SYDNEY, Australia (JTA) — It’s 9 a.m. Christmas morning and I am standing in a queue in a rather ornate, grandiose building in Sydney. I am among the many worshipers at the Church of Mary Immaculate.
And I am about to receive Communion.
Except I’m a Jew, a traditional Jew who only weeks prior had a candelabra flickering in my window for eight nights in celebration of the miracle of Chanukah, when the Greeks tried, but failed, to annihilate the Jews more than 2,000 years ago.
The queue shortens quickly and I only have a fleeting moment to consider an exit strategy, a nanosecond to cut and run. But before I can even try to rationalize religion, or ponder the fact that Jesus was in fact a Jew, I am standing face to face with the elderly priest, who is holding out a wafer that I’m told represents the body of Jesus Christ.
No, I’m not reneging on my religion, severing ties to my ancient heritage or converting to Christianity.
I’m reciprocating a favor to an old mate that dates back to 2004 when my twin girls were named in a synagogue in Melbourne.
He’s an Irish Catholic from a small town near Dublin who grew up in a school run by Carmelite monks. He and his wife came to our baby-naming ceremony and, because they were seated alongside us, the gabbai assumed it would be reasonable to ask him to hold the Torah.
Before he could utter a syllable in his thick Irish accent, he was up on stage embracing the parchment scroll of the Old Testament.
So when he asked me on Christmas morning to take him to church, I figured this was my moment of truth — time to see if I would be prepared to do what he had done for me.
He’s not religious per se, but religion enveloped his upbringing and people across the globe — especially in Ireland — had been saying prayers for him over the past seven months since he was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor.
Those prayers were answered just three days before Christmas when a neurosurgeon in Sydney removed what he described as a tumor the size of an avocado from the back of his head.
His wife and kids were staying at my place. They prayed he’d survive the surgery and be with his family for Christmas. Santa played his part.
Now I was being asked to play mine. But I wanted to bow out. I knew intrinsically this was not a place for a Jew, let alone one who can trace his lineage back to an Orthodox rabbi in Europe centuries ago.
“Just say ‘body of Christ,’ ” my mate advised me.
I shuffled toward the priest.
“Body of Christ,” I muttered.
In return I received a wafer that wasn’t dissimilar to Passover matzah. I put it in my mouth and managed to avoid the second priest offering sips of wine — the blood of Jesus.
“What does the wafer mean?” I asked.
“The body of Christ is in you,” my mate answered.
My throat tightened. My brain scrambled momentarily, incapable of computing such a sentence.
On the way out of church, my mate dabbed his finger in the holy water from a basin and made the sign of the cross on his head and chest. Then he did the same to me.
Not only had I received Communion, I’d been all but baptized on Christmas Day.
As we returned to my house, a Christmas tree was proudly standing in the doorway in order that his wife and kids would feel at home on this very, very special day.
But my house is a Jewish home. I’ve never had a Christmas tree. It’s anathema to my religion. It’s not in my DNA. It represents another world, albeit one in which I exist.
When we first discussed a tree, I admit to being nonplussed, to put it diplomatically. To me it represented a red line, the crossing (pardon the pun) of the Rubicon. I seriously struggled with the idea, I worried about the mixed messages it would send my children and, yes, what the neighbors would think.
Then my wife came home with a long narrow box. I called some friends for advice. Lights? Trinkets? A star atop?
On reflection, Christmas was a wonderful day. Not only did my mate live to celebrate with his family and mine, I got a sneak peak inside a religion that frankly isn’t so far removed from mine. The prayers and penitence, rites and rituals are virtually the same.
In the end, those who were praying on Saturday, Dec. 25 — be it in church or synagogue for Shabbat — were all no doubt seeking a similar end game: purification, forgiveness, thanksgiving, spirituality over materiality.
As Benjamin Disraeli, the former British prime minister who was born a Jew but baptized as a young child, once said, “Judaism is not complete without Christianity and without Judaism, Christianity would not exist.”
Still, I know there’ll be some in our tribe who would disown me, accuse me of heresy, blasphemy and other transgressions. And that’s OK by me.
All I can say to them is this: Forgive me, rabbi, for I have not sinned.