| |

SIDIC Periodical VI - 1973/1
Jewish and Christian Liturgy (Pages 29 - 34)

Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French

The importance of Jewish-Christian relations for Christian Liturgy
C. A. Rijk


It is not news that most Christians, scholars included, have lost the awareness of the Jewish origins of Christian liturgy. The 1971 issue of Concilium on liturgy (No. 62) clearly proves this statement. It is all the more regrettable because this issue is trying to make the liturgy more relevant to Christians today. On the other hand, a number of scholars and experts have recently made serious studies on the essential link between both liturgies.1 But, apart from some individual cases, e.g. the renewal of the Offertory prayers in the Latin Mass, these studies do not yet seem to have reached the practical liturgists. To scholars engaged in this study, it is clear that Christian liturgy as a whole cannot be understood without profound knowledge of Jewish liturgy of the time of Jesus and later.

This is particularly clear in the case of the origin of the sacraments. Christians have adopted Jewish prayers and feasts, adapting them to the revel& tion brought by Christ. Their fundamental meaning, however, can be grasped only by constant reference to their original milieu. But the Jewish liturgy is still celebrated today with the same faith, in the same spirit, and often in the same terms as in the period when the first Christians participated in it. What more suggestive way is there to understand the institution of the Eucharist in the setting of the Jewish Passover meal, than the Passover Seder in a Jewish family! 2

It is to be expected that the renewal of Christian-Jewish relations will throw light on the liturgy, but until now it has not been very developed. Some scholars who have written about this will be mentioned later on. Efforts have been made to organize joint religious services of Jews and Christians, e.g. in the United States, in Latin America and in Spain, but (with the exception of Spain) reactions were generally negative; the differences between these liturgies are too great, their background is too different. On special occasions, such as prayer for world peace, or small intimate meetings, some modest kind of well chosen prayer seems to be feasible, although even for such occasions, the climate of respect for the other as he is, is not yet fully prepared.

The hesitant beginnings of dialogue, however, can make people more aware of the differences between the respective liturgies and the importance of comparing them. It is my conviction that this is of particular interest at a time when Christians are trying to renew their liturgy in order to make it more relevant to the believer. There have undoubtedly been some changes in Catholic liturgy since Vatican Council II: the vernacular has been introduced, new formulas and more flexible rituals have been accepted, there is greater participation of the people, more « Old Testament » readings are used, and so on. But the question — how does liturgy function in life, still remains a problem which demands constant attention.

It is exactly here that confrontation with Jewish liturgy might be revealing and extremely helpful. In an article entitled « What makes prayer Jewish? » Rabbi Bernard J. Bamberger wrote: « It seems to me that Christian prayer is distinguished from Jewish prayer chiefly by the presence of distinctive Christian ideas: the divinity and incarnation of Jesus, the Trinity, the power of the clergy to give absolution, the concept of the sacraments and so on. But, as regards general intent and purpose, as well as form and style, I have found no sharp distinc• tion between Jewish and Christian prayer ». It is certain that the nature and spirit of prayer and worship depend on the way in which a people lives, considers its relationship to God, to man and to the world, and especially on its concept of faith and religion. Worship and prayer will differ according to the links between the different elements of the complex entity of life, faith, theology, people and reality; they will be more « theological », more historical, or more existential. Now, the specific nature of Judaism and Christianity, at least as it has developed in history, has an immediate impact on the differences between the respective liturgies. Let us see what this means.

Experts on the history of Christian liturgy have given clear evidence that in liturgical development since the fourth century, and particularly since the eighth century, an ever wider gap has been created between liturgy and daily life, between clergy and people. « It is undoubtedly true that it was precisely in this period (the ninth century) that the clericalization of the liturgy was completed, and the people to some extent alienated », writes J.D. Crichton,' and he continues: « Other small changes which came in the train of these ideas increasingly emphasized the separation from ordinary life. » 5 Finally, « the period that followed the medieval confusion and the outbreak of the Reformation has been called by Theodor Klauser 'the epoch of changelessness or rubricism'. Its effects are still with us. » 6 I think it unnecessary to quote many other authors; the effects of this situation are, indeed, still with us. But let us listen to one more expert. The Reverend Bonnet stated in a recent article entitled « Ethique et vie liturgique »: « La liturgie en Occident — et dans les pays d'influence occidentale — s'etait figee dans une formulation latine et, tout en gardant quelques bribes de son eclat passe, risquait de se presenter comme une fin en soi, le lien essentiel, quasi unique de la relation religieuse a Dieu, tout en perdant, au meme moment, tout impact sur la vie reelle ;des hommes de notre temps. » He sees the remedy to this situation in the rediscovery of the Old Testament, its theology and its sense of the mystery of creation. We will come back to this later.

I think it is correct to say that the development of Christian liturgy was largely determined by the evolution of theological thinking in the Church. At the time when theology was becoming more dogmatic — sometimes consisting exclusively of reflection on dogmas of the Church — and later on more abstract, the liturgy was necessarily affected. There were, of course, other influences. It is not necessary to study the many aspects of the history of Christian liturgy here; we would observe only that the separation between life and liturgy is connected with many other aspects of the development of Christianity, such as an increasingly abstract and intellectual theology, neglect of the priesthood of the people, a static view of revelation and faith,' separation between nature and grace, a dualistic view of man, etc. The result is that liturgy and life have become two separate worlds, in the same way that faith, doctrine and life, clergy and laypeople have done.

Many nuances should be made in this statement, but it would seem to be correct in its general lines. Vatican Council II has given clear expression to the Church's will to renew the liturgy. However, an essential aspect of this renewal is the bridging of the gap between liturgy and life, between faith and daily reality. Liturgy is the celebration of the Lord's presence among us. He acts and reveals himself in history, his salvific action touches the whole of life and history, and found its culminating point in the passion and resurrection of Jesus. The celebration of God's active presence, especially in the mysteries of Jesus' life and the sacraments, should not, however, be separated from the whole of reality in which the Lord continues to act and to reveal himself.

In this respect comparison with Jewish liturgy might be helpful, not primarily a comparison between Jewish and Christian liturgical texts, but much more a confrontation of two asymmetrical realities. We can put it this way: because Christianity is first of all a religion, a universal religion, it is always in danger of becoming a doctrine separated from life. Judaism, on the other hand, being a complex reality of people, religion and link with a promised land, will always remain more realistic, historic and existential. This difference between Christianity and Judaism will be reflected in many aspects of thought and life, liturgy among others.


It is not my intention to deal with all the Jewish prayers, or even with all the Jewish liturgical feasts. I would simply like to indicate some characteristic features of Jewish liturgy which seem to be connected in a special way with the nature of Judaism as a people with a religion, linked to a land.

1.. It is a matter of common knowledge that dualism does not exist in biblical life andthought. Man is considered as a totality; he lives in the reality as Ganzheitliches Denken —totality thinking.' This means that the people of the Bible lived an intimate, fundamental link with one another, with creation and history, without separating one from the other. Called to explicit faith in the one God, this people believed him to be the creator of all reality and master of history. There is only one God, one creation, one people of God (which, necessarily, is linked to the whole of mankind; there is only one mankind, created in the image of God, cf. Gen. 1: 26-28; 12: 3-4). This unique God acts in creation and history. Biblical thinking, therefore, does not make any separation between revelation and creation, between grace and nature, between the supernatural and the natural, because revelation, redemption and God's salvific action take place in nature and creation and history; creation itself is grace and revelation of God.

The Jewish people, so deeply and realistically integrated into history and reality, has always kept this sense of creation and reality very much alive.

2. All the liturgical feasts are, first of all, feasts of nature; they are seasonal feasts, agricultural feasts. In the tradition of the Bible and of Judaism, the harvest feasts are increasingly linked to the redemptive action of God in history, because creation, nature and daily human life and work are in the hands of God and are part of his salvific action. Jewish liturgy and prayer have always maintained this fundamental link between life and daily reality. Liturgy « reminds » the Lord (and the people) of his great acts in creation and history, not as a static « reminder », but as the expression and the celebration of the conviction that the Lord is continuing to act in the same way as he has done in the past, and that he will finally bring his people and all the nations to complete redemption in a new heaven and a new earth.

3. Let us now look at some concrete forms in which this feature of liturgy is expressed.

a) The place where liturgy is celebrated.
Christians easily compare the Church with the Synagogue, « the Jewish Church ». For them the church is essentially the place of liturgy. But in Jewish life the synagogue does not play the same role as the church does in Christian life. As W.W. Simpson puts it: « Judaism is essentially a religion of the home and family. It is to the home, therefore, almost as much as to the synagogue, that we must look for the pattern of the prayer life of the Jewish people.10

Sabbath and Pesah are, in particular, family feasts. The basic idea is that life, family life, is the place where God is present, and therefore where he must be praised, adored and celebrated. The extensive domestic liturgy keeps the idea alive of the fundamental link between religion and reality. But even the synagogue, where a part of Jewish liturgical life takes place, has a function that differs from the Christian church. In an article entitled « Jewish Worship and the Jewish Year », Ruth Seldin states: « By the time of Jesus and Paul, the synagogue served many functions. It was the house of study of the Law and the Prophets; it was a community center for public meetings; it was used for the shelter and care of strangers. » And further on she states: « There are often many other rooms in the synagogue building: classrooms for children and adults, and meeting rooms for various leisure-time activities. Now, as before, the synagogue is a gathering place for the Jews of the neighbourhood or community. » 13 These few indications make it clear that separation between faith and life, between liturgy and daily reality, does not exist in Judaism. On the contrary, their essential link is emphasized.

b) The Jewish Feasts.
We must first say a word about the Sabbath. The Sabbath is, in fact, the basic Jewish liturgical feast. « The Sabbath lends reality to the year. This reality must be re-created week by week . . . in the Sabbath the year is created, and thus the main significance of the Sabbath lies in the symbolic meaning of its liturgy: it is a holiday that commemorates creation. » 12 The same author continues: « And just as creation is wholly complete, for revelation adds to it nothing that was not already latent in it as presage, so the festival of creation must also contain the entire content of the festivals of revelation . . . » 13 We have already indicated the link between the Sabbath liturgy and the home. Here we see the great riches of this liturgy and especially its fundamental link with reality, creation, revelation and redemption. In the reference already quoted, Rosenzweig elaborates on this theme.

The other great liturgical feasts, Rosh Hashanah, called « the birthday of the world », Sukkot, Yom Kippur, Pesah and Shavuot celebrate the different aspects of this rich and complex reality, always in the same covenantal spirit which binds the people, deeply rooted in reality, creation and history, to the Lord of creation, revelation and redemption.14

4. These few remarks will have shown, I think, the historical and existential character of Jewish liturgy. No doubt, the first Christian community lived in the same way and celebrated their liturgy in the same spirit. They saw, in the coming and mission of Jesus, the definitely saving act of God in history and the inauguration of the messianic era. But it is as though Christians looking back later on this messianic event, celebrating it and theologically reflecting on it, sometimes came to a standstill in history, thus separating their religious life from the continuing creation and revelation, and forgetting Peter's admonition « to await and to hasten the coming of the day of the Lord » (2 Pet. 3: 12 ).

5. Some final observations must still be made.

a) When comparing Christianity and Judaism, in particular Christian liturgy and Jewish liturgy, one has the impression that Judaism is much more incarnated in history and reality than is Christianity, which believes in the incarnation of the Son of God. It would seem that the incarnational aspect of Christian faith has remained too much a doctrine without realization in the history of daily life, and without clear expression in the liturgy.

b) Confrontation between Jewish and Christian liturgy might make Christians realize the importance of « incarnated liturgy ». The implications of this question should be studied by liturgists. It is evident that here we are touching the question of the so-called adaptation of the liturgy to the different cultures, peoples and nations. Each country and people has its own culture. If it is true that God is the creator of all that exists, and that people are the co-creators with God, then the variety of cultures needs a variety of liturgical expression, variety in unity. Serious consideration of this problem would probably lead to most interesting conclusions and practical suggestions. The intention should always be to make liturgy more relevant to people as they are, that means, in their everyday situation with their specific link to creation and history. Efforts have been made to adapt liturgy to different cultures, but to a very small extent, and, perhaps, for different reasons. The question of home liturgy should be considered in the same perspective.

c) Serious study of Jewish liturgy could help Christians to solve some theological-liturgical problems which originate from a rather intellectual approach to liturgy, an approach unknown to the first Christians who lived in the more realistic totality conception of the Jewish tradition. The well-known author L. Bouyer gives the example of three problems concerning the Eucharist which have been

a bone of contention ever since theologians who did pose them lost sight of the fundamental ideas of Jewish thought on the berakhah. First, the problem of knowing whether the eucharistic consecration results from the recitation by the celebrant of the words of institution, or from an epiclesis, a special invocation (a problem argued between east and west); secondly, the problem of knowing whether the celebration of the Eucha- rist ought to be considered as being in itself sacrificial, or as being only the memorial of the sacrifice of the cross (a problem argued between Catholics and Protestants); and thirdly, the problem of the relation between the eucharistic symbols, the broken bread and the cup, and the presence, whether it be a matter of the simple presence of the body and blood of Christ under these symbols, or of the presence of his action (of his 'mystery') underlying the liturgical action (a problem argued today among Catholic theologians themselves).15

According to the author these oppositions are necessary aspects of one indivisible reality.

6. In this article we have seen only some aspects of the importance of comparing Jewish and Christian liturgies. And this is only one aspect of Jewish-Christian relations. We have not considered the meaning of this encounter of liturgies for the life and mission of the people of God in the world. Neither have we studied its significance for the re-creation of the world and history (cf. Gen. 1:26-28) in the spirit of the covenant with the Lord. Questions about the sense and substance of prayer should also be included. But we hope that these few observations on Jewish-Christian relations and liturgy will have thrown some light on the possibilities and the fruitfulness of discovering that reality which Paul called a mystery of salvation history. It is a mystery of God's salvific presence and action through the proper identity of Israel and the Church for the well-being of mankind in order that, one day, all the nations « may call on the name of the Lord and serve him with one accord » (Zeph. 3:9), and « God may be everything to everyone » (1 Cor. 15:28).

1 R. Le Deaut, Liturgie juive et Nouveau Testament (Rome, 1965).
R. Le Deaut, La Nuit Pascale (Rome, 1963). Sofia Cavaletti, Ebraismo e Spirituality Cristiana (Rome, 1966).
L. Bouyer, La Bible et l'Evangile (Paris, 1953). L. Bouyer, L'Eucharistie (Tournai-Paris, 1966). And many articles in different periodicals.
2 See Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, Information Service No. 9, 1970/1, p. 19.
3 The Theological Foundations of Prayer. A Reform Jewish Perspective (New York, 1967), p. 62.
« An Historical Sketch of the Roman Liturgy », in Lancelot Sheppard, ed., True Worship (London, 1963), p. 63.
5 Ibid., p. 64.
6 Ibid., p. 72.
7 Amitie, fevrier, 1971, p. 7.
8 On revelation as a permanent action of God in history, see e.g. Gabriel Moran, Theology of Revelation (London, 1966).
See Thorleif Borman, Das Hebrdische Denken im Vergleich mit dem Griechischen (Gottingen, 5, 1968). Claude Tresmontant, Essai sur la pensee hebraique (Paris, 1953).
10 W.W. Simpson, Prayer and Worship (London, 1965), p. 18.
11 Image of the Jews (New York, 1970) pp. 110-111.
12 Franz Rosenzweig, The Star of Redemption (London: Routledge Kegan Paul, 1971), pp. 310-11.
13 Ibid., p. 311.
14 See e.g. R. Le Deaut, La Nuit Pascale (Rome, 1963).
15 « Jewish and Christian Liturgies », in Lancelot Sheppard, ed., True Worship (London, 1963), p. 42.

After six years in charge of the Vatican office for Jewish-Catholic relations, Dr. Cornelis Rijk is now full-time director of the SIDIC centre in Rome.

The editors are grateful to the publishers of Les Questions liturgiques et paroissiales (Louvain) for authorization to print these excerpts from Number 2, 1971.


Home | Who we are | What we do | Resources | Join us | News | Contact us | Site map

Copyright Sisters of Our Lady of Sion - General House, Rome - 2011