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The Liturgy and ‘Supersessionism’

by Rev. Brian W. Harrison, O.S., M.A., S.T.D.


This article by Fr. Brian Harrison is on supersessionism, the idea that the New Covenant in the Blood of Jesus Christ replaces the Old Covenant based on the Mosaic Law.

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Homiletic & Pastoral Review

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Ignatius Press, June 2009

After February 6, 2008, there was a good deal of attention in both secular and religious news media to the new Good Friday prayer for the Jews promulgated on that day by Pope Benedict XVI for use with the traditional Latin Mass – now known as the ‘extraordinary form’ of the Roman rite.

Complaints were made that while the Pope did indeed eliminate certain severe expressions in the 1962 Missal’s prayer that many were finding offensive to Jews, he did not modify the old prayer’s doctrinal content. That is, the new text prays just as clearly as the old for the conversion of Israel – the Jewish people – to belief in Jesus as the promised Messiah. And this has been seen in some quarters as a reversion to the centuries-old Catholic belief in ‘supersessionism’ that many understood to have been definitively abandoned by the Church as a result of the Second Vatican Council’s 1965 Declaration Nostra Aetate. (Actually NA nowhere says or implies that the covenant of Mount Sinai is still valid in God’s sight for the Jewish people.)

What, then, is supersessionism? The word designates the traditional Christian belief that the covenant between God and the People of Israel, established through the mediation of Moses at Mount Sinai, has been replaced or superseded by the ‘New Covenant’ of Jesus Christ. This implies that the Mosaic covenant, with its ritual and dietary requirements, Sabbath observance, etc., is no longer valid for the Jewish people, since God’s revealed will is for Jews, as well as all Gentiles, to enter into the New Covenant by means of baptism and faith in Jesus as the promised Messiah.

This essay is based on the premise expressed by the Catholic adage lex orandi, lex credendi (the Church’s official prayer expresses her authentic belief). Its purpose is to make clear that while Pope Benedict’s new prayer certainly implies the supersessionist position, much of the subsequent media commentary, both favorable and unfavorable, is quite mistaken in seeing this prayer as a liturgical reversion to that position. For one cannot ‘revert’ or ‘return’ to a position that was never at any stage abandoned. And I hope to show here that the Church’s liturgy since Vatican II has never ceased to affirm supersessionist doctrine.

Benedict XVI’s new prayer for use with the old (1962) Missal reads as follows:

Let us pray also for the Jews:

That God and our Lord may enlighten their hearts, so that they may recognize Jesus Christ as the savior of all men.

Almighty and eternal God, whose will it is that all may be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth, graciously grant that, as the fullness of the nations enters your Church, all Israel may be saved. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Some commentators were quick to stress that the last part of the prayer is a reference to Romans 11: 25-26, wherein St. Paul speaks of a “mystery” by which “a hardening has come upon Israel in part, until the full number of the Gentiles comes in, and thus all Israel will be saved”. One widespread interpretation of this text is that the apostle is prophesying a mass conversion of virtually the entire Jewish people to Christianity in the apocalyptic ‘end-times’ leading up to the parousia – the Second Coming of Christ. And some have argued, on this basis, that the prayer is not encouraging any organized Christian attempts to evangelize Jews here and now. One would have to add, however, that neither does it discourage the present-day evangelization of Jews. The ablative absolute construction ending with the word intrante is in the present, not the future perfect, tense, and so expresses a desire on the part of the Church that while the gentile nations are entering the Church Jews too may be converted. This reading of the prayer is reinforced when we note that its preceding clause is an equally unmistakable reference to another Pauline text, I Timothy 2: 3-4: “This is good and pleasing to God our savior, who wills everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth”. And God surely desires everyone on earth at any given time to “come to the knowledge of the truth”. (How could he who is truth itself prefer that a whole ethnic and/or religious group – or even individual men and women – remain in lifelong error or ignorance about his revealed plan of salvation?)

How does Pope Benedict’s new prayer line up with the rest of Catholic worship? When one thinks of the Catholic liturgy, it is certainly the Mass, or celebration of the Eucharist, which first springs to mind. Just as official, however, is the daily ‘Liturgy of the Hours’, or ‘Divine Office’. The contents of this multi-volume prayer book are little known to most people, Catholic or non-Catholic, who do not happen to be among the Church’s clergy, nuns, monks or religious brothers. These latter groups, however, are committed to pray the Office daily; and the vast majority of them do so using the revised version promulgated several years after Vatican Council II by Pope Paul VI.

The two principal ‘hours’ of the day are Lauds (or “Morning Prayer”) and Vespers (“Evening Prayer”). And during the privileged liturgical seasons of Christmastide and Paschal time we find a good number of intercessions prescribed for these hours that pray for the conversion of the Jews to faith in Jesus Christ. The fact that they were all newly composed after the Council, not simply held over from the old liturgy, confirms the fact that Vatican II in no way called for a renunciation of supersessionist doctrine. I shall reproduce them here in the order in which they occur annually in the liturgical calendar (which begins with Advent), giving the English translation found in the edition of The Liturgy of the Hours approved for use in the U.S.A. and most other English-speaking countries.

1. On the evening of Christmas Day each year, the Church prays at Vespers: “[Lord Jesus], awaited from the beginning of the world, you came only in the fullness of time, – now reveal your presence to those who are still expecting you”.

2. On the last day of every year (December 31 at Lauds): “Christ, God and man, Lord of David and Son of David, fulfillment of all prophecies, – we pray that Israel may recognize you as its Messiah”..

3. For Lauds on January 2nd: “Christ, you were glorified by the angels, announced by the shepherds, confessed and proclaimed by Simeon and Anna, – let your Gospel be accepted by the people of the promise”.

4. On the evening of every Easter Sunday – the principal Feast in the Church’s entire yearly calendar – we find this Vespers prayer addressed to “Christ the Lord”: “Let Israel recognize in you her longed-for Messiah, – and the whole earth be filled with the knowledge of your glory.”
This prayer is then repeated at Vespers on the third and fifth Sundays of the Paschal (Easter) season.

5. At Vespers for Wednesday of the second week of Paschal time God the Father is addressed thus: “You chose the first fruits of Christ’s disciples from the Jewish people, – reveal to the children of Israel the fulfillment of the promise made to their forefathers.”
This prayer occurs again at Vespers for Wednesday of the fourth week of Paschal time.

6. At Vespers for the vigil of the seventh and final Sunday of Paschal time, Christ is addressed thus: “May all peoples acclaim you as King and God, – may Israel become your prized possession.”

We have seen here that on nine days each year, ever since the early 1970s, the Divine Office intercessions of the revised Roman-rite liturgy already have been expressing exactly the same doctrine as that which Benedict XVI has embodied in his 2008 Good Friday prayer: to put it simply, the Church believes it is God’s will for Jews to become Christians, and so prays that his will may be done in this regard. These prayers certainly imply the supersessionist doctrine. For coming to believe in Christ as Son of God and Messiah necessarily involves as its consequence the reception of baptism and living according to the faith, worship and discipline of the New Covenant. And that is undeniably incompatible with the continuing observance of the Mosaic covenant, even though both covenants share nearly the whole Decalogue as a common ethical basis (everything, that is, except the important difference concerning the respective roles of the first and seventh days of the week).

The number of days each year in which the new liturgy manifests the traditional Christian belief can be extended from nine to ten, once we take into account the Good Friday prayer for the Jews found in the post-conciliar Roman Missal – the one now followed for the overwhelming majority of Catholics. This, however, is a point that needs to be argued, for the supersessionist underpinning of this prayer is not immediately obvious. Indeed, it might superficially be taken to imply a renunciation of supersessionist doctrine. Let us then examine this prayer, which reads as follows:

Let us pray also for the Jews, so that our Lord God may enable those to whom his word was first addressed to grow in love for his name and in faithfulness to his covenant.

Almighty and eternal God, who granted your promises to Abraham and his descendants, mercifully hear the prayers of your Church, so that the people you first made your own may be worthy to reach the fullness of redemption. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Now, which covenant is meant here by the words “his covenant”? Could it be the covenant between God and the Jewish people established at Sinai with Moses as mediator? If so, the prayer would clearly be incompatible with supersessionism; for it would then amount to asking God that the Jews, far from converting to Christ, might become ever more committed in their belief and practice of Judaism.

However, no such interpretation of the prayer can reasonably be sustained, for at least four convergent reasons. To begin with, two hermeneutical criteria extrinsic to the prayer itself are relevant here.

1. The first is that any apparent ambiguity in the doctrine expressed in a Catholic liturgical text cannot be resolved in a way that would render self-contradictory the doctrinal position of the liturgy as a whole. In other words, the Church must be presumed to be internally consistent in the doctrine she teaches by means of her official prayer.

2. The other is the common-sense general interpretative norm that in an ensemble of writings presumed a priori to be internally consistent with each other, a more obscure text is to be interpreted in the light of clearer ones, especially a clearer text that has been added to the ensemble after the promulgation of the obscure text. For this then takes on the character of an intentional and authoritative clarification of the older one’s meaning.

Applying these two criteria to the Good Friday prayer in Paul VI’s post-conciliar Missal, we can see that it cannot correctly be understood as asking God that the Jews may continue ever more ‘faithfully’ in observing the norms of the Mosaic covenant. For that would make this prayer contradict the doctrine expressed quite clearly in the nine other liturgical prayers we have surveyed above, all of which were promulgated at about the same time as the new Missal, and by the same Pope. As we saw, all of these new Divine Office prayers ask God that Jews may come to believe in Christ – a change which by its very nature involves replacing observance of the Mosaic covenant by the reception of baptism and participation in the Christian New Covenant. Interpreting the words “his covenant” in Pope Paul’s prayer to mean “the Mosaic covenant” would also leave it in contradiction with the doctrine expressed by Benedict XVI in the prayer he has now promulgated for use with the ‘Tridentine’ Missal. And since this prayer is not only clearer than the Novus Ordo Good Friday prayer, but also more recent, it becomes particularly evident that Paul’s relative obscurity must henceforth be interpreted in the light of Benedict’s transparent clarity.

I say “relative” obscurity, because the third and fourth relevant considerations – consisting of expressions within Pope Paul’s prayer itself – certainly imply, even though they do not spell out, the same reading that we have argued for on the basis of extrinsic hermeneutical criteria.

3. The most natural answer to the question as to which covenant is meant in the first part of the prayer is provided immediately by the beginning of the second part. For it is not Moses who is singled out here. Rather: “Almighty and eternal God, who granted your promises to Abraham and his descendants, . . . ”. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 72, summarizes this point simply and neatly:

God chose Abraham and made a covenant with him and his descendants. By the covenant God formed his people and revealed his law to them through Moses. Through the prophets he prepared them to accept the salvation destined for all humanity.

Thus, if, as in the prayer we are discussing, the wording suggests the idea that there is only one covenant with God now in effect (“[may the Jews grow] in faithfulness to his covenant ”), then the covenant in question can only be the primordial Abrahamic covenant. For it is the only one that can legitimately understood as including under its broad, overarching umbrella, so to speak, the subsequent stages in the history of revelation, each with its own particular covenant. As the above text from the Catechism makes clear, it was actually by means of the covenant with “Abraham and his descendants” that God “revealed his law to them through Moses”. Then, prophets also living under that subsidiary Mosaic covenant prepared the way for the final stage in God’s salvific plan, in which the one great covenant would be extended to embrace “all humanity” through the new and definitive covenant sealed in the blood of Christ. At no stage in this process has the ancient covenant with Abraham been revoked or superseded, because God’s people in all three stages beginning with the patriarch himself – first, from Abraham to Moses, secondly, then Moses to Christ, and finally, from Christ till the end of time – have been living under its terms.

While these terms have changed in their secondary features (baptism has replaced circumcision, for instance, and the first day of the week has replaced the seventh) the fundamental principles have remained the same throughout. And what are these fundamentals? On God’s part, a promise of blessing to the whole world through Abraham’s descendants – above all, the Messiah; and on the part of God’s people, faith – faith in his revealing word. As Paul repeatedly stresses in Romans 4 (vv. 3, 9, and 22) and in Galatians (3: 6), Abraham “put his faith in the Lord, who credited it to him as an act of righteousness” (Genesis 15: 6). And just as faith in God’s Word required acceptance of the revealed Torah and the word of the prophets in the period from Moses to Christ, so, since the coming of Christ, that same gift of faith involves accepting also the fullness of revelation that designates him as the Savior of all mankind. Hence, all those with faith in Christ are now, whatever their ethnic origin, “children of Abraham” (Gal. 3: 7).

4. The other relevant feature within Paul VI’s Good Friday prayer is the reference in its first part to the beginning of God’s revelation. Consider again the wording of this invitatory section: “Let us pray also for the Jews, so that our Lord God may enable those to whom his word was first addressed to grow in love for his name and in faithfulness to his covenant” (emphasis added). The close proximity of the two italicized expressions here naturally suggests that the “covenant” referred to is the one established when God’s word was first addressed to (and received in faith by) God’s people. And that initial revelation was of course to Abraham, their forefather, not to Moses. If the Mosaic covenant had been the one the authors of this prayer had in mind, then instead of the words “those to whom his word was first addressed”, we would expect to read something like “those to whom he first gave the law”, or “those to whom he revealed himself on Mount Sinai”, or “those whom he formed as a nation under Moses”.

On the basis of all the above considerations we may conclude that the words “his covenant” in Paul VI’s Good Friday prayer cannot possibly refer to the Mosaic covenant. They can only mean the primordial covenant with Abraham, which later went through the temporary stage of the Sinai covenant and continues now in its definitive form as the New Covenant – a covenant itself prophesied in the Hebrew Scriptures (cf. Jeremiah 31: 31-33). It follows that the “growth”, “progress”, or “advance” in fidelity to the covenant which the Church here prays for can only mean the Jews’ conversion to faith in Christ. The idea is that up till now, religious Jews already accept in “faithfulness” the earlier part of the covenant revelation – the ‘Law and the Prophets’. And their progress or advance in faithfulness will mean their going on to accept the final and definitive revelation within that same overall covenant: the revelation of Jesus as the promised Messiah.

We have seen now that the entire corpus of texts of the Roman Liturgy – in its modern Divine Office and both the ‘new’ and ‘old’ Missals – is internally consistent in its doctrine regarding the Jewish people. All the relevant texts manifest the Church’s perennial faith that, within the one general, overarching and irrevocable covenant that began with God’s election of Abraham, the subsidiary and specific covenant of Sinai under Moses has now been replaced or superseded definitively by the specifically Christian covenant. This, in orthodox Catholic belief, remains forever valid as God’s plan for Jew and Gentile alike.

Since this article is essentially an examination of the Church’s liturgical prayer, space does not permit any detailed answer to possible objections based on the fact that in several minor magisterial statements of recent decades it has been said that “the Old Covenant” has not been “revoked”. The two most notable examples are probably a speech of John Paul II at Mainz, Germany, on November 17, 1980, and no. 121 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which makes this affirmation in the context of teaching the divine inspiration and perennial value of the Old Testament books. Suffice it to say that the term “Old Covenant” is ambiguous: it can mean either the Mosaic covenant or the still older covenant of which it was but one part – that which began with Abraham. But in addition to the fact that the solid witness of the Church’s liturgy (not to mention innumerable New Testament passages) exclude our understanding these papal or papally-endorsed statements to mean that the Mosaic covenant has never been superseded or revoked, Pope John Paul himself made clear which covenant he held to be unrevoked in addressing Australian Jewish leaders in Sydney on November 26, 1986. He emphasized that:

. . . our attitude to the Jewish religion should be one of the greatest respect, since the Catholic faith is rooted in the eternal truths contained in the Hebrew Scriptures, and in the irrevocable covenant made with Abraham.

Never, in fact, has any papal or conciliar document affirmed that the covenant God made with Israel through Moses, with all its distinctive cultic, civil, dietary and other prescriptions that still form the basis of Judaism, still remains valid and “unrevoked” for Jews after the coming of Christ. It is a great relief, therefore, to see that he United States bishops voted overwhelmingly in August 2008 to eliminate a statement to that effect that had made its way into the new Catechism published with the authority of the episcopal conference. The uncorrected version stated, “Thus the covenant that God made with the Jewish people through Moses remains eternally valid for them.” The new version is content to quote a key passage from St. Paul: “To the Jewish people, whom God first chose to hear his word, ‘belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ’ (Rom 9:4-5; cf. CCC, No. 839) ”.

Understanding the relevant magisterial statements and formal liturgical texts in a way that gives due emphasis to the irrevocable covenant made by God with Abraham and his descendants thus clarifies this issue. It enables us to see both the perennial consistency and the true meaning of the Church’s witness regarding the supersession (or replacement) of the specifically Mosaic covenant by that which was anticipated at the Last Supper and sealed with the blood of Christ, shed once and for all on Calvary.

Rev. Brian Harrison, O.S., S.T.D. is an Australian-born convert to the Catholic faith and an emeritus professor of theology of the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico. He is now scholar-in-residence at the Oblates of Wisdom Study Center in St. Louis, Missouri. Father Harrison's two books and many articles stress the importance of upholding the continuity of the Church's doctrine and worship before and after Vatican Council II.

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