A Deadly Misunderstanding

Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews

by James Carroll
Houghton Mifflin, 756 pp., $28.00

On Good Friday 1979 I attended the service of Tenebrae at an English Roman Catholic church that was and is renowned for the splendor of its ceremonial and its choral tradition. Tenebrae had been for almost a thousand years the main service on each morning of the Triduum, or the solemn days of Holy Week from Maundy Thursday to Holy Saturday. In it, an elaborate series of Scripture readings and psalms apply to the sufferings of Christ on the cross the ancient sorrows of Israel, in particular, the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of its inhabitants to Babylon. The heart of the service is the singing of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, each strophe preceded by the proclamation of its initial letter in Hebrew, set to a heart-wrenching chant—”Is it nothing to you who pass by: is there any sorrow like unto my sorrow?” One by one, as the psalms are sung, the candles on a great triangular candlestick set in the middle of the sanctuary are extinguished, until only a solitary light is left at the top, symbolizing the abandonment of Christ by his disciples. At the end of the service this candle is hidden and revealed again, a foreshadowing of his death and resurrection.

Tenebrae was one of the most sublime products of the Christian liturgical imagination, and it drew out of Renaissance and Baroque composers some correspondingly wonderful music, polyphonic settings of the Lamentations exploring the tragic dimension of the Christian story. Inevitably, it was one of the casualties of the reforms that swept the Church in the 1960s and early 1970s, when it was abolished and replaced with something simpler and less demanding. The church I attended that day was unenthusiastic about these changes: as a concession to modernity, however, all the readings from the Bible and the Christian Fathers designed to be spoken rather than sung were read to the congregation in English rather than Latin.

So there we sat in our devout rows, drunk with the marvels of the music, and listened while a reader proclaimed in flat and uninflected tones the following passage from a commentary by Saint Augustine on a verse from Psalm 64, “They have sharpened their tongues like a sword,” prescribed centuries before for this most solemn day in the Christian calendar:

Let not the Jews say, “we did not kill the Christ”: for they delivered him up to Pilate the judge, that they might seem innocent of his death…hereby they pretended to throw the injustice of their crime upon a judge that was a man, but how could they deceive a judge that is God?

I was old enough to remember as a child praying at the afternoon liturgy of Good Friday for the conversion of “the perfidious Jew.” But Pope John XXIII had abolished this offensive prayer early in his pontificate, and replaced it with a more benign intercession for Israel’s faithfulness to her covenant with God. Later, the Second Vatican Council had solemnly decreed that the ancient…

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