Directory for Catechesis: New Document of the Holy See

A copy of Titian’s “The Descent of the Holy Ghost” appears on the cover of the updated “Directory for Catechesis.” Titian / Public domain

The rapid changes brought about in the international response to the Covid-19 pandemic have been overwhelming to many. However, leaders have stepped forward to assist people in adapting in the face of grave exigencies. Our increasing dependence on the internet has accelerated, but already the challenge was recognized in many religious communities. A recent publication of the Holy See (“The Vatican”) provides insights into the Church’s effort to respond to the difficulties and opportunities that the Church sees on the road ahead.

The Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization has issued the third Directory for Catechesis since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). The preface notes that a span of 26 and 23 years separates these documents, the second building on the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the third on the Synod on the New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith, followed by the Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, of Pope Francis (2013). The new developments that challenge the Church are “the phenomenon of digital culture and the globalization of culture” (p. 4, italics in the original).

The Directory refers to the kerygma, which in ancient times was a herald’s brief proclamation of important news. For Christians, the kerygma is the brief proclamation of the Death-and-Resurrection of Jesus (Romans 4:25; 1 Corinthians 15:3-4)  in its salutary  impact on the world, as accepted by the faith-filled community. “All Christian formation consists of entering more deeply into the Kerygma, which is reflected in and constantly illumines, the work of catechesis…” (Evangelii  Gaudium 164-165).

Many points in this Directory of 278 pages should be pondered by Catholic teachers of our faith. I draw attention to Chapter X, “Catechesis in the Face of Contemporary Cultural Scenarios.”  Here one finds reference to the context of inner-Christian ecumenism and catechesis in relation to Judaism. The two sections on Catholic-Jewish relations are rooted in the Second Vatican Council Declaration on the Church’s Relation to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra aetate) and documents from the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews:

Thanks to her Jewish roots the Church is anchored in salvation history. To understand better some aspects of her own life, the Church brings back to light the spiritual riches preserved in Judaism. The goals of dialogue will also include a firm stance against all forms of anti-Semitism and the shared commitment to peace, justice, and development among peoples (347).

Catechists on every level must teach that Jesus was a Jew at home in the Jewish tradition and “was decisively shaped by this religious milieu.” They must emphasize the unity of the two Testaments and that “the New Covenant does not replace God’s Covenant with Israel” (348).

The next section, “Catechesis and Digital Culture,” presents the positive and negative aspects of a new culture, “changing language, shaping mentalities and restructuring value hierarchies” (359). This technology can extend and enrich human cognitive capacities, but this environment may promote loneliness, manipulation, exploitation and violence. “These closed circuits facilitate the spread of fake news and false information, fomenting prejudice and hate” (361).

The challenge in this new context is to move “from religious information to accompaniment and to the experience of God…Catechesis is called to find adequate means for addressing the big questions on the meaning of life, corporeality, affectivity, gender identity, justice and peace…” (371). The goal of religious instruction is to foster a transition “from the individualistic and isolated world of social media to the ecclesial community, the place where the experience of God creates communion and sharing of life” (372).

Building on the Catechism of the Catholic Church and recent magisterial documents, catechesis must deal with questions of bioethics (373-378), the integrity of the person (379-380), environmental engagement (381-383), options for the poor (385-388), social engagement (389-391) and the work environment (392-393).

Within the Christian and Jewish communities many teachers are grappling with the various challenges integral to the communication of faith to the younger generation, as well as “lifelong learning,” so emphasized in the Jewish tradition. There may be ways of building upon the responses being made to the rapid moving and global outreach of the technology that shapes our societies in so many ways. Are there approaches that can be shared?

Music of Those Persecuted by the Nazis

The prisoners’ orchestra in Buchenwald concentration camp. Photo: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Gedenkstaette Buchenwald

Music is an art that can transcend the limitations of language, bringing people together and allowing us of a later time to share something of an insight into their experience.  The study of music during the Nazi period, and especially in the concentration camps, is a special discipline that gives inspiring evidence of spiritual resistance to the brutality of the Nazis and their collaborators.

The New York Times offers a report by Milton Esterow, “Music From the Death Camps: Alive and Being Readied for a New Home.” The text focuses on the plan of Mr. Francisco Lotoro of Barletta in southeast Italy to build a museum, library and theatre dedicated to the study of music by “Jews… political and other religious prisoners in many countries and music created by musicians ‘of any national, social or religious background’.”

An organization called the Exil.Arte Centre at Vienna’s University of Music and Performing Arts was founded in 2017 to recover and study music banned by the Nazis as “degenerate.” It arranges performances, prepares recordings and publishes books.

In addition to Mr. Esterow’s survey of other centers focusing on music that survived that tragic period, I wish to draw attention to the extensive work of Tamara Reps Freeman, D.M.A. (Rutgers University), who is an Adjunct Professor of Holocaust Music at St. Elizabeth College in Morristown-Convent Station and Montclair State University.  Visit her website at

Lastly I would like to make reference to the global education network, ORT. This organization also maintains a website dedicated to the role of music in the Holocaust: The website features:

  • articles that describe the wide range of musical activities that took place in camps and ghettos across Nazi-occupied Europe
  • sound recordings of music and songs written and sung by victims
  • full-length compositions written primarily in Theresienstadt
  • a “Resources and References” page,which offers materials that have been created specifically for secondary school teachers as well as for those educators who are interested in including music in their Holocaust commemoration events”

Pope Pius XII and Vatican Archives

Pope Pius XII, 1939, Fratelli Alinari, Florence. Unknown photographer. / Public domain

On March 2, 2020 the Vatican Archives for the reign of Pope Pius XII (1939-1958) were opened for access by qualified researchers. The usual period of time before the documents relating to a papal reign are accessible has been 75 years. Pope Francis has hastened the opening in this case in response to the keen interest shown in several quarters. It might be noted that scholars, Fathers Robert Graham and Pierre Blet and others, had made twelve volumes of materials from the World War II era available, except for documents referring to persons who were still alive in 1965 (Actes et documents du Saint Siège relatifs à la Seconde Guerre Mondiale). Now that 62 years have passed since the death of Pope Pius, it is unlikely that anyone mentioned in the archival holdings is still alive. Scholars can scrutinize these documents in order to develop a clearer insight into the issues that interest them.

Among the reports relating to this occasion, that of Ms. Lisa Palmieri Billig of the American Jewish Committee offers a detailed review: “Opening of Pius XII Archives: To speak or not to speak: that was the Question.” Steve Lipman’s report in the Jewish Week of March 3, 2020 quotes Jewish leaders in interfaith dialogue.

As we examine our conscience in preparing to worship, we acknowledge failure in thoughts, words, deeds and omissions. To what extent will Pope Pius XII’s reasons for failing to speak bluntly be evident from the archives? A serious reason for Pope Pius XII’s circumspection during the War years has been presented by Mark Riebling in Church of Spies: The Pope’s Secret War against Hitler (New York: Basic Books, 2015).  In his review for Holocaust and Genocide Studies (2016) p. 558-60, Father Kevin Spicer of Stonehill College, who has worked extensively on the German Church and clergy during the Nazi period, comments: “[Mr. Riebling] does offer evidence of contact between the Holy See and German resistance, but fails to substantiate any direct linkages… Only the opening of the papers of Pius XII’s pontificate, together perhaps with research in other repositories, will enable us to evaluate fairly the Pope’s legacy in the face of the Holocaust.”  This investigation is now possible, so we wish researchers well in their work!

The death of Mr. Rolf Hochhuth in Berlin on May 13, 2020, was the occasion for a lengthy obituary in The New York Times. As older readers may recall, the play Der Stellvertreter (The Deputy) dramatized the accusation that Pope Pius XII was silent regarding the persecution and genocide perpetuated against European Jewry. As a young German who struggled with the question of responsibility for such a horrendous destruction of life, Hochhuth strove to make the Pope responsible. He is quoted as writing: “Perhaps never before in history have so many people paid with their lives for the passivity of one single politician.” Thus, questions about the ascent of Adolf Hitler to the highest office in German political life and German acquiescence to the atrocities of his dictatorship were avoided. “For the Germans (the performance) was catharsis,” according to Louise Kerz Hirschfeld, quoted in the obituary. For some people, theatre and film productions have become an ersatz religion, seeming to provide a way to deal with issues of conscience. Did a question enter the minds of those “purified” by seeing The Deputy: “Would people like me listen to the Pope if he had spoken in crystal clear terms? Would we be moved into defiance of Nazi power? How would we have dealt with the inevitable reprisal?”

Among the statements by the national Catholic hierarchies of Hungary, Germany, Poland, Holland, France, Switzerland, Italy and the United States, published in the booklet Catholics Remember the Holocaust (Washington: U.S. Catholic Conference, 1998), I draw attention to that of the German bishops. They acknowledge: “We looked too fixedly at the threat to our own institutions and remained silent about the crimes committed against the Jews and Judaism” (p. 11). Recently, on the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, the German bishops have examined the record of their predecessors during the Nazi era: see The Tablet of May 11, 2020. The German Bishops’ 25 page document, which you may access here, will be examined carefully by people of many backgrounds. Relations between religious leaders and the political forces of many nations in our time should be scrutinized for lessons that spring from this analysis of the Churches in the Nazi era.

“The Jews” in the Gospel of John

The work of a translator is much appreciated so that ideas can be shared across cultures. Translating the Bible is a wonderful service to the faithful and to all who are curious, but the task is fraught with challenges, which Ronald Knox described in Trials of a Translator (New York, Sheed & Ward, 1949).

In the mid-1950s La Bible de Jerusalem constituted a great service to the Church in Francophone countries, coordinated by the Dominicans of L’Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem. The translation into English needed improvements so the Jerusalem Bible of 1966 gave way to the New Jerusalem Bible in 1985, under the supervision of the Benedictine scholar Henry Wansbrough. Recently he launched the Revised New Jerusalem Bible at St. Benet’s Hall in Oxford. Margaret Hebblethwaite reported in this event in The Tablet under the title “The search for the right word of God.”

This report, with the superscription “The Gospels and anti-Semitism,” focuses on the challenge to translators with regard to the Greek work ioudaios in the plural, used 70 plus times in John and traditionally rendered “the Jews.” The term usually refers to the religious leaders in Jerusalem, who investigated the identity of John the Baptist (John 1:19) and the reason for Jesus’ disruptive action in the Temple area (2:19). The polite tone of their inquiry gave way to intense hostility after Jesus healed the paralyzed man at the pool Bethesda on the Sabbath (5:15-18).

In October 1997 I gave a paper at an international intra-ecclesial conference in the Vatican on “Anti-Judaism in the Christian Environment.” I sketched the scholarly efforts after the Second Vatican Council to deal with this problem for translators, which you can access and download here.

Among recent contributions to this topic, I wish to draw attention to the judicious and irenic statements in The Jewish Annotated New Testament edited by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017, second edition), especially to Joshua Garroway’s essay “Ioudaios” (p. 596-99) and Adele Reinhartz’s commentary on the Gospel according to John (p. 172-73). These succinct efforts to grapple with a thorny issue deserve our careful attention.

Another recent contribution to biblical scholarship with a pastoral and spiritual perspective is The Paulist Biblical Commentary, edited by José Enrique Aguilar Chiu and others (New York: Paulist Press, 2018). Francis J. Moloney’s commentary on John reviews the topic under “Special Issues” (p. 1109-10). “The expression ‘the Jews’ does not indicate an ethnic group, but those who make a theological and christological decision against Jesus of Nazareth… In the Gospel of John, ‘the Jews’ are not a race; such an interpretation must be rejected energetically.”

How can the pastor deal with the anti-Jewish bigotry that may be aroused among the people listening to the Gospel on Good Friday and on The Second Sunday of Easter (“for fear of the Jews” in 20:19)? A brief statement can be read before the Passion is proclaimed on Good Friday to recall the message of the Second Vatican Council in the Declaration on the Church’s Relation to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra aetate): “True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ (John 19:16); still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today.” A clarification that in these texts “the Jews” means the religious authorities in Jerusalem can be made on other occasions. Of course, there should be opportunities for all the faithful to engage in Bible study so that their faith is enriched and the misinterpretation by generalization or stereotype is overcome.

Translators are to be praised for their attention to this problem, but education is the ongoing challenge for all teachers in the parish and school. To end on a benign note, I draw attention to the fine essay by Professor Otto Betz, “To Worship God in Spirit and Truth: Reflections on John 4:20-26” in the J.M. Oesterreicher Festschrift Standing Before God (New York: Ktav, 1981, p. 53-72). “Salvation is from the Jews” is understood in light of Genesis 49:10-11, pointing to Jesus as the Savior of the world (John 4:42).

The Events of Jesus’ Passion and the Divine Office

Seven times a day I praise you because your edicts are just (Psalm 119:164)

In the Biblical tradition the number seven symbolizes completeness. Each day sacrifice of a year-old lamb (plus flour, oil and wine) was offered in morning and late afternoon for the forgiveness of sins. Christians followed the Jewish practice of praying at the time of these sacrifices in the Jerusalem Temple. In Egypt and the Holy Land hermits and monks prayed the Psalms and Canticles throughout the day. In Italy St. Benedict (480?-550) organized those texts into a weekly cycle. This Divine Office, called Opus Dei (the work of God) was spread over the entire day, in seven “Hours” for the community to gather in worship. This begins in the very early morning (Matins), followed by Lauds (Praise), then Prime (6 a.m.) followed by the “Little Hours” (Terce, Sext and None) at 9 a.m., noon and 3 p.m. Vespers came in the late afternoon and Compline was the night prayer. The Gospel texts for Lauds (Luke 1:68-79 by Zechariah), Vespers (1:46-55 by Mary) and Compline (2:29-32 by Simeon) are the Lucan hymns, with the Canticle of the Angels (2:14 expanded) on Sunday and feast days.

After the Second Vatican Council, there came a major change in the Divine Office of the Roman Rite. The Psalms are recited on a four week cycle and people may choose one of the “Little Hours” rather than all three. This is an acknowledgement that the diocesan clergy need not be held to the ideals of the monastic community.

Christian piety began early to develop a deep sense of devotion to the suffering and death of Jesus (see Galatians 2:19-21; 6:14; 1 Peter 2:21-25). Thus, Friday was a day of fast and abstinence from meat (see Mark 2:20). Every Sunday was “the Lord’s Day (Dies Dominica),” celebrating Jesus’ resurrection on the first day of the week.

The hymns for the “Little Hours” commemorate the descent of the Holy Spirit at the third hour (9 a.m.; see Acts 2:15) and the time Jesus spent on the cross, when darkness covered the land from the sixth to the ninth hour (Mark 15:33 and parallels). Tradition-ally the special Liturgy on Good Friday begins at 3 p.m. In many places from noon to 3 p.m. the Seven Words of Jesus on the Cross are the subject of a communal meditation, with homilies and sacred music, the latter composed by renowned European musicians.

In addition to the Liturgy, Christians developed many practices to cultivate their devotion to the work of salvation accomplished by Jesus. Pilgrimage to the Holy Land began in the second century, with a focus on Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Repentance for sins led to forgiveness as God’s gift through the sacrifice of Jesus. The Way of the Cross and the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary were prayers of the laity to meditate on the events of Jesus’ life.

The Benedictine Pope St. Gregory I (Pope from 590-604) is credited with prayers that link the Seven Hours of the Divine Office with the stages of the Passion (see below).  Note the last line of verse one: The reference to Jews should be limited to the Priestly leaders and those who followed them, not to all Jews then alive, nor to Jews of later times (Vatican Council II, Declaration on the Church’s Relation to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra aetate of October 28, 1965). Another prayer from the same manuscript addresses Jesus through the five wounds of the crucifixion. Thus, did Christian unite the passing hours of each day with the “Hour” of Jesus in the Paschal Mystery of his death-and-resurrection.

Download (PDF, 180KB)


The Death of Jesus

Lamentation over the Dead Christ by Anthony van Dyck / Public domain

The Gospel for the Passion (Palm) Sunday for Year A of the three year cycle of Sunday readings is from Matthew. The dramatic proclamation of the Passion Narrative evokes the profound realization in the congregation: our faith emphasizes that Jesus died for our sins and rose for us to be brought into right order with God the Father (see Romans 4:25; Corinthians 15:3-5).

In the Good Friday service, each Christian is invited to adore Jesus as the crucified Lord, again recalling that he died for our sins. The traditional chant during this ceremony was the “Reproaches,” often misinterpreted by the commentators to be an indictment of the Jews. Indeed, the choir sings the verses in biblical terms but the choir’s response to each verse concludes, “Have mercy on us.” See my and J.F. Henderson’s essay in The Liturgy of the Medieval Church (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2005) p. 187-214.  The comment of Bishop William Durand (1230-1296) on the Palm Sunday liturgy shows the true Christian approach to the liturgical commemoration of the sufferings of Jesus:

We must rejoice concerning the fruit of his Passion, and suffer with him, because he suffered for us.  We rejoice, therefore, of the love which he showed for us on the cross, and we are sad because of our sins, which are so many, on account of which the Son of God had to suffer. (Rationale Divinorum Officiorum VI.37.11)

Extending the liturgical experience of divine forgiveness, various practices and devotions developed over the centuries to reinforce our sense of gratitude for the Paschal Mystery of Jesus’ death-and-resurrection. However, even here the anti-Jewish prejudices might be asserted. When in Copenhagen overnight in 2006, I was surprised to hear Angelus bells early in the next morning. I found the Sacred Heart church nearby and paid a visit. The Stations of the Cross were painted very nicely with a feature that I hope was never found elsewhere. In the corner of the first station, Jesus being condemned by Pontius Pilate, was a figure with a scroll. The words in Latin were visible: “Sanguis eius super nos et super filios nostros – His blood be upon us and upon our children” (Matthew 27:25). A small version of the same person holding the scroll was incorporated into each of the next 13 stations. What a distortion of the pious purpose of this substitute for a pilgrimage to Jerusalem!

I wish to draw attention to the recent commentary on Matthew’s Gospel by Father Brendan Byrne, S.J.  This quotation is taken from the Paulist Biblical Commentary (Paulist Press, 2018) p. 967:

No single verse in Matthew’s Gospel needs more careful consideration than the cry of “the whole people” in verse 25.  There is no need to labor the injury it has caused to Jewish people since the earliest times.  Where Matthew has previously referred to the “crowd(s)” (ochlos [oi] [27:15, 20, 24]), at this point he writes “the whole people” (pas ho laos), a term principally used in the Gospel (albeit mostly in scriptural quotations) of the nation (of Israel) as a whole (1:21; 2:6; 4:16, 23; 13:15; 15:18), though often in the stock phrases “scribes/elders of the people” (2:4; 21:23; 26:3, 47; 27:1).  It is by no means clear, however, that “people” (laos) in verse 25 refers to the nation as a whole, let alone Jewish people for all time.  Since Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem there has been a distinction between the crowds who accompanied him and the people of Jerusalem itself (see 21:8-11), Jerusalem that he has already characterized as “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it” (23:37).  It is likely, then, that “people” here refers specifically to the populace of Jerusalem.

Likewise, the final phrase, “and on our children,” is to be interpreted strictly.  Along with Luke (23:27-31) and the author of the Fourth Gospel (11:47-48), Matthew sees the Roman conquest of Jerusalem and burning of the temple in 70 CE as divine punishment for the city’s rejection of Jesus as Messiah.  The generation that would be alive to suffer these events would be precisely the “children” of those who had accepted responsibility for Jesus’ blood some forty years before.  It is to this generation, then- and to no other beyond it- that the phrase “and on our children” refers.  The text provides no justification for a “blood guilt” passed on down subsequent generations within the whole of Judaism.

I thank him for this succinct and pertinent interpretation of the passage that has been the basis of accusations against the Jewish people of later times. Rather, we should recall the words of the Second Vatican Council: “The Church always held and continues to hold that Christ out of infinite love freely underwent suffering and death  because of the sins of all people, so that all might attain salvation” (Declaration of the Church’s Relations to Non-Christian Religions, Nostra aetate 4).

Moses with Horns

Moses by Michelangelo Buonarroti, Tomb (1505-1545) for Julius II, San Pietro in Vincoli (Rome).

In the N.J. Jewish News of March 9, 2020, the Touch of Torah column on Exodus 30:11-34:35, “How a biblical mistranslation led to anti-Semitism” by Rabbi Joyce Newmark, discusses the translation of the word “karan” into Latin as cornuta / horned rather than “ray of light.” She draws attention to Michelangelo’s statue of Moses and links it to anti-Jewish bigotry so tragically evident again in our day.

I draw attention to the work of art historian Ruth Mellinkoff, The Horned Moses in Medieval Art and Thought (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970). A distinction should be made between the bull’s or ram’s horns as a symbol of authority (for example, over the ear of a ruler depicted on a coin) and the goat’s horns, which in the Middle Ages and later were a symbol of the devil. In a positive way royal power is symbolized by a horn in the divine promise: “I will make a horn sprout from David’s line” (Psalm 132:17). The goat’s horns were applied to the Jewish people by those who misinterpreted the New Testament, especially John 8:44.

Michelangelo had great esteem for Moses as Mediator of the Sinai Covenant.  On the spandrels of the Sistine chapel ceiling he depicted Moses as one of four who delivered Israel from grave danger.

May the people who seek divine guidance in the vicissitudes of life in our time find light from the principles of the Biblical heritage! I thank Rabbi Newmark for drawing attention to the Second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church and for the teachings that build upon the Declaration of the Church’s Relation to the Non-Christian Religions (Nostra aetate)!

Anti-Jewish Bigotry in the Classroom

On March 5, 2020 the M.A. Program in Jewish-Christian Studies sponsored a Teachers Study Day, with financial assistance from the New Jersey Commission for Holocaust and Genocide Education. The topic was “Jewish Education during the Nazi Period and Holocaust Education Now.”

The first speaker, Dr. Marion Kaplan from New York University, asked participants if they had seen an article in the New York Times of March 4th. A few raised their hands. Here is the text, a report on an elite high school in southern New Jersey by Susan Otterman:

For younger generations, the Nazi period may seem to be ancient history. But as Dr. Kaplan presented the ways primary and secondary education took place in Germany from 1933, the shock of a current scene in New Jersey was evident. Then, the blatant discrimination was ordered by the highest authorities in the land and resonated on every level in the schools. The small Jewish population in Germany was well integrated into the general culture, but children were segregated easily and made to feel that they did not fit.

In contrast, the education system in this state includes study of the Holocaust and related crimes of genocide. Efforts are made to alert young people to the danger of bullying and other forms of discrimination. How to explain the crude forms of bigotry that lurk under the surface among teenagers who should know better? Should their homes be blamed, or are the students simply guilty of braggadocio?

Administrators of schools must be alert to signs that a gang spirit is developing under their noses. Among all the elements of an approach to offer a solution before anyone is hurt would be the simple reflection on the Golden Rule. The website of Scarboro Interfaith Dialogue describes this principle as the universal basis for promoting human dignity. Surely teenagers can come to see that they should deal with others as they would want to be treated.

Anti-Jewish Bigotry in Stone

Anglican Lincoln Cathedral. U.K. By JThomas, CC BY-SA 2.0

Since the Second Vatican Council, the Bishops in several European countries have led the effort to remove the carvings and paintings that portray the vicious canard that Jewish people used the blood of a Christian boy to make the maṣṣah (unleavened bread) for the Passover meal. For example, the Anglican Lincoln Cathedral has a plaque repudiating the case of “Little Hugh,” dating back to 1255.

Recently another statue in Wittenberg, Germany, the Judensau depicting Jewish people suckling a sow, has been in the news.

The laudable effort to contrast this insulting image with an information board message and monument commemorating the six million Jewish victims of the Nazis seems inadequate. Why? Because bigots could ignore the educational message and focus on the fact that a Christian church fostered and even now seems to endorse the idea of ridiculing the Jews.

It would be better to place this and other manifestations of such hatred in a place where a direct explanation by docents can deal with the enduring challenge to human decency. I hope that this can be accomplished by local leaders!

Yom Kippur and Christian Liturgy

During a discussion among medievalists on prayer, I mentioned the ember days in the Church’s liturgy. Middle-aged participants asked: “What are ember days?”

My friend Frank Henderson and I gave some attention to the topic in “Jews and Judaism in the Medieval Latin Liturgy” (see p. 191-92).

In the proceedings of a conference The Ways That Never Parted: Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, edited by Adam H. Becker and Annette Yoshiko Reed (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007), Daniel Stökl Ben Ezra offers a wide-ranging study, “Whose Fast Is It? The Ember Day of September and Yom Kippur” (pp. 259-82 with charts of the Biblical readings in the Roman rite). He introduces his essay with a quotation from Pope St. Leo I (the Great), who reigned from A.D. 440-461:

Confidently encouraging you with fatherly counsels, dearly beloved, we preach the fast dedicated in the seventh month to the exercises of common devotion, sure that what was first the Jewish fast will become Christian by your observance. (Sermon 90:1)

Did this fast merely recall Zechariah’s mention of four times of fasting (7:5; 8:18-19), developing independently of contemporary Jewish practices in Rome?  Dr. Ben Ezra responds:

Particularly in light of Leo’s familiarity with contemporary Judaism and his references to the fast as part of the Jewish heritage of the church, the theory of a completely independent development of these Christian and Jewish readings seems highly unlikely. Competition with and influence from the Jewish Yom Kippur plausibly explains the dominance of Old Testament readings and the focus on repentance and propitiation.

Because detailed sources for Jewish practices in Rome in the fifth century are not available, Dr. Ben Ezra’s conclusion is tentative, but it seems that non-polemical contacts allowed for Christians in Rome to learn from and adapt the Jewish practices of fasting. In the modern period we can learn from each other, and Christians should learn from the Jewish background to Matthew 5:1-18 how prayer, fasting and alms-giving reinforce each other.