The Most Important Thing We Can Do Is Not Walk Away
I was part of two worlds, and belonged to neither. Everyone comes from somewhere. My connection with Christianity was largely cultural – sang carols at school, there were nativity scenes outside the courthouse of our Baltimore suburb, and our family celebrated Christmas. We had a tree and presents and one year my mother even carved a manger out of soap. She was English, had happy memories of Christmas and wanted me to have those too – minus the church part. “I am an ethical Christian”, she said, meaning she tried to follow the teachings of Jesus but not any organized religion.
My Jewish father participated in our family’s Christmas celebration by serving as the critical observer of the annual tree decorating ritual, enjoying the feast with its Christmas pudding, and of course opening presents Christmas morning. He even sang “O Holy Night” on Christmas Eve – he had a beautiful baritone voice – and followed this by wondering out loud “why am I singing a Christmas carol?”
My connection with Judaism was strong, but almost exclusively an identification with a suffering people. My parents came to America in 1932, when Hitler was already coming into power. The opportunity to immigrate saved their lives.Most of my parents’ friends were refugees, either Jews or gentiles married to Jews. They all had their stories. They had left family, country, the scenes of their youth, and, in some ways, their careers. They all had their stories of loss: the lives they had imagined and built were gone; families, friends, and sometimes even their own children were dead. In most cases they didn’t know how or exactly when or where loved ones had died. In some cases they had watched, helpless.
My family never went to a synagogue, we did not celebrate Jewish holidays and the family even ate pork. We didn’t go to fabulous weddings where bride and groom were lifted up on chairs and all the people danced. As a young child, to be a Jew meant being connected to a people with strange speech and strange, haunted eyes. It meant knowing a “man of sorrows”, a woman grieving dead children. And it meant not walking away. I knew even then that faced with great human pain, the most important thing we can do is not walk away.
This was my beginning. We all come from somewhere; start somewhere – a place, a people, a paradigm – and then our journey moves forward and becomes our own.
Jesus also came from somewhere. He lived during a particular time and place- 1st century place – Palestine. There was Galilee in the north and Judea in the south. Jews were under the domination of the Roman Empire. Most of the population was trapped in poverty. The Temple – the center of Judaism – was run by priests appointed by and serving Rome. The people were very divided amongst themselves – as always happens when people struggle to survive under an oppressive regime.
This was not the world of the Old Testament and certainly not the world of contemporary Judaism. It was the particular world of Jesus and of those who heard and watched him. Knowing about his world matters when we ponder his question:
“Who do you say that I am?”