Catholic Messianic Judaism: Oxymoron, Utopia, or Divine Plan?
The following presentation was given on October 22, 2014 for the Catholic-Messianic Jewish Dialogue group based in Boston, MA.
Thank you for inviting me to share with you as part of your Catholic-Messianic Jewish group. I am very grateful for this dialogue, first because it is close to my heart and a big part of my own personal journey. I grew up Catholic in Canada, but had a personal conversion to Christ in 1995 through an evangelical/Pentecostal church while living in Austria. Unfortunately, that environment was a rather fundamentalist one, and one of the side effects was that I became quite anti-Catholic for the first few years following my conversion. In 1998, I moved to Jerusalem to study Scripture and Judaism at the Israel College of the Bible (a Messianic Jewish college), and I became active with the Messianic Jewish movement. I then worked for the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, which gave me exposure to the Christian Zionist movement. In 2001, I was invited to relocate to Tel Aviv, where I led the worship team in a Messianic Jewish congregation there. At the end of that same year, my study of Scripture and Judaism, along with my experience in the Messianic Jewish movement led me back into the Catholic Church (see my testimony for a longer account of my story).
Following my return to the Church, I became involved with the Hebrew-Catholic community in Israel, which sent me to Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, where I obtained my M.A. in theology and catechetics. My two years in Steubenville were a vibrant experience of evangelical and charismatic Catholicism that have largely shaped who I am today. I returned to Israel in 2005 and began doctoral studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In the seven years that it took to obtain my Ph.D., I was fortunate to make many orthodox Jewish friends and was able to experience Orthodox Judaism from up close, for which I developed a great admiration and love. At the end of my studies in Jerusalem, I was offered a position to teach at the Saint John Vianney Seminary in Denver, Colorado, where I have been since the fall of 2012. It’s a great joy to be able to share my experiences of Israel and Judaism with the seminarians in Denver as they are on the road towards their ordination to the priesthood.
As important as this dialogue may be to myself and to all of us, I think that it is probably also close to the heart of Our Lord, who earnestly prayed before his Passion that all his followers and disciples might be one (Jn 17:21).
I originally intended to name this talk “Messianic Judaism and the Catholic Church: Mutual Challenges and Opportunities,” but after some reflection, I decided to opt for something a little more fun. And so I would like to call it “Catholic Messianic Judaism: Oxymoron, Utopia, or Divine Plan?”
“Catholic Messianic Judaism.” What do I mean by that? Is this expression not a bit of an oxymoron? Are not Messianic Judaism and Catholicism radically different, if not virtually opposed to each other in many ways?
On the one hand, Messianic Jews take pride in expressing their faith in Yeshua in a Jewish way, often insisting that they are “not Christians” but Jews who believe in the Messiah of Israel. For a number of theological, historical and cultural reasons, most Messianic Jews are at best ambivalent towards traditional Christianity.
On the other hand, we have in Catholicism precisely the epitome of “traditional Christianity,” with its crucifixes, statues, liturgy and sacraments, veneration of Mary and the saints, and many other customs and practices that seem (at least at first sight) remote from the spirit of Judaism. How then could we even talk about such a strange animal as "Catholic Messianic Judaism"?
Or perhaps the whole idea is an utopia: We could theoretically imagine some form of loose bond whereby we acknowledge those beliefs we hold in common and generally get along, but with each side still doing their own thing. In other words, some form of “catholic Messianic Judaism” might be conceivable as long as we mean “catholic” with a small “c”, where Messianic Jews are of course members of the universal, spiritual Body of Christ, but formally have little or nothing to do with the Catholic Church as institution.
Or perhaps there might be a divine purpose for a true integration of Messianic Judaism and the Catholic Church? As you have guessed, I would like to argue in favor of this third position.
2. Richard Harvey’s Presentation on Messianic Judaism
Richard Harvey just gave us a fine presentation on the theological significance of the Messianic movement for Jewish-Christian relations. He rightly pointed out that the re-emergence of Messianic Judaism must be examined in light of the history of Christian supersessionism and anti-Judaism, the Shoah, the founding of the State of Israel and the Second Vatican Council.
Richard then proceeded to comment on five major characteristics of the Messianic movement:
- Messianic Judaism as eschatological sign: As Scripture tells us, the Jewish recognition of Yeshua as Messiah of Israel indicates that His return is very close. (cf. Mt 23:38-39; Lk 13:35)
- Messianic Judaism as bridge of communication between the Church and Synagogue: Messianic Jews are a living hope for Messiah’s Body that all Israel will be saved. (cf. Rom 11:26)
- Messianic Judaism as demonstration of God’s faithfulness: the return of the Jewish people to the Promised Land is a sign that God will fulfill his purpose with His people, not only restoring them to the land but also to Himself.
- Judaism in the Messiah: Messianic Jews are a sign to the Church and Israel of what it means to be the “Church of Israel” – which raises the question of the role of the Torah in the Messianic age.
- Messianic Judaism as the “missing link” between the Church and Israel: the movement is needed in order to reveal the “one new man” spoken of by St. Paul (Eph 2:15), in which distinct Jewish and Gentile identities co-exist as one entity.
Richard concluded his talk noting how the existence of the Messianic movement has implications for Christian theology, notably in areas such as Christology, soteriology and ecclesiology. I would like to pick up the conversation right where he ended.
3. Judaism and Catholicism: Common Ground and Accomplishments
The Catholic-Messianic dialogue is closely related and yet distinct from the broader Jewish-Catholic dialogue. For this reason, it would be useful to recall what has been accomplished since the Second Vatican Council in this respect. In the Declaration Nostra Aetate and subsequent documents, the Catholic Church officially:
- acknowledged the Jewish roots of the Christian faith;
- affirmed the Jewish identity of Jesus & the apostles;
- confirmed that God’s covenant, gifts, and calling to the Jewish people are irrevocable, thus rejecting the tradition of supersessionism claiming that the Church has replaced the Jews as people of the covenant;
- rejected the charge of “deicide” and the alleged Jewish responsibility for the death of Christ;
- rejected all forms of anti-Semitism;
- encouraged an attitude of humble repentance for the sins of Christians against Jews throughout history;
- rejected Marcionist tendencies that tend to create a dichotomy between God as He is presented in the Old Testament and in the New Testament;
- affirmed that the Jewish religion is “intrinsic” to our own Christian religion.
4. Challenges and Opportunities for Catholics
In light of these accomplishments, I would like to point out a few challenges and opportunities for Catholics as pertaining to the Catholic-Messianic dialogue. I will then propose some challenges and opportunities for Messianic Jews.
Have the above foundational points been received by most Catholics?
For sure, tremendous progress has been achieved in the field of Jewish-Christian relations in the past fifty years since Nostra Aetate. It is obvious that with the Church’s definitive rejection of supersessionism and the “teaching of contempt,” there has been a significant shift in the attitude of Catholics towards Jews and Judaism. However, we might wonder whether the above points have been received and internalized in the hearts and minds of Catholics beyond an elementary or superficial level. For example, while most Catholics acknowledge the obvious fact that Jesus was a Jew and that Christianity owes its existence to God’s revelation to the Jewish people in the Old Testament, how do they understand, in a practical sense, the fact that God’s covenant with the Jewish people is irrevocable? I suspect that many Catholics may give lip service to Nostra Aetate while still (consciously or subconsciously) holding on to many of the tenets of a “replacement theology” mentality.
I would like to focus on what I believe to be two major points of contention that are still influenced by the supersessionist mentality: the Torah and the Land of Israel.
a) The Torah
Jesus’ statement that he has not come to abolish the Law or the prophets but to fulfill them (Mt 5:17) is well known. In my experience at the seminary, most of my students are familiar with this saying. And yet when I press them to explain what it really means, it often turns out that their understanding of “fulfilled” is almost indistinguishable from “abolished.” I believe this response is typical of many Catholics who might acknowledge that Jesus did not abolish the Torah but “fulfilled” it in the sense that its precepts and promises are in fact no longer binding on anyone, including Jews. And so, they would say, there is no longer any need for baptized Jews to keep the Sabbath, celebrate the Passover, or eat kosher food. Since all of these have been "fulfilled" in Christ, this means that Jewish believers are now to attend Mass on Sundays, celebrate Christmas and Easter, and should have no qualms about eating a bacon cheeseburger for lunch.
While it is true that the institution of the New Covenant brought about a significant change in the role of the Torah, there is a problem with this understanding of “fulfilled” as “quasi-abolished.” I believe the problem resides in a lack of distinction between Jewish and Gentile Christians. As Richard Harvey noted in his presentation, the “one new man” in Christ does not exclude the possibility of distinct roles for Jewish and Gentile believers in the Church.
This distinction finds its justification in the New Testament. On the one hand, the apostles decreed at the Council of Jerusalem that Gentiles need not be Judaized (i.e. circumcised and obliged to keep the Torah) in order to become Christians (Act 15:1-31). But the opposite is also true. The whole discussion in Acts 15, in fact, presupposes that Jewish Christians are still observing the Torah. Why would the elders discuss whether Gentiles are bound to keep the Law if the Jewish-Christians had already discarded it for themselves? Without presupposing the continued observance of the Torah for Jewish-Christians in the Acts of the Apostles, the whole discussion in chapter 15 would be meaningless.
Moreover, consider Paul’s return to Jerusalem at the conclusion of his third missionary journey (Acts 21). After telling James and the elders about God’s mighty work among the Gentiles, they respond by enthusiastically telling Paul about the growth of the Jewish Church in Jerusalem:
You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed; they are all zealous for the law… (Acts 21:20)
In other words, the Jewish believers in Jerusalem are excited about the fact that many Jews have come to faith in Yeshua, and yet far from casting off the observance of the commandments, these new believers are in fact zealous for the Torah. James and the elders then seem to anticipate a misunderstanding of Paul that has lasted throughout much of Church history and is still held by most Christians in our own day:
and they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or observe the customs. (Acts 21:21)
Does this sound familiar? Paul is being accused of leading Jews away from the Torah, from the covenant of circumcision and the observance of the commandments. In other words, it is alleged that Paul is saying to the Jewish believers: “now that you’ve come to the Messiah and the New Covenant, there is no need for you to continue to observe these old ordinances, commandments and customs. You’ve been freed from all that.”
What is the response of James and the elders? They tell Paul to join himself to men who are under a vow so that “all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you but that you yourself live in observance of the law” (Acts 21:24). Paul obliges, and the next day he carries out the rite of purification to prove that the rumors about him are false, and that he is, in fact, still living in accordance with the Torah and mitzvot.
In the same vein, St. Paul’s epistles (especially Galatians and Romans) are often misunderstood. A key for understanding these texts is to keep in mind that they were written to Gentile Christians, not to Jewish believers. If one neglects this crucial point, a superficial reading of passages such as Galatians 2 (esp. Gal 2:16-21) may give the impression that Paul is doing away with the Torah altogether. A close reading of the passage in context, however, reveals Paul’s main point: the Torah is not salvific for either Jews or Gentiles. Gentiles shouldn’t seek to be circumcised (cf. Gal 2:3), since the covenant of circumcision was never given to them in the first place. Jewish Christians can still be circumcised (as in the case of Timothy, cf. Acts 16:3), but it should be clear that they are not saved by circumcision and the observance of the commandments but by their faith in Yeshua the Messiah. Jewish-Christian observance of the mitzvot is thus a response in love to God's gratuitous salvation, as well as a continued demonstration of faithfulness to God's ongoing covenant with Israel.
What is the practical application of these principles for our own day? Catholics should accept and embrace Torah observant Jewish believers who wish to continue to observe the commandments of the Torah and Jewish customs. There is nothing at odds with the Catholic faith in observing the Sabbath, keeping the kosher laws, celebrating the Jewish feasts or praying Jewish prayers. On the contrary, Gentile Catholics have much to learn from rediscovering these biblical practices. Even if Gentiles are under no obligation to observe them, they still shed much light on our own Christian and Catholic faith. I experience this in class every day as I teach my students Hebrew songs and prayers, and introduce them to the Jewish feasts such as celebrating Rosh Hashanah with apples and honey and organizing a full-fledged Passover Seder.
b) Israel and Zionism
The Christian hope is in the “new Jerusalem” and “heavenly Promised Land.” We know that the Kingdom of God is not a kingdom of this world (Jn 18:36), and our true citizenship is in heaven (Phil 3:20). But does our heavenly destination imply that God’s promise of the Land of Israel to the Jewish people is now “fulfilled” – in the sense of “abolished”? Has the narrow strip of land between the Mediterranean and Jordan River lost all its importance since the coming of Christ for the unfolding of salvation history?
We know that the gift of the Land of Israel to the people of Israel is one of the most repeated promises in the Old Testament (cf. for example Amos 9:14-15; Isa 11:10-12; Zeph 3:16; Jer 16:14-16; Ezek 11:16-20; 36:24-28 and “Biblical Revelation and the Land of Israel”). This promised was never revoked in the New Testament. On the contrary, passages such as Luke 21:24 (“Jerusalem will be trampled by the gentiles, until the time of the gentiles is fulfilled”) seem to imply that that the time of Gentile domination over Jerusalem will one day come to an end, and Jerusalem will return into Jewish hands.
The Church has been very cautious in endorsing Zionism, partly because of the extremely precarious situation of the Christians in the Middle East living among a hostile Muslim majority. At the same time, not a few influential voices have affirmed their support for the Jewish State as the fulfillment of biblical prophecy, including Pope John Paul II, Christoph Cardinal Schoenborn and Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa.
Of course, the modern secular State of Israel should not be viewed as a kind of Messianic manifestation of the kingdom of God. But can we really view the return of the Jewish people to the land God promised to their forefathers as a mere “accident of history”? If Catholics really accept the Church’s beliefs that God’s covenant, gifts and promises to the Jewish people are irrevocable, should we not also see God’s hand in the return and presence of the Jews in the Land of Israel today? This is my second challenge to the supersessionist mentality: Catholics should support Israel not just out of political expediency, but (especially) because the return of the Jews to the Promised Land is a sign of God’s faithfulness to His people and the fulfillment of the ancient promises He made to their forefathers.
5. Challenges and Opportunities for Messianic Jews
In my experience with situations of dialogue between Messianic Jews and Christians, I have noticed that there sometimes seems to be an unspoken assumption that one side, especially (the Christian one), is expected to change. On the one hand, this is perfectly reasonable. The Messianic movement is young and still relatively fragile. The traditional Christian confessions bear the burden of a long tradition of supersessionism and Christian anti-Semitism that needs to be set right, and so it is fair that Christians bear the greater burden of responsibility in expressing repentance and working towards reconciliation with their Jewish brothers and sisters in the Messiah.
On the other hand, when conversing with Messianic believers I have often come across attitudes that conveyed something like: “these Catholics aren’t as bad as I thought!” or “some Catholics may even be saved,” or “praise the Lord, some Catholics are finally repenting and admitting that they were wrong about replacement theology and that God’s covenant with Israel is still valid…”
These attitudes reflect what I like to call “secondary replacement theology.” Just as Catholics and other traditional Christians perpetuated supersessionism by claiming that “God has rejected the Jewish people, and now WE are the chosen people of God,” I'm afraid that there are at times traces of a similar attitude among some Messianic believers, who would claim that “Catholics distorted the biblical message and got it wrong with all their man-made doctrines; now WE are the ones who are returning to the true, biblical expression of faith in Yeshua.”
And so there is the risk of a new form of “replacement theology” where Messianic believers see themselves as the new “true believers” who “got the faith right,” in contrast to the errors and deviancies of traditional Christianity. This kind of spiritual elitism must of course be rejected from all sides. The friendly challenge and humble self-examination must be mutual in the dialogue between Catholics and Messianic Jews.
The Protestant Foundations of Messianic Judaism
As Richard has mentioned, the Messianic Jewish movement is in a challenging position, acting as bridge between the Synagogue and the Church, often at risk of being misunderstood and not fully accepted (if not rejected outright) on either side. In spite of this challenge, Messianic Judaism has the potential of being the “best of both worlds,” living out, integrating and reconciliating the riches of both Judaism and Christianity. However, the Messianic movement is also at risk of adopting an arbitrary “pick and choose” approach to doctrine, resulting in a combination of “Judaism lite” and “Christianity lite.” I have noticed this phenomenon in some congregations in Israel, where Messianic believers tend to express their identity as one based on a personal relationship with Yeshua, in contrast (and sometimes in opposition) to “religion.” This expression of faith is often accompanied by an explicit rejection of the traditions and customs of both Orthodox Judaism and Catholic Christianity.
And yet while Messianic Jews try to define their identity as believers in Yeshua in a distinctly Jewish way by intentionally dissociating themselves with traditional Christianity, the irony is that most of the theological pillars of their faith are in fact strongly influenced by evangelical Protestantism.
Personally, going back to my days as an evangelical believer involved in the Messianic movement, I could not help but notice these Protestant foundations, and I started to increasingly question them. In addition, I began to feel a certain lack in the Messianic congregations I attended. The more I studied not only the New Testament and the Early Church but also the Tanakh and Jewish tradition, the more I became convinced that this “lack of something” was in fact a “real absence” that could only be remediated by a return to Church of the apostles and a (re)discovery of the Real Presence of the Lord in the Eucharist. I would like to briefly address five of the major points that guided me on this journey.
a) Ecclesiology and Authority: The Bible and the Church
At the foundation of our faith lie the questions “what must we believe?” and “what is our basis for believing it?” In other words, by what authority do we believe what we believe, and what degree of certainty do we have about it? After a few years of being involved with the Messianic movement, I became increasingly concerned with a sort of “doctrinal chaos” that reigned in the congregations I attended. It seemed like there were so many differences between congregations, pastors and believers in their understanding of the Scriptures that it was difficult to find any certainty at all in what to believe. Granted, some of the debated questions among Messianic Jews are inevitable and quite legitimate. I think first and foremost of those issues that I have mentioned above, such as the role of the Torah for Jewish believers, and the theological importance of the Land of Israel. Messianic Jews rightly raise these questions and challenge the traditional Christian (supersessionist) views in this regard.
On the other hand, we may want to ask ourselves whether some of the questions debated in Messianic congregations are not but a constant reinventing of the wheel and rehashing of old issues that the Church has settled long ago. One thinks for example of Trinitarian, Christological and soteriological questions, the nature of Baptism, the Eucharist and other sacraments, major moral questions, etc…
Even when allowing for the non-dogmatic nature of Judaism and the fact of “two Jews, three opinions,” one can’t help but wonder: can it really be the Lord’s will that there is so little unity among believers regarding many of the central tenets of our faith? This lack of unity over matters of faith derives of course from a couple of central Protestant presuppositions adopted by most Jewish believers: the first is Sola Scriptura, the belief that the Bible alone is sufficient for us to know everything that we need to know in order to live our life as believers. The second is a Protestant ecclesiology by which the Church is understood as an invisible body of all “true believers,” devoid of any real structure, hierarchy or central authority able to authoritatively make reliable decisions pertaining to our faith.
The problem with these Protestant presuppositions is that both are unbiblical and quite foreign to Judaism! The doctrine of Sola Scriptura is not found anywhere in the Bible: The Scriptures never claim that they are to be the sole rule of authority that believers should follow, independently of any legitimate religious authority or oral tradition. We know about the importance of the Oral Torah and of rabbinical tradition in Judaism. Yes, Jesus warned against the “tradition of men” opposed to God’s commandments, but he also endorsed the authority of the scribes and Pharisees that “sit on Moses’ seat” (Mt 23:2-3). St. Paul also acknowledged the importance of oral tradition, exhorting his readers to “stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Thess 2:15; cf. 1 Cor 11:2). Even in the Tanakh, we never see Divine Revelation exclusively confined to the pages of a sacred book but always as a living word, conveyed through the threefold office of priest, prophet and king.
I know that the claim that Yeshua established the Catholic hierarchy and the office of the papacy is difficult to accept for most Messianic Jews, but what if it were true? What if the Lord really set up the Petrine primacy in giving Peter the keys of the kingdom of heaven (Mt 16:18-19; cf. Lk 22:31-32; Jn 21:15-17) and the power to bind and to loose on earth to him and the apostles (Mt 18:18)? What if this divinely established authority was really passed on to the successors of the apostles (cf. the appointment of Matthias to replace Judas, Acts 1:15-26) by the laying on of hands (1 Tim 4:14) so that they were able to entrust what they heard from the apostles to the bishops and presbyters who succeeded them, “faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim 2:2; cf. Tit 1:5)?
What if it really was the Lord’s will to endow the Church with the gift of infallibility so that, thanks to the Church’s Magisterium (the pope in communion with the bishops), we might have certainty and confidence as to what God has revealed, what we are to believe, and how we are to live (i.e. in essential matters of faith and morals)?
We know that the early believers had no trouble in believing that the Lord established a hierarchical Church. Already in the early second century, St. Ignatius of Antioch repeatedly wrote about the importance of submitting to the threefold order of bishop, priest, and deacon in order to remain in communion with the Church. St. Irenaeus of Lyons emphasized the importance of apostolic succession going back to Peter and Paul in order to distinguish the true Church from heretical groups. And the early Church historian Eusebius records a succession of fifteen Jewish bishops of Jerusalem tracing their line back to the apostle James.
Yeshua promised his apostles that the Spirit of truth would guide them into all the truth (Jn 16:13). If it is true, as claimed by many Messianic and Evangelical believers, that the Church soon went astray and became ‘paganized’ by embracing a plethora of non-Jewish and non-biblical Catholic beliefs, do we not imply that Yeshua failed in preserving the deposit of faith that he passed on to his disciples for the benefit of the universal Church?
What if, on the contrary, the Petrine primacy, the Magisterium of the Church, apostolic succession and Holy Orders are a blessing, a gift and a key to unity for all believers, Jews and Gentiles? In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, we have a tremendous gift that gives us certainty as to what we should believe and how we are to live, preserving faithfully the deposit of faith that Jesus passed on to the apostles as it organically developed in the Church’s Sacred Tradition, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Why should Messianic Jews not also benefit from this gift and blessing?
Another Protestant pillar commonly adopted by Messianic Jews is the concept of salvation by faith alone, or sola fide. Although there is no universal consensus on this point, I have found that many Messianic believers accept the idea proposed by Luther that man is saved by faith alone, independently of his works. A derivative of this belief is the doctrine of “once saved, always saved.”
On the one hand, these positions are partially in reaction to a misunderstanding of Catholic soteriology: contrary to popular belief, the Catholic Church does not hold that we can “work our way to heaven.” The Catechism affirms that we are justified by grace through faith: “justification has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ who offered himself on the cross as a living victim, holy and pleasing to God” (CCC 1992).
And yet we see in both the Tanach and the New Testament that man must cooperate with God’s offer of salvation and respond to it in order to remain within the covenant. The idea of justification by faith alone is of course quite foreign to Judaism, whose strong emphasis on halakhah affirms the importance of observing the commandments as an essential response to God’s covenant and grace. Likewise, the Church affirms that “justification establishes cooperation between God's grace and man's freedom” (CCC 1993).
Contrary to popular evangelical views (often adopted by Messianic believers), justification in the Bible is not something that is received at a single point in time (as expressed in statements such as “I was saved on such and such a date…”) but a life-long process based on an ongoing covenantal relationship with God. We see this in St. Paul’s writings, who sees the salvation of believers as a past event (“we were saved…”, Rom 8:24; Eph 2:5-8), as a present process, conditional upon our faithfulness (“you are being saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you,” 1 Cor 15:2; cf. 2 Cor 2:15), and also as a future event (“We have hope that we shall be saved,” Rom 5:9-10, cf. Rom 13:11, 1 Cor 3:12-15).
Can it really be God’s will that there is so much disagreement and confusion on a question as vital as that of salvation and justification? Here too, if it is true that the Holy Spirit has guided the Catholic Church in her teachings, we can have a blessed confidence as to what to believe, thanks to the teachings of the Catechism on grace and justification.
Another major question in this regard is the possibility of salvation for non-believing Jews or for those who sincerely seek God but do not know Christ. Can they be saved? When left to our private judgment and interpretation of the Scriptures, opinions and confusion abound, from the fundamentalist view that would condemn all non-believers to hell, to the relativistic view claiming that people of all religions can get to heaven just by being “good people.” Here too, there is no need to reinvent the wheel or bicker about issues that have been resolved long ago. While the Catechism affirms the necessity of Christ and the Church as the way to salvation, it acknowledges that God’s mercy can well reach those who through no fault of their own do not know Christ and the Church (CCC 846-848).
c) Liturgy and the Sacraments
By virtue of the sacrament of Holy Orders and apostolic succession, Yeshua has given us the Seven Sacraments as channels of His abundant life and love. Without getting into an apologetics treatise on the liturgy and sacraments, I would like to mention the two sacraments that Catholics receive regularly and which have had a huge impact on my life.
How can I adequately express the power and grace that the Lord extends to us in the sacrament of reconciliation (or confession)? What a difference this sacrament has made in my life since my return to the Church. Even though I trusted that God forgave my sins when I confessed directly to Him in my years as an evangelical Christian, I always felt that something tangible was missing in my solitary confessions to heaven. We know that in Biblical Judaism, the people of God received the forgiveness of their sins through the sacrificial liturgy in the Temple and the mediation of the Aaronic priests. Certainly, the Messiah came as ultimate and final sacrifice to expiate our sins and grant us His forgiveness. But how does He communicate this reconciliation to us? Did He not impart the power to forgive sins to the apostles at the end of the Gospel of John when he said to them: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (Joh 20:22-23)? It is hard for anyone who has experienced the grace and mercy of the Lord in the sacrament of reconciliation not to wish that every believer, and especially Jewish believers, could also receive this full blessing of reconciliation and sanctifying grace in the sacrament.
This desire is even greater when I think of Holy Mass and the Sacrament of the Eucharist. When I returned to the Church, I marveled at discovering the Biblical and Jewish roots of the Mass. Even more so, I marveled at experiencing the graces of the Lord’s Real Presence in the Blessed Eucharist. I once read somewhere that the life of the believer without the Eucharist is a bit like going to a very nice restaurant and looking at the menu all evening without ever ordering any food. As much as I love and cherish Scripture, what a loss it is to study the Word daily while never having the opportunity to come the Lord’s Eucharistic table. Though the Lord is undeniably spiritually present in all God-fearing congregations that try to live according to His Word, it is tragic that His Eucharistic Real Presence cannot be found in many of them because of their lack of apostolic succession and valid Holy Orders.
Did the Lord not say to his disciples “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (Jn 6:51-53)? We know that many were scandalized by these words and could not accept them, so that they left Jesus (Jn 6:66). And yet Yeshua’s words were in perfect continuity with the biblical tradition stipulating that the Passover lamb had to be eaten in order for the firstborn Israelites to be saved from the angel of death in Egypt (Ex 12:8). They were also in continuity with the tradition that the flesh of peace offerings in the Temple had to be eaten as a sign of the people’s communion with God (Ex 24:11; Lev 7:11).
At Yeshua’s Last Passover, He said to His disciples: “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me” (Luk 22:19). The earliest Christian writings attest to the belief in the Lord’s Real Presence in the Eucharist, thanks to the power of Holy Orders. How can we not long that Messianic Jews enter into full communion with the Church so that they too may share in the Lord’s Banquet and experience the wonders of His Eucharistic Presence and love?
d) Sabbath and Sunday
“God entrusted the Sabbath to Israel to keep as a sign of the irrevocable covenant” (CCC 2171).
The commandment to remember and keep the Shabbat commemorates both God’s work of creation and His redemption of Israel out of Egyptian slavery (Ex 20:8-11; Deut 5:12-15; CCC 2169-70). As we know, Yeshua was raised on the first day of the week (Mt 28:1; Mk 16:2; Lk 24:1; Jn 20:1). Because of this, the first believers soon met for prayer on Sunday to commemorate the “new creation ushered in by Christ’s resurrection” (Acts 20:7; CCC 2174). And so Sunday became for Christians “the first of all days, the first of all feasts, the Lord’s Day” (CCC 2174) and the “fulfillment of the Sabbath” (CCC 2175). However, as I have discussed above, “fulfillment” does not mean “abrogation.” For the early Jewish-Christians, the idea that Jesus jettisoned the Sabbath, the very sign of God’s covenant with Israel, would have been unthinkable.
And yet, even with the pre-eminence of the seventh day in the Tanakh, there are signs that the eighth day bears special significance for Israel. Since the time of Abraham, Jews are circumcised and enter into the covenant with God on the eighth day (Gen 17:12). The Aaronic priests began their ministry in the sanctuary on the eighth day, following seven days of preparation and consecration (Lev 9). And the Feast of Tabernacles, so full of eschatological significance, concludes its week-long celebration on the eighth day with the great feast of Shemini Atzeret.
An article entitled “The Eighth Dimension” on the Orthodox Jewish site Chabad notes the supra-natural and supra-historical dimension of the eighth day:
If the number seven defines the natural reality, eight represents that which is higher than nature, the circumference that encompasses the circle of creation.
Seven includes both matter and spirit, both mundanity and holiness, both involvement and transcendence, but as separate and distinct components of the cycle of creation; the seventh dimension will exert its influence on the other six, but only in a transcendent way—as a spiritual, otherworldly reality that will never be truly internalized and integrated within the system. In contrast, eight represents the introduction of a reality that is beyond all nature and definition, including the definition “transcendence.” This eighth dimension (if we can call it a “dimension”) has no limitations at all: it transcends and pervades, beyond nature yet also fully present within it, equally beyond matter and spirit and equally within them.
Chabad even acknowledges that:
the messianic seventh millennium of history will be followed by the supra-historical “world to come” (olam ha-ba), in which the divine reality will unite with the created reality in ways that we cannot even speculate upon in a world where finite and infinite are mutually exclusive.
Tragically, the chasm between the Synagogue and the Church became typified in history by the theological divide between Sabbath and Sunday. With the spread of replacement theology, Christians began to speak of Sunday as having “replaced” and “superseded” the Sabbath. Today, most Messianic Jews rightly worship on the Sabbath, in continuity and faithfulness to the covenant that God made with their ancestors. More than once, however, I have heard Messianic believers speak disparagingly against the Christian tradition of worshiping on Sunday (or against Christian holy days altogether), not infrequently with a note of scorn or contempt.
I suggest that it is time to heal the Sabbath-Sunday rift. They are not mutually exclusive: Jewish and Gentile believers can both enjoy the benefits of a two-day weekend! While Jews continue to faithfully recall the first creation, their covenant with God, and their redemption from Egypt in the commemoration of the Sabbath, all believers (including Jews) are invited to enter into the supra-natural “eighth day” and new creation ushered in by the resurrection that transcends the reality of this world.
e) Our Jewish Mother
With their theological influences stemming primarily from Judaism and Evangelical Protestantism, Messianic believers are generally reluctant to give too much attention to Mary, being suspicious of the exalted role that Catholics grant her. This is unfortunate because Miriam is in a position that makes her particularly close to Messianic Jews. Who could better understand their delicate role as bridge between the Synagogue and the Church than Miriam, the Daughter of Zion, Mother of the Messiah, and Mother of the Church? In her we have the archetypical icon of the bridge between Judaism and Christianity.
It should be obvious to anyone who inquires even superficially about the Catholic view of Mary that the Church does not divinize her or put her on par with Christ: “What the Catholic faith believes about Mary is based on what it believes about Christ, and what it teaches about Mary illumines in turn its faith in Christ” (CCC 487). While Messianic Jews are understandably uncomfortable with the title of “Mother of God” (more precisely: theotokos, or “God-bearer”) that has been granted to Mary as early as the second century, it should be understood that this title is an affirmation of the divinity of Christ and not of any divine attributes possessed by Mary herself.
Was it not fitting that God prepared in a special way the woman who was to become the mother of the Messiah? As Daughter of Zion, Miriam brings to fulfillment the role of the great heroines and matriarchs of the Tanakh (CCC 489). Early on, several of the early Church Fathers saw Mary as the New Eve (cf. Wedding at Cana, Garden in Eden). This identification is already present in the Book of Revelation, where we encounter Satan, identified with the ancient serpent of Eden, at war against the mother of the Messiah (who is also daughter of Israel, crowned with twelve stars) and the “rest of her offspring” who “bear testimony to Jesus” (Rev 12; cf. Gen 3:15).
This exalted Mother of the Messiah and mother of his disciples is also associated with the Ark of the Covenant, both in Revelation (cf. Rev 11:19) and in St. Luke’s account of the Visitation, which closely echoes the account of David bringing the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem (cf. 2 Sam 6:9-15).
Finally, Miriam’s role as Queen Mother also parallels the role of the Queen Mother in ancient Israel. It was not the king’s wife (which one of the many?) who reigned alongside the king in ancient Israel, but rather his mother. We see in the case of Bath Sheba who sat on a throne at the right hand of her son, King Solomon, and interceded on behalf of another to him (cf. 1 Ki 2:13-20).
Why would Messianic Jews not love Yeshua’s mother as their own, she who is the New Eve, the Ark of the New Covenant, and the Queen Mother reigning alonside her divine Son? Is she not also in continuity with all the beautiful female personifications that we find in traditional Judaism, such as Rachel going in exile with her children, the Sabbath as bride and queen, and the divine Shekhinah who dwells with her people and watches over them?
6. A Vision for “Catholic Messianic Judaism”
As you can tell by now, I believe that “Catholic Messianic Judaism” is neither an oxymoron nor a utopian dream, but a reality that is integral to God’s plan of salvation for the world (we can already see the first fruits of this reality in the Hebrew Catholic movement). I hope to have laid a few foundations that will help us to walk towards that goal. On the one hand, Catholics must resolutely reject all traces of anti-Semitism and replacement theology from their midst. These things constitute nothing less than a betrayal of authentic Catholicism. My prayer is that Catholics would embrace Messianic Jews as their brothers and sisters in Messiah and fully accept them in their Jewish identity, including their love for the Torah, for their Jewish customs and traditions, and their biblical and prophetic attachment to the land of Israel. At the same time, I pray that Messianic Jews would have the courage to overcome sectarian tendencies and to earnestly grapple with the problems of the lack of authority and doctrinal chaos in their ranks. May they come to see that the Catholic Church is their home too, in which they are always welcome. May they know that they have every advantage in finding doctrinal solidity and certainty on the rock of Peter, and in sharing in the fullness of the means of salvation that the Lord has given us in the seven sacraments, especially in the gift of His Body and Blood in the Holy Eucharist.
May we come together to the fullness of that unity in the “one new man” where Messianic Jewish Catholics continue to testify to the faithfulness of the God of Israel in the covenant of circumcision and their commemoration of the Sabbath, and where both Jewish and Gentile Catholics can celebrate together the breaking forth of the new creation accomplished in the Lord’s resurrection on the eighth day.
May the New Eve, the Ark of the New Covenant and our Jewish Mother and Queen pray for us as we long together to see a Messianic Jewish movement that will be able to fully express its Jewish identity in the Messiah of Israel and in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church!