Purim, the Church and Jewish Marginality

March 16, 2016

purim masks

This is a “leap year” for Israel’s lunar calendar. The Jewish “leap year”, which occurs seven times in a 19-year cycle, has 13 months instead of the regular year’s 12. This is so that the lunar-based Jewish year should remain aligned with the solar seasons (12 lunar months make up a total of 354 days — slightly more than 11 days short of the 365.25 day solar cycle). The added month is called “Adar I” and is inserted before the month of Adar (termed “Adar II” in leap years).  So this year Purim will come one day before the Christian Good Friday. Even though Messianic Jewish communities commemorate the sacrificial death, burial and resurrection of Yeshua during the Passover, the odd juxtaposition of these two holidays is always a little disconcerting to me. Let me explain.

Purim will soon pass and we will begin to think of Passover and Hashem’s deliverance and the deliverance of Messiah Yeshua. Their close proximity in the calendar always links these two holidays, with Purim feeling like a late winter/early spring warm-up to Pesach. But eleven years ago a simple invitation and the soul searching that followed brought the stories of Purim and the sacrifice of Messiah together for me in a way that has become indelible in my thinking.

At that time I reluctantly turned down an opportunity to speak at an annual Good Friday service organized by the local Clergy Association I belonged to and held each year at a local Lutheran church. I will reiterate that as Messianic Jews we commemorate the resurrection during the Passover week rather than the Easter week, as do most Christians, but I normally try to take every opportunity to participate in the local clergy Association and to demonstrate our unique symbiotic relationship with the broader communion in Messiah.  But this time, my conscience would not allow me to participate since Good Friday, and Purim fell on the exact same day.  The conflict was not merely one of timing, though that was significant, but rather of perspective, loyalty and imagery.  Let me explain. Purim is a holiday, characterized by great joy, celebration and frivolity.  Good Friday of course, is a holiday, which is quite somber and has an air of consternation and sobriety. While Purim acknowledges the historical, practical and tactile work of divine providence – Good Friday in the traditional Christian understanding anticipates a more numinous hope, in the midst of darkness and despair. Most of all, Purim celebrates God’s unseen hand of protection over the Jewish people, yet Good Friday has never portended security for God’s Chosen People.

Tragically Good Friday had often been an historical day of persecution of the Jewish people by an institutional Church that had lost sight of its roots. Provoked by Passion Plays that monolithically portrayed the Jews as the ugly antagonists that crucified the Messiah, the anti-Jewish teachings and rhetoric that became institutionalized over centuries of Church teaching, found an ugly outlet in mob violence against Jews. Though clergy rarely sanctioned such acts, Church teaching sometimes intentionally and sometimes unintentionally gave justification to these ugly and horrendous acts of hatred. How ironic, that on a day that commemorates the martyrdom of Israel’s greatest son, the Church that claims his name, has so often in the past persecuted his brethren in the flesh. With such acts of violence, the self-sacrificial nature of a crucified savior was demeaned by the politics and ambitions of an institution drunk with power. How unfortunate that the Church’s teaching of Good Friday is often lost in the Church’s history on Good Friday.

The Purim story on the other hand portrays almost prophetically the Jewish people as they would be throughout history, small, powerless, desiring to conform to the wider culture, yet remaining oddly conspicuous, an object of derision, seen as an obstacle to ambitious men. Megilat  (scroll of) Esther from which this story is taken, never once mentions the name of G-d. Given the books unique placement in the Hebrew cannon, this absence of the Divine Name from its pages is conspicuous and telling. The ultimate deliverance of Israel by its G-d at the end of the story is implied yet, conspicuously hidden. G-d’s ongoing protection, care and love for his special children can only be seen by those who choose to look at the canonical placement of this narrative. On the surface the Jews appear to be deserted by G-d, left to their own limited resources, abandoned in powerlessness to be victimized by the powerful. Ultimately G-d becomes evident in the story of Purim, in the faithfulness of those are called according to his name.  Interestingly the Jewish People portrayed in the Purim story and throughout history, much more closely resemble the crucified Messiah of Christian tradition, than the Church that bears his name often does. For it is in our weakness that G-d’s strength is perfected.

Interestingly, as persecutors of the Jews, the historical Church has sometimes allowed itself to take on the role of Haman, the antagonist of the book of Esther. But in the Purim story, Haman represents more than the most evil of men he also represents everyman. Yes he is the Hitlers and the Arafats of modern history, those men who would stoke the flames of hatred and advocate if not order horrendous acts of violence.  But he is also the German soldiers who “only followed orders,” and the German clergy who turned a blind eye to the atrocities about them.  He is each of us when driven by our own fear, prejudices, preferences, conveniences and ambitions to compromise that which we understand to be G-d’s highest values. Though the Church has made great inroads in regard to its treatment of the Jewish people, events such as several Protestant denominations advocating divestment Israel, and the widespread defense of the anti-Semitic imagery and inference in passion plays, politics and preaching, would suggest that the Church still has a blind eye concerning its deeply ingrained anti-Jewish biases.

The program at the Good Friday service was already set. This message would not have been appropriate to the occasion, for despite some of the ugly events throughout history associated with it Good Friday rightly remains a day of great sanctity for Christians.   But perhaps someday a church will invite me to elaborate on this story of unholy dissonance that has existed between the historical Church and Israel for nearly two thousand years.  For properly told the similarities between Purim and Good Friday are greater than we might expect. Both tell a story of meekness as G-d’s agency, and of G-d’s ongoing care and concern for his people. Most of all they tell of the light of hope even when it is veiled in the darkness of despair.  Perhaps sooner than later the Church and Israel together will grasp this message as a renewed humanity in Messiah.

So have a Joyous Purim filled with celebration and frivolity. But know that behind the celebration, there is still much to contemplate.

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