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An Act of Worship

Mary, by Sholem Asch

I’m posting here my Amazon review of Sholem Asch’s book, Mary. If I can introduce anyone to the outstanding Christian works of Asch, I will have done a good thing. -p.

When I was done reading this book, my soul sat in a collapsed heap, drained but cleansed, awaiting the Spirit’s rejuvenating touch.

I was first introduced to the works of Sholem Asch some 25 years ago by an old and dear Jewish friend in NYC. Though he wasn’t sympathetic to Christianity, he just loved Asch’s vivid writing. He gave me a copy of Asch’s phenomenal The Apostle. I had to wait a bit though, for him to find a copy that he hadn’t annotated during his many readings of the work. Such was his devotion to Asch’s writings.

Through the wonders of online browsing, I recently came across Mary, the earliest part of Asch’s trilogy about Christ. Thinking I could use some easy background reading to break up my more serious pursuits, I started skipping around early parts of the book. But the descriptions of Yeshua growing in stature and favor began first to interest me, then to arrest me.

It turns out that Jesus wasn’t air-dropped over Israel as the full-blown Messiah. Just as it is with us, his destiny didn’t come automatically. He had to study the scriptures and interact with people in a developmental way, over what we call his hidden years.

And that is where this book began to shine. I don’t know where else you will get so deep a feel for Jewish culture during Roman times. As he did with The Nazarene and The Apostle, Asch weaves culture and religion with history and geography, with emphasis on the testimony of sacred text, to give the reader rare contextual insight into the lives of the protagonists.

The experience for me was eye-opening and penetrating. Our culture has been so Christianized (and now post-Christianized) that we do not recognize the radically disruptive nature of the historical Jesus event. And even the Jews of today, though they may be unaware, have been largely liberalized by Christianity.

Back then, the dominant culture held that Almighty God had dictated that those who didn’t keep ceremonial law by, for example, not washing up to the elbows before eating, could not enter heaven. Period. Illegitimate children were unclean under sacred law and were to be cruelly rejected. People who had fallen onto hard times were believed to have incurred God’s disfavor and therefore were deemed to be beneath human mercy and kindness.

Into this Asch introduces Jesus, developing in his peculiar beliefs as he matures physically; Jesus, befriending an abandoned, half-feral boy without even a name, and taking him into Mary’s home; Jesus, preaching and demonstrating God’s love to field workers bitterly enslaved by debts to work the land they once owned, who believed they were abandoned not only in this world but also in the next, because of their inability to keep the requirements of the ceremonial Law; Jesus, issuing a revolutionary proclamation in the parable of Lazarus and Dives, whereby it’s not clean forearms that get one into heaven, but a clean heart; Jesus, associating with the oppressed and estranged, giving them hope and removing the bitterness of their condition.

Though Jesus has the ultimate role here, the story is mostly written from Mary’s perspective. As Jesus enters full time ministry she becomes largely separated from him, but she joins him again at that last Passover in Jerusalem. Mary is struggling with letting her son go to his cruel fate, until she has an interactive vision of Rachel. The mother of Israel shows the mother of Jesus the silently pleading eyes of countless Gentiles trapped in sin and darkness, with no hope of salvation. Mary finally understands the extent of God’s salvific plan and the enormity of the love that drives it, and she submits to God’s will and accepts the sacrifice she must make. Subsequently, when Jesus on the Cross prays with his penultimate breath, “Into Thy hands I commit my spirit”, Mary is in such intimate union with him that she isn’t sure who actually had said it, he or she. The truth is, they both had.

And on Sunday morning, when reports that Jesus has been raised from death begin coming in, and Mary for the first time publicly refers to her son as “THE LORD”, the reader also hears it as if for the first time, and feels the same profound shock as do her hearers in the book – a shock that drives two of Jesus’ formerly antagonistic brothers to the ground in tears, finally understanding. This is powerful writing.

It is easy for us who have been raised in a liberal culture to take for granted what Jesus did in freeing us from the stringent requirements of the Mosaic code, and for us to be ignorant of the conflict on the ground that he faced in doing so. We don’t understand what life was like for the person who would please God according to the law back then. Asch fully respects the good aspects of the old way (even bringing out an novel, totally positive interpretation of lex talionus – ‘an eye for an eye’), yet the stark antagonism that he draws between the covenant of legalism and that of spirit simply will not allow the reader the luxury of neutrality. Even as a long-time believer, through this book I gained a much deeper understanding and appreciation of our exalted position in Christ.

Add to that a rare richness in the depiction of the things of the soul and of the relationship between Mary and Jesus, and this book becomes a deeply moving experience that transcends words on a page.

My old Jewish friend who introduced me to Asch wasn’t sure whether Asch had actually converted to Christ or not, though he suspected that he had. That question had remained a curiosity of mine that I revisited over the years. But after reading Mary the issue is resolved for me. This book is none other than a deeply felt and carefully wrought act of worship. Enter in, and be blessed.

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