“If the Messiah had come,” the rabbi asked, “would the world be the way that it is?”
How would you answer the rabbi’s question?
He said this sort of off-handedly during a “model Seder” in his synagogue. The rabbi was explaining the Messianic expectations found in this special celebration, and he knew he was talking to a room bursting with Christians. But it didn’t strike me that he was being antagonistic or provocative. It was just sort of a statement of fact.
I had been enjoying myself before the rabbi’s question made me stop and think. We’d been eating lots of food — not just parsley sprigs dipped in salt water and horseradish and haroset, but gefilte fish and matzoh ball soup and all sorts of matzoh-based desserts. The gefilte fish gave the man next to me an opportunity to explain what it meant to be an Ashkenazi Jew. He was wearing a beautiful skull cap – a sort of amazing Technicolor yarmulke – and his children were young enough that the Seder was full of fun and mystery. I was envious. What do we do in our homes and churches that combines food, symbolism, the Bible, singing, and prayers in this way? The man told me his family’s Seder celebration usually lasts about four hours. Four hours! Talk about “impressing these things on your children.” I thought of how often I feel restless on Sundays when we have Communion, glancing at my wristwatch and wondering what effect the extra twenty minutes will have on adult education attendance.
When the rabbi – who seemed like a gentle and cheerful man – asked what he did, his question stopped me cold. What would you say to him? Sitting in a Seder – even a model Seder – and thinking about slavery and suffering helped frame my reluctance to want to say anything. I thought of the theological challenge of the Holocaust. Do you consider the Holocaust part of your family history? The rabbi does. As well as the Roman destruction of the temple. And Masada. And the ghettos of Eastern Europe. And Tsarist Russia. And the Spanish Inquisition. And a thousand other pogroms. I thought about all the religious wars throughout history.
No, I thought, you really can’t demonstrate that the Messiah has come by looking at the state of the world. Maybe you can prove the reality of sin, but not the reality of the Messiah.
However, this memory came to me while I was ruminating on the rabbi’s question, and I don’t quite know what to do with this, but it seems significant. I remember talking to a well-educated Jewish friend once and mentioning the story of the Prodigal Son in passing.
“What’s that?” she said.
“Seriously?” I asked. “Seriously, you don’t know what I’m talking about?”
“No,” she said, “I don’t.”
That’s what I’m left with when I think about what the rabbi said. Not how to prove something but simply how my life has been enriched in ways beyond my understanding because of the New Testament. I’m who I am because of stories like the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, the woman at the well and the widow’s mite. I can’t imagine a life where I don’t know Lazarus, Martha and Mary, or impulsive Peter. Or Paul and I Corinthians 13 or Romans 8 or the book of Philippians. But most of all there’s Jesus. And the Holy Spirit. I don’t just believe the Messiah has come, I believe he’s still alive.
The Seder is all about remembering. In contrast to that, when I take bread and wine in the meal Christians celebrate that was instituted during a Seder, I don’t just remember, I also believe I’m communing with my Lord in the present.
I suppose the rabbi would find that notion as hard to swallow as I found the gefilte fish.
Gefilte fish . . . it’s an acquired taste. Figuring out why certain people like it while others don’t is a mystery. Kind of like faith. Seems like a worthy Lenten sort of thing to contemplate.