Readings (Year A):
Reflection: Where is Jesus in this story?
In seminary, I took a class on Jewish-Christian relations with a mix of Jewish and Christian students, all of us preparing for ministry in our communities. It was spring 2020, so our class bled into the early days of COVID-19. One assignment was to visit each other’s communities, so we attended each other’s Easter and Passover services on Zoom. Sitting at home watching an Easter Mass, I imagined my Jewish peers doing the same. I felt twinges of embarrassment: After weeks studying Jewish-Christian relations, I was on high alert for all the anti-Jewish theologies that poke through our liturgy and lectionary. I’d hardly noticed them before, but my peers would notice right away.
The Feast of Corpus Christi and today’s readings are sources of powerful Christian imagery, but they’re also sources for anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic traditions. Our translation begins with the words “Jesus said to the Jewish crowds,” which seemingly sets Jesus apart from his own people.
Any time our readings refer to “the Jews,” Christian listeners ought to pause and ask questions like: Who wrote or edited this? What’s their relationship to Jewish tradition? How have Christians interpreted this over the years? Where am I in this story, and where is Jesus? For example, when Jesus says, “unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever,” he’s speaking to his own people. They shared ancestors. Today’s Christian readers, however, are more likely to identify with Jesus against the Jewish crowds.
Notice how our first reading tells the story of manna in the desert. Earlier in the conversation excerpted for our lectionary, in John 6:49, Jesus references this story to convey that manna and his body are both types of “bread from heaven.” Today, though, we’re primed to conclude that if the crowd’s ancestors ate manna and still died, then Christianity and the Eucharist have triumphed over Judaism. The belief that our new and improved religion has replaced outdated Jewish traditions is called “supersessionism.” Both progressive and conservative churches repeat supersessionist theologies all the time today.
This gospel reading is extra charged because anti-Jewish medieval stories often focused on Jewish skepticism—or even hostility—toward the Eucharist. In popular stories spread around by Christians, Jewish people plotted to steal, torment, and defile the host, just as they had supposedly tortured Jesus on the cross. Christians also accused their Jewish neighbors of kidnapping and killing Christian children. Since medieval Christians depicted the host as the infant Jesus, these myths were connected. Christians used them to justify oppression of Jewish communities.
At church, it’s always a good exercise to ask: How would this reading or homily affect people who aren’t in the room? Would I be ashamed to bring a Jewish friend (or an immigrant friend, or a queer friend) to this community? When I brought my Jewish classmates to an Easter Mass, I was embarrassed because I knew my community still has work to do. Digging through tradition should be part of our faith and practice: It’s part of building a better church.