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Why Jesus never read the New Testament

Jesus meant so much to Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, that Ignatius once said he would have loved to have been Jewish himself, so that he could have been related to Jesus by blood as well as by discipleship.  It is almost 500 years since Ignatius begged his way to Jerusalem, hoping to stay for good in the places that had been made holy by the presence of Jesus.  Even though the Franciscan guardians of the sacred sites ordered him out of the country in the autumn of 1523, Ignatius did not renounce his dream of living in Jerusalem.  It remained his goal for the following 14 years.

When he gathered his first group of six companions around him at the University of Paris, Ignatius had no intention of founding a religious order.  Instead, after taking vows of poverty and chastity on the Feast of Our Lady’s Assumption in August 1534 on the hill of Montmartre, the seven promised to travel to the Holy Land in order to spend their lives there. But after waiting in vain for almost two years in Venice to get a pilgrim ship to their dream destination, the men decided instead in November 1537 to walk to Rome and offer their services to the Pope.

Although Ignatius never managed to get back to this land he loved so much, he remained spiritually close to Jews for the rest of his life, and indeed the creative form of prayer he taught in his Spiritual Exercises, encouraging people to imagine the places associated with Christ’s life, death and resurrection, has become a way for countless thousands of people formed by Ignatian spirituality to be imaginatively “transported” to the Holy Land.  And even though many religious orders in the time of Ignatius would not accept people with Jewish ancestry, Ignatius himself stood out among his contemporaries by refusing to accept these racist purity-of-blood (limpieza de sangre) rules.  As a result, the early Society of Jesus was enriched by having prominent and talented members of Jewish descent.

How can the example of Ignatius of Loyola inspire us today?  By reminding us that the Virgin Mary, Jesus, the first apostles, and most of the early Christians, were Jewish.  Or to put it another way, Jesus never read the New Testament (because of course it was only written after his earthly life came to an end).  We have no idea how much Jesus (still) loves the Jewish people.  They are his people.  In Jerusalem he gave his blood, redeemed humankind and rose to new life. That city holds a hugely special place in his heart.  There will come a day when people around the world recognize this, and then “the word of the Lord will go forth from Jerusalem” (Isaiah 2:3).  Christianity owes a lot to Judaism.  God has not given up on Judaism, and if we “pray for the peace of Jerusalem” (Psalm 122), we will come to see that God still has a great plan in store for the land where the Word became flesh.  In a world where anti-Semitism repeatedly raises its ugly head, Ignatius invites us to think differently.

As Pope Francis, himself a Jesuit, puts it:  “inside every Christian is a Jew”.  Many Catholics have not even realized that Vatican II’s landmark document Nostra Aetate (promulgated exactly 50 years ago) inaugurated a radical and positive change in Christian-Jewish relations.  A priest who wanted to explain this watershed transformation to college students first asked them what Vatican II was, and one student replied that it was the Pope’s summer residence!  Half a millennium ago, Ignatius of Loyola was already attuned in important ways to this new wavelength of respect and affection.

Not only are many Christians ignorant of the importance of Judaism for Christianity; they are also ignorant of Scripture itself.  In the first act of Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot, there is the following revealing exchange:

Vladimir: Did you ever read the Bible?

Estragon: The Bible . . . (He reflects.) I must have taken a look at it.

Many Catholics could probably say much the same as Estragon when it comes to the Bible.  Beyond some basic knowledge, they have little real familiarity with this Book of books.

A couple of examples from the New Testament can illustrate how enriching the retrieval of our Jewish roots could be.  Many Christians recite the “Our Father” over and over again during the course of their lifetimes. It is a prayer that summarizes the whole message of salvation.  Although we rarely advert to the fact, the truth is that the “Our Father” is a thoroughly Jewish prayer. First of all, not only was the one – Jesus – who taught it, Jewish: he was also teaching this prayer to Jews, in their language and within their cultural context.  Second, like all Jewish prayers, it is not individualistic, but communal in nature. The opening words are not “My Father”, but “Our Father”. It continues: “give us our daily bread…forgive us our trespasses as we forgive…lead us not into temptation, deliver us….”  It is extraordinary when you think about it: at that moment, when Jesus was asked to teach his disciples to pray, the world was on the threshold of a new faith called Christianity. Jesus, as the founder of Christianity, could have taught any number of prayers. He could have taught a prayer that would have been specifically Christian in language and intent.  But instead, he taught them a prayer that any Jew can pray.  There is not a single expression or even a single word in this prayer that goes against the Jewish faith.

Or take Mary’s Magnificat in Luke’s Gospel, where we get a privileged glimpse of her deepest feelings toward God.  Every verse of this poem of praise refers to the Hebrew Scriptures.  However, the references are not stuck together in an arbitrary fashion, but instead reflect a sensibility that is completely at home with the Scriptures, so familiar with them that Mary can weave apparently disparate elements together into a unified and breathtaking collage.

But apart from these two prayers, the Hebrew language itself is also an eye-opener.  Even if, like me, you have only a rudimentary knowledge of Hebrew, it can still illuminate central mysteries of the Christian faith.  Take a routine example: if you go to dinner with a Jewish family, sooner or later someone will ask for the bread (lechem) to be passed. When you connect this word lechem to the town where Jesus was born, Bethlehem, you suddenly realize that the name means the “house of bread” (Beth Lechem), and this gets you thinking about the Eucharist in a fresh way.

Over the centuries there has been a difficult and often antagonistic relationship between Christians and Jews.  But something promising is unfolding now, based on greater understanding and mutual respect.  If you love someone, you want to know their story, who they are, where they grew up, what their family is like, everything you can possibly find out about them.  Christians who love Jesus Christ want to find out as much as they can about him. As Christians we believe that the unique beauty of Jesus Christ is made up of his humanity as well as his divinity.  For all that, the TV character Archie Bunker wittily counselled against exaggeration: “Jesus was a Jew, yes, but only on his mother’s side!”  Nevertheless, encountering and being grasped by the beauty of Jesus Christ is at least partly a matter of becoming familiar with his human and cultural background, which is why for instance millions of Christian pilgrims still do what Ignatius of Loyola did in 1523: they visit the Holy Land.

Benjamin Disraeli, of Jewish birth and twice British Prime Minister in the nineteenth century, memorably said, “The Jews are a nervous people.  Nineteen centuries of Christian love have taken their toll.”  Jewish people might be somewhat less worried if we, like Ignatius, were more transparent in our love for the people of Mary’s flesh and blood, from whom Jesus was born.