that Jews and Christians simply read differently. The son: Isaac. And the Son: Jesus. I could hear Hank Williams "We Live in Two Different Worlds" singing in my head. Isaac's suffering has been read by Jews for centuries to be a particular suffering of a particular people and a particular reward for a particular people. Jesus' suffering, on the other hand, is on behalf of all people for all time and in fact is seen as a fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham.

I felt stuck.

And then I realized something very profound. Back in September a hunk of our synagogue's main sanctuary ceiling caved in and before I could call him, Daniel Meeter called me and asked what we needed. Before I could even ask he said, "If you need the church for Yom Kippur, we can make it ready for you."

Yom Kippur. The Day of Atonement. Where Jews round the world afflict their souls with fasting and deep introspection, poetry and prayer for our past deeds, begging God's forgiveness and the opportunity to live another year of life. In traditional Judaism, the Torah reading for Yom Kippur morning is Leviticus 16, the story of the sacrificial goat, which bears the sins of the community of Israel upon its head and then is sent into the wilderness, expelled, as a symbolic gesture of expiation or cleansing of communal sin. Without question, this text too informs the Christian understanding of the figure of Jesus, who, like the original scapegoat, bears the sin of humanity for all time. Another text that Jews and Christians simply read differently. But here we would be, our community, bringing that reading, our reading, into the church on our holiest day of the year.

I suddenly became un-stuck.

And the salve, the balm, as it were, was all about the gift of Torah and the incredible blessing of America. It seemed vitally important, axiomatically important, that peace could never be achieved if we couldn't read one another's texts openly and with great meaning as a gift to one another, as an expression of ultimate respect, even sacrifice, by making room for one another in a world that so desperately needs to see that divergence can be tolerated, embraced and ultimately, redemptive.

We met our other Jewish friends last night for Chinese food at 6. I had hot and sour soup and General Tso's tofu with broccoli. White rice. I arrived at church by 7.25 and was handed the service and a candle. In a brief moment of trepidation, I held the candle and thought: "This little light of mine...who's light, exactly?"

"The soul of a person is the light of the Eternal." Proverbs 20.27.

With pride of place I held that candle; with pride of place I read Torah at a Christmas Eve service; and with pride of place I thanked God for the friendship of the Rev. Dr. Daniel Meeter, whose hospitality invited us into his home when our shelter needed repair, affording us, in an act of uncommon generosity, the opportunity to atone in our way at our time of year.

There was a point in the Christmas Eve ritual, toward the close of the service, when we were all supposed to extinguish our candles--liturgically, Jesus had been born at that moment. I didn't want to do that. I wanted the light to keep burning, because for me it meant wisdom, love, and Torah. There was a kind of unity in understanding that felt very real. But the divergence had occurred. When the candle went out, their Messiah had been born and we Jews continued waiting for ours (if that). In other words, on a certain level, intellectually, theologically, we had found ourselves again on separate paths.

But then afterward, Daniel said, "Thanks for the gift of Torah." Which the Sages of blessed memory always understand as the Light of the Eternal.

We Jews. We tiny, tiny people. A fraction of the world's population. Give the gift of Torah to another nation, that multiplies into many nations. And one, a descendant of Dutch Christians, receives again that gift and returns it to us in favor, with hospitality.

Long before Abraham ever had Isaac, God visited him, told him to circumcise himself, and then sent three angels to announce that he and Sarah would indeed have a child. Abraham, upon meeting the angels, asks Sarah to make a meal for them and she bakes cakes and prepares lamb and cheese--hardly a kosher meal. The rabbis wrestle with this text but ultimately conclude that for Abraham and Sarah, the expression of hospitality--cooking for their visitors what they would have wanted--was more important than the observance of the kosher laws!

Or, more succinctly: How great is the commandment of hospitality! We should bend in our supposedly intractable principles for the sake of welcoming another into our home.

Because in each of our homes is the light of learning, the light of each one of our souls, and therefore, the light of God.

Thanks for your friendship, Daniel. May each of our communities know the peace and understanding they so truly deserve.


Old First said...

My emotions are too strong at this point for me to write about this rationally. Such a gift. Such a great gift.

Who are we that we should be given such a gift?

Andy Bachman said...

"Eternal, what is man that You have regard of him? The son of man that you are mindful of him? Man is like a breath, his days are like a passing shadow." --from Psalm 144.

Who are we indeed.

marg said...

this made me cry!
thanks andy!
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