liturgy, Passover Seder

Frank Answers About Christians Celebrating the Passover Seder

Extended Jewish family celebrates Passover

Question: Our congregation would like to have a Seder Meal on Maundy Thursday. I understand that this may be unsupportable theologically and offensive to our Jewish sisters and brothers. Your thoughts, please.

Frank answers: It would be good to know why your congregation would like to have a Passover Seder meal on MaundyThursday. Do they think this will put them closer to the last supper of Jesus with his disciples at which Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper? The synoptic gospels say that the so-called last supper on the night before Jesus’s death was a Passover observance. But the Gospel of John says that this meal occurred “before the Passover.” In John’s chronology the crucifixion of Jesus occurred on the Day of Preparation for the Passover—at the time the lambs for the Passover were being slaughtered in the Temple. So there is not unanimity in the Gospels that the last supper was a Passover Seder (seder means a liturgical order).

There are already a couple of things to note here. We cannot replicate the Passover Seder at the time of Jesus because as it was observed in Jerusalem it was more a national than a family event and it involved the Temple and its sacrificial cult. The Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, so that aspect of the Passover festival is no longer available. The gospel accounts do not give us a description of a typical Seder menu; Jesus’s institution of the Lord’s Supper focuses on the breaking of bread and the shared cup of wine—features typical of any Jewish meal. In any event, the church did not continue to observe the Jewish Passover (Pesach). It observed the Passover (Pascha in Greek) of Christ from death to life. Christ’s death and resurrection was considered the fulfillment of the Passover. The Christian paschal celebration focused on that.

Or, perhaps your congregation wants to experience what Jews experience at their seder meals. The Passover Seder as Jews observe it, like Christian liturgy, is the product of centuries of development, with many medieval elements added by Jews of the Diaspora, and contemporary adaptations to current Jewish interests (such as the existence of the State of Israel). All of this developed in the situation of Jewish and Christian communities separated into two different religions. Yes, the Old Testament (Tanak) story of the passover of the angel of death and the exodus from Egypt is read and commented on in both Jewish and Christian liturgies (the Haggadah provides a script for the Passover Seder; the exodus narrative is included in the lectionaries of Maundy Thursday and the Easter Vigil). But Jews focus on the liberation of Israel from bondage in Egypt and the promise of freedom in the promised land. Christians relate this story typologically to Christ’s passage from death to life and our own entering into his Passover in the waters of death and new life in Holy Baptism. That’s why Baptism became such a central aspect of the Easter Vigil.

It is worth experiencing, to the limited extent that we can, the experiences of the Jewish people. It will give us a better appreciation of their unique history and heritage. But that is best done by being among the Jewish people, by being invited to one of their Passover Seder meals.

Which brings up the issue of Christians doing the Jewish thing. You might be able to import a rabbi to lead a Seder in a Christian congregation. You will find many more rabbis who are offended by the practice of Christian or Christianized seders, because it means we are doing it for our purposes and not to really enter into their historical experience. How would we feel about Jews celebrating the Christian Eucharist? Well, of course, they wouldn’t. Neither should we be celebrating one of their central observances. In spite of paschal themes in Christian theology and liturgy, the Passover Seder has never been a part of the Christian tradition.

What we have is our own liturgical tradition of Maundy Thursday and the other liturgies of Holy Week on Good Friday and Easter Eve. In my experience the Maundy Thursday liturgy is a powerful experience. It includes the culmination of Lent in an act of corporate confession and forgiveness with the individual laying on of hands; the enactment of the foot washing in John 13 (don’t even think of trying to update it, say with a hand washing; nothing else works as well or carries the same impact and meaning); the celebration of the Lord’s Supper on the anniversary of its institution; the stripping of the altar and chancel and the removal of the remaining Eucharistic elements to a side altar of repose, at which members can keep watch and pray into the night.

It may be that members of your congregation would like to experience Holy Communion in the context of an actual meal. This could be justified since the Eucharist was originally celebrated in the context of an actual meal in the first century. The congregation could do this in the context of a pot luck dinner. The Episcopal parish my wife and I attend does this and it works beautifully. The congregation gathers for supper and during the supper the Maundy Thursday lessons from the lectionary were read. At the end of the meal a homily is given on the readings. Then while we sing the Taizé chant Ubi caritas et amor, everyone processes into an adjoining room for the foot washing. Like the Mennonites, those who are willing wash one another’s feet (that’s what Jesus told us to do). Then while we chanted a litany (enclosing the intercessions), we process into the nave of the church. At this point we exchange the peace as an act of reconciliation. Then the Eucharist was celebrated beginning with the offertory. After the communion the altar was stripped while the church was darkened (it is effective to have the choir or a couple of cantors sing Psalm 22 while this is being done) and the elements were taken into a side chapel where some kept vigil while the rest of us dispersed quietly into the night. It is a powerful experience rooted in tradition with a lot of movement that engages the body and therefore the mind in meditation on very profound events. A fitting prelude to the Paschal Triduum.

Maundy Thursday Footwashing
Maundy Thursday footwashing
Maundy Thursday Eucharist
Maundy Thursday altar of repose in side chapel

The Christian celebration of the passover of Christ from death to life is the paschal Vigil on Holy Saturday night.  The Great Thanksgiving over the paschal candle ties together in its repeated “This is the night” on which the blood of the lamb by which the faithful are saved, our forebearers, the children of Israel, were led dry-shod through the Red Sea, Christ arises from hell in triumph, and “all who believe in Christ are rescued from evil and the gloom of sin, are renewed in grace, and are restored to holiness.” After rehearsing the history of salvation in the Old Testament, we process to the baptismal font and in the blessing of the water review salvation through water in the waters of the flood, the exodus through the Red Sea, the crossing of the Jordan, and Jesus’s own baptism in that stream.” Those being immersed in the waters of baptism will be incorporated into this entire story of salvation and will be led into the promised land in the eucharistic feast. In ancient church orders the newly baptized received cups of water (signifying the internal cleansing of the Eucharist) and milk and honey (signifying their entry into the promised land) as well as the cup of wine signifying the blood of Christ the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. This is the pascha (passover) Christians should be focused on during Holy Week and Easter.

Pastor Frank Senn

1 Comment

  1. RichJ

    When I read Exodus 12 I see a prophecy of the execution of Jesus, as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
    Believing Jews who practice the Seder feel the same way. They have not abandoned their beliefs but see a fulfillment in this Seder. The “national experience” is a prophecy of types of shadows as described by the writer of Hebrews.
    BTW in checking out the Greek usage in the synoptic gospels, it looks to me like they were not being specific in describing the Feast of Unleavened Bread whereas John was very specific.

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