Part III: Do we really curse Jews?
Many of our members have raised this concern that we are cursing Jews during the Good Friday service. The fact is that we do not curse the Jews in any of our service. But we do remember the detailed events happened during the crucifixion. The concept of cursing the Jews in our Good Friday service was originated as a result of misunderstanding of the hymns.
Since the majority of the hymns used in the Good Friday belong to our Bible Scholar and doctor of the church, St. Aphrem, and the hymns which are often criticized also belong to him, let us briefly analyze the hymns and situation which led Mor Aphrem to write those hymns and why people often misinterpret them as Anti-Jewish.
Mor Aphrem lived during the time of council of Nicea (in AD325). In addition to the Arianism which was a major threat to the Orthodox Christian faith, a lot of other threats against Christians also existed in the surrounding cities where Mor Aphrem lived. One of them was the Jewish influence on Christians. Those Christians, closely associated with Jews, tried to keep most of the traditional practices of Jews. Although there is nothing wrong in keeping the faith and traditions of Old Testament, there are some major difference to be observed when New Testament was established. In fact, many of the incidents described in the OT happened for a purpose and need to be understood accordingly. For example, if God asked Noah to build an ark of gopher wood, it doesn't mean that we all should build an ark of gopher wood every year! There was a purpose for building the ark by Noah which is known to everyone. Likewise, a lot of the incidents in OT happened for a reason and thus has to be treated accordingly. Importantly, when it comes to animal sacrifice, which God instructed Moses to do, it is understood that it was a fore shadow of a great sacrifice they are going to get for the remission of sins. This in fact happened through the crucifixion of Jesus Christ on the cross and thus replaced the animal sacrifice with God's own sacrifice. Jesus said I am the living bread (John 6:51) and do this (breaking of bread) in memory of me until I come back (Luke 22:19). Mor Aphrem was very vigilant against the 'judaizing' nature of Jewish Christians and those associated with Jews, and thus tried to warn those Christians who wanted to follow everything Jews followed. St. Paul said: (Hebrews 10:1) "The law is only a shadow of the good things that are comingnot the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship".
Like St. Paul preached, Mor Aphrem also tried to warn and teach the Christians, mostly those who were living under the influence of Jews, against following all the Jewish practices. Although there are acceptable practices and traditions in Jewish traditions, we have to distinguish which are still valid and which are not to be followed. So, most of his hymns, which are misinterpreted as `Anti-Jewish' are in fact, pointed towards those Christians who tried to follow Jewish traditions and practices blindly and are NOT pointed towards Jews. A few paragraphs in the `hymns on unleavened bread' by Mor Aphrem have attracted criticism based on the same theme. I believe the original Syriac version is not available on these hymns and what is available is only the Armenian version and the translations from it. So, we are not sure what exactly Mor Aphrem meant in some of the lines in these hymns (under criticism), especially when there is a possibility for translators to misinterpret the double meaning of some of the Syriac words. For example, the Syriac word `Ruho' can mean H. `spirit' and also mean `wind'. In fact, in some of the hymns, Mor Aphrem have used the same word `ruho' to denote H. Spirit in one line, and in the next line to mean `wind' and translators can easily misinterpret the whole hymn by mistake.
But when it comes to the hymns used in the Syriac Orthodox Church during G. Friday, they have a different goal. The goal is to describe the events of crucifixion in its real essence. Syriac Orthodox Church remembers the whole life of Jesus during the H. Qurbono, from His birth until death on cross, resurrection and ascension. So every time a H. Qurbono is offered, we remember the whole life of Jesus Christ (if OT is read, then that include even the pre-Jesus events, including the prophesies about his coming). In addition, Syriac Orthodox Church also remembers Jesus Christ's life throughout the year, with more details for each important events, one at a time. This includes, but not limited to, his Birth (Christmas), baptism, last supper, death (Good Friday), resurrection (Easter) and ascension. This helps to remind us the important incidents in much more details which is otherwise not possible during the short H.Qurbono service offered every day (or every Sunday). Keeping this in mind, if we read the hymns of the G. Friday, we can see that most of the hymns are only the detailed narratives of the events happened during crucifixion, based on Bible, written by our forefathers like Mor Aphrem, More Severius, or Mor Jacob.
Let us take some examples where Jews are mentioned in the hymns:
English (this is not the best translation):
"'Jews' did riot against Lord
Lead creator to the Cross
And crucified Him to-day"
This is based on Biblical events and is not a curse on any one. Although it was the Roman soldiers who actually crucified Jesus, it was some Jews who wanted him to be crucified. There is nothing anti-Jewish in this hymn. If this hymn is anti-Jewish, it is equal to saying Bible is Anti-Jewish, because all these incidents are described in the Bible as well (Mathew 27).
Velli dine doshikaloppam-Pizhayaahkal ninne thookki
Udayavane kroosil kandu-Srishtiganam koorirulaandu
Attahasicchaan tharuvinmel-Sraddhicchu srishtikalellaam
Cheiriyoru veedathilennonam-Dharaniyilengum kettavarum
Mindaapraakruthikal chonnevam-Sapthajanatthinu ha! Kashtam.Deva
"This Friday Evil-doers Crucified Thee with criminals
Seeing creator on Cross - Creations darkened and mourned
When Thou uttered on the Cross Creatures all observed it Lord
All who heard it in the world similar to a smaller house
When they listened to Thy voice On surface of Golgotha
Silent creatures all cried out Curses to those e-vil men. O Lord"
This verse (last line) is probably misinterpreted as curse from us who sings it. But it is not a curse from us or from our church, but a narration of the feelings of those who were witnessing the suffering of Jesus Christ. Those who were witnessing all the suffering Jesus was facing would have naturally said so as they are all ordinary human beings. The hymn addresses those associated with crucifixion as evil doers. Bible talk about one of the apostles, Judah Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus, as prompted by evil (John 13:2) and his fate at the end (Matthew 27:5). So those who were persecuting Jesus were under the influence of evil and thus, there is nothing wrong in addressing them as evil doers. Although crucifixion was for a great purpose, the suffering associated with it was too much for any human to tolerate! Jesus was suffering more than any human could have tolerated and witnessing these events would naturally make any creature on earth to curse those who persecuted him. But of course we don't have to curse those people every year. The truth is that, we don't curse any one. Remembering the events in its real severity in a poetic way do not make us curse anyone. Also, it is important to note that NOT all Jews participated in persecuting Jesus Christ or were cursed by those witnessing. All the apostles, Jesus's mother and first followers were all Jews. A lot of the Syriac Orthodox Christians had a Jewish background as well and thus, cursing all the Jews will not make any sense as our church also was Jewish in origin in part.
Another verse to consider:
"Tree on which Lord was - Hung today cried out
Weeping and wailing - said I am sinner
How pity me I - did harm to my Lord
I did bad to my - Lord who did save me
He gave me Rain and - Snow and Light and food
In return I gave - myself to Hang him up-on
Curse is on you Jews Killers of your Lord
Groom and Lord God of All the creations"
The second last line carries a curse directly on Jews. But a clear look at the entire passage would again make it clear that it is not 'us' who is cursing the Jews, but the 'cross' (the tree) on which Jesus was hung. We have to take this hymn in its poetic sense. The tree (cross) on which Jesus was crucified feel guilty because it is Him who provided water and nutrition to the tree to grow and when it is grown was used to hang the same person who provided all the nutrition to grow! This is a poetic representation of the nature of feeling any one would have felt while witnessing the severe persecution and suffering Jesus was undergoing. Again, we are not cursing any Jews here, but the tree (in imagination) probably would have cursed those who persecuted Jesus (again, not all the Jews).
"Those criminals who - encircle Lords cross now
O heavenly hosts - burn them by sending fire
On those who - hanged our Savior Lord
Carry fire - on your Holy wings
Heavenly ones ! Did you pardon all those evil men"
This is also a description of the feeling of those who were witnessing the sufferings of Jesus Christ. Jesus said (Luke 23:34) "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing". Lord forgave those who persecuted him, but it was too much for the ordinary humans who were watching all the sufferings Jesus was undergoing, to forgive and probably would have said "Did you pardon all those evil men?". This verse in the hymn also has to be taken in its poetic sense and as the imaginations of the poet about the feeling of the witnesses of crucifixion. The point is that this verse is not any means a curse by any of us or who sings, but a feeling depicted in the hymn for those who were first hand witnesses of the cruel happening during the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
So, in brief, if we go through any of the hymns of the Good Friday (under criticism by some), we can see that it is only a narration of the events of crucifixion in detail, depicting also the feelings one would have had while witnessing it directly. These hymns reminds only of the severity of the suffering Jesus underwent for the remission of sins of all of us. By undergoing all these sufferings by Jesus Christ, we received redemption. So, we should not forget the severity of the suffering Jesus had to undergo to redeem us. All the hymns used in the Syriac Orthodox Church are intended to remind us of the severity of the suffering Jesus underwent. None of these hymns are meant to curse any one by any means!
Our prayers also include the hymn:
"Me the sinner who is saved e - ternally by Thy grace
Longing in my heart towards the - burning love to savior Lord.
Greatest all love, greatest all love, greatest all love for us
What did you see good in mankind to suffer for us Lord"
This hymn clearly shows that we are not different from any one else (like the Jews who crucified Jesus) and are all sinners! We praise the goodwill God has towards all the sinners (entire mankind) whether it is Jews, Greeks or Syriacs. So there is nothing special for us to curse anyone particularly in this world as they are all the creation of God.
Jews are the chosen people, for a purpose and one of the main purposes was the coming of the Messiah through them. This has happened already, but it does not mean they should be hated or cursed. We should be thankful to them, since the tribe of Judah produced the most suitable and wonderful woman in the world (St. Mary) for the birth of our redeemer, Jesus Christ (through the seed of Abraham). We should love Jews, as well as all others!
We should pray for Jews to recognize their Messiah soon. There are indications of our hope in Israel with the rapid growth of Messianic Jews, who believe Jesus as Messiah. Also, interesting is to watch the revelation happened to one of their most respected Orthodox Rabbis in Israel. Watch:
Praise to the Yeshua in the highest!
Sinu P. John, PhD
Bethesda, MD, USA
Member ID: 0076