The Right Coast

April 09, 2004
By Maimon Schwarzschild

Having enjoyed the Passover seders this week, I stole off last night to hear Tenebrae, the Holy Thursday rite. It was sung in the High Renaissance polyphony of Tomas Luis de Victoria -- by the Tomas Luis de Victoria Choir of San Diego, no less. This was the authentic Tridentine Latin liturgy, making an improbable appearance at a neighbourhood Catholic Church in San Diego. The intricate, sonorous polyphonic music is gorgeous even when the singing is a little shaky. And Tenebrae is one of the great poetic rituals of the Roman Catholic year: "Quomodo sedet sola civitas..." ("How lonely sits the bereaved city...")

The theme of Tenebrae is a kind of calm, reflective lamentation. The altar is draped in mournful purple, and a candle is extinguished at the end of each psalm or strophe, till there is none left lit. ("Tenebrae" means dusk, nightfall...)

The "mournful city", of course, is Jerusalem.

It is a reminder, not that any reminder is really needed, of Christianity's intimate ties to Judaism. In many languages, even the word for Easter refers to Passover and the paschal sacrifice. (Paques in French, Pascua in Spanish...) Intimacy doesn't mean love, of course. In Christian Europe, Easter was traditionally the season for blood libel accusations, pogroms, and massacres of the local Jews.

It isn't (or wasn't) just that "the Jews killed Christ", though that never helped. (Would Mel Gibson please call his office.) But more than that, Christian allusions to Jerusalem and the people of Israel -- Tenebrae is full of them -- represent a claim that the Church is the New Israel: that God has elected the Church, by virtue of a New Covenant, as the successor to the people of Israel in God's relationship to humanity. And unfortunately, the persistence of the "old" people of Israel, their continuing to exist, unconverted to Christianity, seems (or seemed) to many Christians to mock this claim.

The Economist this week has a pretty good article on today's relationship between Judaism and Christianity.

Passover, and Holy Week, are a reminder that life would be a lot poorer without memory, very much including collective memory. And religion is certainly about memory. (Even if that's not the only thing it's about.) The seder is an exercise in memory; so is Tenebrae. Collective amnesia is a scary thought. It is what Europeans often accuse Americans of, and there is something to the accusation -- though surely not as much as defensive and insecure Euros may want to believe. But collective memory can be scary too: keeping bitter old hatreds and divisions alive.

So I had mixed feelings about the nearly empty church at Tenebrae last night. The Tomas Luis de Victoria Choir of San Diego poured their hearts into the wonderful music. It was a big church. But there weren't more than twenty people in the pews. Almost all had grey hair. And at least one, of course, was an emissary from "old" Israel. (At most one, too, I would guess.) It was sad, of course. But this Jew, at least, feels a little safer, too, in a country where the authentic Tenebrae leaves the pews all but empty.