On Sunday some friends and I went to an Episcopal Mass at a church renowned for its Renaissance music as well as its ancient, ornate interior, which looks like 16th century Germany was transported to the Upper West Side. It's right next door to the Methodist church where my synagogue often meets, and where I'll be leading on the holidays. (Rounding out the block is a bank and a Gap, for those who choose to worship other gods.)
I felt lucky to have a second opportunity this week to hear beautiful sounds on a Sabbath day, this time Bach and Palestrina instead of their Ashkenazic and Sephardic counterparts. I hadn't been to a Mass in quite awhile but was struck, once again, by the many similarities between that service and the Jewish version. They quoted the Golden Rule, as we do every morning. They read from Psalm 145, which makes up most of the Ashrei prayer. The priest chanted scripture and began his sermon with words from Deuteronomy that are part of the Shema. Incense was in the air, just like the besamim (spices) at the end of every Shabbat. And the choir performed Sanctus, word for word also part of the Amidah, the central prayer of every Jewish service. I had sung those words in Latin hundreds of times, with various choirs in churches all over New York and (with my college choir) in Europe, before I knew they were part of my own tradition. Orthodox Hebrew schools aren't big on translation, especially when it might highlight similarities between themselves and Episcopalians and Catholics. For years I helped create such music, was moved emotionally and spiritually, and felt guilty. Not until relatively recently did I really get that Bach's God and mine were the same, once you were past the details.
The Episcopal service was also, like ours, extremely long. (I trust that the time flew by for those actually praying, as it does for me on Shabbat). And the reading was from Jonah--exactly what we study on the afternoon of Yom Kippur. The priest's sermon could have easily been given in a synagogue, except for the references to Matthew (and I wouldn't put that past one of my rabbis, either). Jonah, at first, didn't want to participate in the redemption of the city of Nineveh. But God believes in second chances, in new beginnings. The message is the same as ours on the Yamim Nora'im. The Christian word for all this, as I understand it, is grace; for some reason Jews avoid the term. But I think what we mean is similar.