A Liturgy for the Fifth Gospel

There’s a longstanding maxim amongst Christians that the Holy Land is likened to the fifth gospel. The place seems to have a persona of its own, one rich with history and memory that is intensely palpable. The land seems to remember its ancient identity. In a tangible, tactile way, it portrays the geography, history, theology, politics, religious tensions, and social milieu of the land in which Christ himself lived – the very land that Moses laid eyes on in this week’s lectionary passage from Deuteronomy.

Judaism holds that the greatest prophet to ever have been alive was Moses, for he was able to see God face-to-face. Midrashic tradition says that it was God own self who buried Moses, taking his life gently and peacefully with a single kiss – an act of pure love for God’s dear friend. Joshua, then, was instructed to complete the Torah as a way to spare Moses the pain of having to write of his own impending death.

Ethan Schwartz, Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible at Villanova University, writes in his essay, “This Is the Land,” that every time he reads these passages aloud and thinks of the Rabbinic interpretation, he weeps. “I weep,” he says, “for Moses, who did not get to see the fruit of his life’s work—and I weep for God, who had to say goodbye to the only human being who ever truly knew him.”