26 April 2019

Stories of love, sacrifice and
redemption on Good Friday

Redemptive love, self-sacrifice, atonement and hope … venerating the Cross in the parish church in Tsesmes in Rethymnon on the evening of Holy Thursday (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Today is Good Friday in the Greek calendar [25 April 2019], and later in the day I hope to take part in the Good Friday processions and commemorations in Rethymnon.

But in my reading in Greece this week, I have been reminded of a story of redemptive love, self-sacrifice, atonement and hope that illustrates how these are themes shared in Judaism and in Christianity.

The writings known collectively as Midrash were composed between the years 400 and 1200, and are often contemporaneous with the Talmud. They provide rabbinical exegesis of and commentaries on Biblical books.

In Greece this week, I am interested in how Jerusalem and Athens are contrasted in 10 stories in the Midrash in Eichah Rabbah. Tertullian famously asked: ‘What has Jerusalem to do with Athens?’ And for more than 2,000 years, philosophers and theologians have wrestled with the irreconcilable opposition between Greek rationality, represented by Athens, and biblical revelation, depicted as Jerusalem.

The Midrash on the Book of Lamentations or Eichah Rabbah (איכה רבה), a commentary on the Book of Lamentations (Eichah), is one of the oldest works of Midrash, along with Bereshit Rabbah and the Pesiḳta ascribed to Rab Kahana. In Eichah Rabbah, Jerusalem and Athens are contrasted in 10 stories.

This book is a dirge on the destruction of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem and the national destruction that came along with both events. The rabbis regarded this exegesis or commentary as especially appropriate to study on the Ninth of Av (Tisha B’Av), the day recalling the destruction of the Temple.

Historians agree that Phannias ben Samuel (Pinhas ben Shmuel) was the last Jewish High Priest, the 83rd since Aaron. He was from the tribe of Eniachin in the priestly order Jachin, and not from one of the six families from which high priests were traditionally chosen. He died during the destruction of Herod’s Temple on Tisha B’Av in 70 CE.

However, Eichah Rabbah says that Zadok was the last High Priest in the Temple in Jerusalem, and that after the destruction of the Temple in the year 70, two of his children – a small girl and her younger brother – were taken captive by two Roman officers.

The boy was later traded with a prostitute to settle the officer’s debts to her. The girl, for her part, was exchanged by the other officer with an innkeeper for a supply of wine.

Perhaps the writer was also commenting on the Book of the Prophet Joel, where it is written: ‘They drew lots for my people, traded boys for whores, sold girls for wine to drink’ (Joel 4: 3).

Some time later, the prostitute and the innkeeper met and conceived a plan: why not marry off their ill-gotten young charges and use them to breed for profit? They did not realise their traded possessions in human trafficking were brother and sister.

The young couple were placed alone in a room. The girl, weeping and crying, asked with indignation why she, the high-born daughter of a high priest, had been married off to a mere slave.

The boy asked the girl about her family, her home and where she had grown up. She described her family home in Jerusalem, her neighbours and the streets where she once lived, and the younger brother she had not seen since she had been taken into captivity.

This younger brother had a mole on his shoulder, she recalled, and she told how she would kiss him when he came home from school.

The boy asked her whether she would still recognise this birthmark. She said yes, and when he bared his shoulder they recognised each other.

The story concludes with the observation: ‘They embraced each other and kissed each other until their souls departed.’

In telling the story, the rabbis emphasise that this boy and girl remained chaste, but they also fulfil the rabbinic law that one should die a martyr’s death rather than transgress the prohibition on incest.

In this sweet embrace, the Spirit of God, the Kiss of God, draws their souls into the existence of God, and their sacrificial love had been caught up into – is consumed in – the pure love of God.

Preparing the Cross for Good Friday in the parish church in Tsesmes in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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