Oremus et pro Iudaeis of the Good Friday Liturgy

Author: Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi

Oremus et pro Iudaeis of the Good Friday Liturgy

Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi

Theological commentary

One day, Kafka replied to his friend Gustav Janouch who had asked him about Jesus of Nazareth: "He is an abyss of light. You must close your eyes so as not to fall into it", The relationship between the Jews and this their "older brother", as the philosopher Martin Buber curiously described him, has always been intense and complicated, mirroring the even more complex relationship between Judaism and Christianity. It is perhaps best expressed in the simplification of the evocative phrase coined by Shalom Ben Chorin in his book with the revealing title Brother Jesus (1967): "The faith of Jesus unites us [with the Jews], but faith in Jesus separates us".

Our intention is to reconstruct this background — which in reality is much wider and more multi-faceted (than commonly believed). so as to provide a more coherent framework to understand the Oremus et pro ludaeis of the Good Friday Liturgy. There is no need to repeat that this is a rewording of a text, already codified and for specific use, concerning the Liturgy of Good Friday published in the Missale Romanum in the edition promulgated by Blessed John XXIII prior to the liturgical reform of the Second Vatican Council. It is thus a text already crystallized in its form and today circumscribed in its use in accordance with the well-known provisions of the Papal "Motu Proprio" Summorum Pontificum published in July 2007.

Let us therefore try to identify, within the nexus closely uniting God's Israel and the Church, the theological characteristics of this prayer in dialogue with the strong reactions it has provoked in Jewish circles.

The first is strictly a "textual" consideration: we should recall that the word textus refers to the idea of "textile", a fabric woven from different threads. The 30-odd Latin words that make up the Oremus thus form a "fabric" woven exclusively of New Testament threads. It is thus a language that belongs to Sacred Scripture, the primary point of reference for Christian faith and prayer,

The Oremus invites us first of all to pray that God will "illumine their hearts" so that Jews too "may acknowledge Jesus Christ as the Saviour of all men".

It was already St. Paul's expressed desire that God the Father and Jesus Christ would "enlighten the eyes of the hearts" of the Christians in Ephesus of both Jewish and pagan origin (1:18; 5:14). The great profession of faith in "Jesus Christ the Saviour of all men" is contained in the First Letter to Timothy (4:10), but also repeated in a similar form by other New Testament authors, such as Luke in the Acts of the Apostles, who has Peter utter the following testimony in the presence of the Sanhedrin: "And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved" (4:12).

This is the point where true prayer emerges: God, "who desires that all men may be saved and come to knowledge of the truth", is asked to ensure "that through the fullness of peoples entering into his Church the whole of Israel may be saved".

The solemn epiphany of the Almighty and Eternal God, whose love unfolds like a mantle over all humanity, is raised on high: indeed, one reads again in the First Letter to Timothy (2:4) that God "desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth". Indeed, it is like an enormous worldwide procession made up of peoples from every nation and culture to the feet of God, with Israel taking its rightful place as if in the front row.

And it is once again the Apostle Paul who concludes the famous section of his theological masterpiece — the Letter to the Romans dedicated to the Jewish people, the genuine olive tree onto which we have been grafted — with this vision whose description is "interwoven" with quotations from the prophets and the psalms: the expectation of the fullness of salvation "has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of Gentiles come in, and so all Israel will be saved; as it is written, 'the Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob; and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins'" (11:25-27).

It is thus a prayer that corresponds to the classical method of composition in Christianity: invocations based on the Bible are "interwoven" so as to braid belief and prayer tightly together (an interaction between the so-called lex orandi and lex credendi).

At this point we can suggest a second reflection that places greater emphasis on the content. The Church prays that she may also have the faithful Israel beside her in the one community of believers in Christ. It is her great, long-awaited eschatological hope, that is, the final homecoming of history, as in chapters 9 to 11 of St. Paul's Letter to the Romans referred to above.

It is what the Second Vatican Council proclaimed when it stated in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church: "Those who have not yet received the Gospel are related to the People of God in various ways. There is, first, that people to which the covenants and promises were made, and from whom Christ was born according to the flesh: in view of the divine choice they are a people most dear for the sake of the fathers, for the gifts of God are without repentance" (Lumen Gentium, n. 16).

This intense hope is obviously proper to the Church centred on Jesus Christ as the source of salvation. For Christians, Christ is the Son of God and the visible and effective sign of divine love since, as Jesus said one night to Nicodemus, "a ruler of the Jews": "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.... For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him" (cf. Jn 3:16-17).

Thus, it is from Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Israel, that the purifying and life-giving wave of salvation flows. It is for this reason that one can ultimately say, as Christ does in the Gospel of John, "salvation is from the Jews" (4:22). The summit of history hoped for by the Church is therefore found in this source.

Let us repeat: this is the Christian vision and the hope of the Church's prayer. It is neither a programmatic proposal of theoretical adherence nor a missionary strategy for conversion. It is the characteristic attitude of the prayerful invocation according to which a reality held precious and salvific is also desired for people considered as close, beloved and significant.

Julien Green, a leading representative of French culture in the 19th century, wrote: "It is always beautiful and legitimate to hope for the other what is a good or a joy for you yourself: only think of offering a true gift, do not stay your hand". This must of course always occur with respect for the freedom and different approaches adopted by the other. Yet it is an expression of affection also to hope, for your brother or sister, what you yourself consider the horizon of light and life.

It is in this perspective that the Oremus in question, despite the limitation of its use and in its specificity, can and must strengthen our ties and the dialogue with "this people with whom God deigned to make the Old Covenant", drawing nourishment "from that good olive tree onto which the wild olive branches of the Gentiles have been grafted" (Nostra Aetate, n. 4)

And, as the Church will pray next Good Friday, in accordance with the liturgy of the Missal of Paul VI, our common and ultimate hope is that "the firstborn People of the Covenant with God will attain the fullness of redemption".

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
12 March 2008, page 4

L'Osservatore Romano is the newspaper of the Holy See.
The Weekly Edition in English is published for the US by:

The Cathedral Foundation
L'Osservatore Romano English Edition
320 Cathedral St.
Baltimore, MD 21201
Subscriptions: (410) 547-5315
Fax: (410) 332-1069