Christianity and the Seder
The Seder is an integral part of the Jewish celebration of Passover, when Jews celebrate their deliverance from slavery in Egypt. The meal is steeped in tradition and religious significance as they retell the story of their time in Egypt. It exists as a time where Jewish families will come together to share in one of the most important festivals of the year, containing activities specifically designed to involve younger members of the family. The meal itself is of great significance with the food all being symbolic of aspects of slavery or deliverance, from eating maror (bitter herbs) which symbolise the bitterness of the slavery in Egypt, to the dipping of karpas In salt water in order to provoke questions from the children who are present. The entire festival is built upon centuries of tradition and custom that are woven together to create something of not only religious significance, but also of huge cultural importance as it brings both communities and families together.
This is something which is integrally Jewish. As Christians then, we often find ourselves in quite a unique theological position with regards to the celebration of Passover and the Seder. On the one hand we acknowledge and understand that the Jewish faith is central to our own and that the events which unfold throughout the Old Testament lay the foundation stones of Christianity. Yet on the other side we must also recognise that Judaism, the religious belief and cultural identity, is also a distinct and separate entity from our own Christian faith.
When we talk about the links between Passover and Christianity, the most notable is that of Jesus as the Paschal Lamb. Where he celebrates his ‘Last Supper’ before being arrested, according to the Synoptic Gospels this final meal is the Seder. During the meal, Jesus institutes the Eucharistic prayer, our commemoration of Christ’s perfect sacrifice. This is often where the problems with misappropriation arise.
The Seder is and always has been used in commemoration of the flight from Egypt; we need only look at the structure and details of the meal for it to be obvious. When Jesus celebrates the Passover with his disciples, he too is using the Seder in its true context. The conflict comes due to Jesus’ actions with the bread and wine which has led many Christians to feel as though his actions were designed to ‘update’ the Seder meal as a sign of the New Covenant. Jesus’ sacrifice reflects that of the Paschal Lamb; it is a way of emphasising the role that he plays and it is never suggested that it supersedes the original meaning of the event itself
We celebrate the Eucharist as a way of connecting with Christ, the act binds together the Church Universal as we are unified through Christ. The act then is our own, and wholly focused upon the relationship of the Church with God through the people. The celebration of Passover conversely celebrates the relationship of the Jewish people with God through their deliverance out of Egypt.
Not only in a spiritual way, but also as a means of bringing together Jewish families and communities.
A Seder meal that includes Christian Liturgy runs into several difficulties; firstly it is the inevitable distortion. The context of the Seder doesn’t involve Christ or the Church. It exists as the central part of the Passover celebrations, to which as Christians we attach very little significance. We acknowledge and understand that Jesus’ sacrifice can be symbolically likened to the Paschal Lamb in that Jesus fulfils the Paschal sacrifice. But the celebration of Passover itself remains a uniquely Jewish celebration of a period in their collective history. The words of Jesus are found within the Seder meal, but they do not dilute the meaning of the Seder.
When the Eucharist is celebrated on Maundy Thursday, it is a most solemn occasion when Christians commemorate the events that led to the crucifixion. Conversely, the feast of Passover is a joyous occasion, with the theme of deliverance; for Christians this sense of triumph arrives in its fullness only on Easter Sunday. Attempts by some Christian congregations to merge the two liturgies therefore also strikes an emotionally discordant note.
But most importantly, it must always be remembered that modern Judaism is a living faith, and the Passover is celebrated by Jewish communities throughout the world as a deeply important and significant time. One must always be careful not to appropriate those festivals and traditions which belong to others. To take the festival of another faith and place one’s own meaning upon it can be deeply upsetting for those of that faith. This applies not only to Christian use of Jewish festivals such as Passover celebrations, but also to the appropriation by others of Christian festivals or liturgy.
Passover and the Seder meal can act for Christians as a window into the relationship of the Jewish people with God, and perhaps also a view into the origins of Christianity – although its significance is lost if it becomes clouded with other own imposed interpretations.
For Christians wishing to explore and reflect on the Seder meal and the institution of the Eucharist, we would recommend arranging for a Jewish person to come and speak on Passover, perhaps even demonstrating or running a Seder meal. This way we can avoid misappropriation while gaining greater insight into biblical approaches to deliverance, as well as how the first Christians would have viewed events, in the context of our own separate Lent and Easter reflections.