Του λίθου σφραγισθέντος υπό των Ιουδαίων,
και στρατιωτών φυλασσόντων το άχραντον σου σώμα,
ανέστης τριήμερος Σωτήρ, δωρούμενος τω κοσμώ την ζωήν.
αι δυνάμεις των ουρανών εβόων σοι ζωοδότα.
Δόξα τη αναστάσει σου Χριστέ,
δόξα τη βασιλεία σου,
δόξα τη οικονομία σου,
Tou líthou sfragisthéndos ypó ton Ioudhaíon… ‘Though sealed by a stone by the Jews…’ begins the resurrectional apolytikion tone 1, the first of eight short hymns of the Resurrection of Christ sung throughout the Orthodox Church year in ordered rotation. It was the first Greek hymn I learned to chant by heart and remains one of my favorites. The official English translation provided in the hymnal made no mention of any Jews, only of the stone sealing the tomb and, in the second line, of ‘the soldiers guarding [Christ’s] pure body.’ Understanding Greek, I thought that was a little strange, but I assumed the translation was paraphrased to avoid giving offense to anyone of Jewish origin who might stumble upon it.
Today is the memorial day of what the world calls ‘the Holocaust’ and the people of Israel call the ‘Shoah,’ an event so cataclysmic that people alive today who have only heard of it cannot imagine what a horror it was. As we continue down the years of the 21st century, there are fewer and fewer people still alive who lived through those times, and soon there will be none. We will have only the written and the photographic record of that unimaginable time of terror. Lord, have mercy!
As a Greek Orthodox Christian of Polish ethnic origin, I have always felt a strange kinship to the Jews. In my family’s ancestral country, they formed ten per cent of the population, and had lived among Christian Poles for centuries. Poland was, in fact, the only Christian country that welcomed them when every other land expelled them. The anti-Semitism that seems endemic to European Christian society was not as deeply or as widely held in the Polish nation until its resurgence in post-World War I Europe.
Our family name, Górny, literally ‘high’ or perhaps ‘from the mountain’ (góra, in Polish) is used equally by Christian and Jewish Poles. That may perhaps explain how my father’s second eldest sister, Mae, was courted by and eventually married to a Polish-American Jew, my uncle Jules Lewin. He belonged (when he affiliated at all) to a Reform Judaism congregation that was history’s first experiment at trying to make Judaism acceptable to Christians by imitating churchly worship, complete with hymns and organs.
As a Polish-American with a Jewish surname, I was interested in Judaism and began teaching myself Hebrew at the age of twelve from library books. Other than my uncle, I knew of no other Jews except one fellow student in middle school, and no one I knew in our mid-20th century Chicago neighborhood showed any serious prejudice against them. There just weren’t enough to be bothered about, and when we thought of them at all, they were just like the Orthodox, a slightly mysterious religious identity.
There was only a vague allusion to anti-Semitism in the expression ‘to jew someone,’ which meant to swindle or cheat them. Even as children we knew that the expression was nonsense. Only as I entered middle school did I become aware of what happened to the Jews during the World War II era in Europe. Television was beginning to air documentaries with gruesome film footage, and what we were entirely innocent of before, anti-Semitism, now became a possibility—not for me, but for others around me.
Later, as I evolved from the children’s version of Christianity to the grown-ups’ version, I found that I had a very deep Jewish sympathy in me that seems to have always been there, making me wonder if I might in some small way be of Jewish extraction myself. When I married and was raising my family of sons, there were several years when we observed a Passover Seder together during Holy Week, even inviting our friends. I wanted us all to have an experiential understanding of where our Christian faith came from.
There are so many connexions between the Church and Judaism, and by and large each faith community has minimized them. If I were a Jew, I would have a very difficult time trusting Christians, because there has been almost nothing but persecution from them, culminating in the worst excesses of violence and forced conversion. As a Christian, I am very sensitive to this, and I approach the individual Jew as well as the institutions of Judaism with as much harmlessness and affirmation as I can muster.
I cannot forget that Jesus Christ, His holy mother, all His relatives according to the flesh, and almost all of His original disciples, are Jews. Well, yes and no, of course. Jesus Christ is certainly a Jew, in fact, the Jew, the Jewish messiah, even though the majority of Israel rejects Him. His mother, whom we call the Theotokos, ‘God-bearer,’ is the first Christian, followed by everyone else, even down to us, but we must not forget that the first generation of Christians thought of themselves as Jews, people of Israel.
And in a mystery, we too, Christians though we are called, are still people of Israel, worshipers of Israel’s God who, as it has turned out, is the only God there is. What His relationship to (what we call) the ‘Old Israel’ is not known with absolute certainty by us, nor can it be, just as the Jews cannot know how their God is now our God, how we have become His people, the ‘New Israel.’ All we can know, all we should know, is, as Paul teaches, ‘God never takes back His gifts or revokes His choice’ (Romans 11:29 JB).
These are the thoughts that are running through me this night as I remember the Day of Disaster, the ‘Shoah’ that befell our brethren of the House of Israel, in whom Christ our God (Blessed, blessed, blessed be He!) is hidden, as it is written, ‘Truly, God is hidden with you, the God of Israel, the Saviour’ (Isaiah 45:15). Yes, what tender and pitiful love the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, must have for His people, to have suffered through the centuries hidden within them, waiting patiently, till we two become one.