On Christian Seders

This week, some Christian churches will be hosting seder meals, often right before the Holy/Maundy Thursday liturgy, in order to show the close relationship between Passover and the Eucharist. These meals are modeled on the Passover seder — the ritual meal that Jewish people observe on Passover night to commemorate the events chronicled in Exodus 12. Christians have adopted the Jewish seder in a variety of ways; examples can be found on Web sites such as those of the Women for Faith and Family and the Christian Resource Institute.

A Christian seder typically includes the ritual foods and texts that are part of a seder. Foods include salt water, matzah, horseradish, and haroset (a paste made of fruits and nuts); texts include a child asking “Why is this night different from all other nights?” The ritual elements of a seder can be built around a full dinner or left on its own. Christian churches vary widely in how much commentary they add; some (such as the Christian Resource Institute above) make the Christian connections explicit.

I have to admit I’ve been a bit sheepish about Christians doing seders since I got royally chewed out by a Jewish friend for my association with a church doing such a service. She felt that the service was basically a bunch of Christians play-acting with something sacred to another group of people, pointing out that we wouldn’t really approve of any other group doing any sort of re-enacted Eucharist. While the comparison isn’t exact, I could see her point. Pairing a seder with Eucharist can easily feel supercessionist; is there a more respectful way to acknowledge both the Jewish roots of Christianity and the Jewish people who still observe Passover?

In section 28 of the 1988 document “God’s Mercy Endures Forever: Guidelines on the Presentation of Jews and Judaism in Catholic Preaching,” the (then-) Bishop’s Committee on Liturgy of the USCCB wrote:

It is becoming familiar in many parishes and Catholic homes to participate in a Passover Seder during Holy Week. This practice can have educational and spiritual value. It is wrong, however, to “baptize” the Seder by ending it with New Testament readings about the Last Supper or, worse, turn it into a prologue to the Eucharist. Such mergings distort both traditions…The seder…should be celebrated in a dignified manner and with sensitivity to those to whom the seder truly belongs…Seders arranged at or in cooperation with local synagogues are encouraged.

I do think that the vast majority of churches who host these seders do so with respect, humility, and a desire to learn. Many Christians have been invited to seders hosted by Jewish friends and neighbors, and found that the experience helps them to appreciate the Jewish heritage from which the Last Supper emerged.  If a parish with sensitive leadership, striving for authenticity, hosts a seder in a Christian context, would it be any less informative for the parishioners who attend? Or is the cooperation of a local rabbi or representatives from a synagogue vital?

What are the best practices for seder meals in a Christian context?

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12 comments

  1. I am all for Christians getting a better understanding of Jewish tradition. I am not sold on having Christian seders as a good way to to that (any more than I would recommend Jewish families play-act the Roman Missal at around a home table during Passover in order to understand Catholicism better).

    First, there’s the problem of anachronism: the seder as practiced today is not the seder of the time of the Herod’s Temple; the ritual we know today post-dates the Temple.

    And, even so, reducing the seder experience to the meal only is a distortion; the preparations for it are part and parcel of it, and it is preeminently a family affair, so separating the seder from the family is another distortion. (And that is putting aside the whole dimension of actual (not merely virtual) pilgrimage that was a salient feature of Pesach in the time of Jesus.)

    And then there is the issue that the Last Supper was probably not a seder (even the current Pope seems to concede that in his book).

    And, finally, even early Jewish Christians themselves would have distinguished ritually between the annual seder and the weekly meal of the first day of the week.

    1. re: Karl Liam Saur on April 3, 2012 – 8:21 am

      Thank you Karl for your good points. I particularly agree with your idea that “And, even so, reducing the seder experience to the meal only is a distortion; the preparations for it are part and parcel of it, and it is preeminently a family affair, so separating the seder from the family is another distortion”.

      Indeed, the cleaning of the home and other preparations for the seder and Passover, as well as the arrangement of the seder table, are rich in performative and symbolic meaning. I respect that the seder is woven through with many layers of liturgical meaning. As a Christian guest at the family seder of two close friends, I can appreciate the unfolding of the seder in the presence of all gathered without having to recontextualize the seder according to my beliefs. At my friends’ seder I am enveloped both by the ritual action and their hospitality.

      As you note Karl, Christian misappropriation of the seder might not enhance Christians’ knowledge of Jewish belief and ritual. I also agree with Chris Angel that christianized seders could be interpreted as supersessionist. I would think this to be especially true if the haggadah is decontextualized and re-written to “correspond with” or “illustrate” Christian beliefs, as this is against the Vatican directive Angel cited. For all these reasons I am quite wary of attending a christianized seder, as I would consider my participation to be a validation of prejudices and not a recognition of Judaism as distinct from Christianity.

      1. The only seder that I’ve experienced in a parish setting was presided over by the Jewish Rabbi in the town of my former parish who agreed to do it for our parish. He had a great sense of humor and made the whole event fun while still emphasizing the true nature of it for the Jewish people. I had not experienced a seder before and thought that it would be a very somber, temple-like experience similar to the solemness of our Mass. But rather the Rabbi made it into what it is for most Jews, a religious family meal that is both formal and informal as well as fun and meaningful for the participants especially the children who are present. In my current town our Rabbi has made a point of inviting Christians to a planned sedar supper in their social hall where he basically does the same thing as the Rabbi did in my former parish.

  2. Karl Liam Saur :

    And, finally, even early Jewish Christians themselves would have distinguished ritually between the annual seder and the weekly meal of the first day of the week.

    Some good points here, Karl, especially on the home context of the meal. On that last point, though – the existence of Quartodeciman Christians from the first all the way up to the fourth century shows us that there were many who did not distinguish between the annual Passover meal and the Christian Eucharist. Wikipedia has a good article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quartodecimanism

    Of course, the fact that the early Christians did not distinguish does not mean that we don’t distinguish today, but it’s an interesting historical phenomenon.

    1. Though that’s more about Easter itself; there’s a chicken-and-egg argument about the coexistence of weekly Sunday worship and the development of the annual Easter celebration, and the Quartodeciman controversy was about the latter, et cet.

  3. Our Church is celebrating a Christian Sedar this evening. As part of the introduction we tell the group that it is not a true Sedar – that it would be impossible as Christians to celebrate that – but it is an attempt to understand the physicality of the Last Supper – that it was not 13 men sitting politely around a table – that it is about family – and we believe that we are there as family and Lent is our pilgrimage.
    Every year it is an incredible success – the coming together to prepare, the meal itself, the building of relationships across families and age groups, the sense of community and faith that moves outside the church (it is held in the school hall) and the understanding of our lineage (no New Testament readings or references) , make it worthwhile. It is celebrated with respect, humility and acknowledgement of our shared history.

  4. I had the privilege of participating in an “Intergroup Seder” last week. It is an annual event of the Oregon Area Jewish Committee, and this year it was held at the local Jewish Community Center.

    The gathering is also part of the “final term calendar” for Transitional Deacons from the nearby Benedictine Mt. Angel Seminary. This year I was privileged to sit among with the seminarians at one of the tables.

    Overall, the Seder attendees came from a variety of over 15 faith traditions and denominations.

    And yes, I’m old enough to remember when parishes held “Christan Seders” back in the 1970s.
    (Yes, that was in the previous century!)

  5. We already have a Christian context seder/Passover; it’s called the Easter Vigil. The Easter Proclamation says : “These then are the feasts of Passover, in which is slain the Lamb, the one true Lamb, whose blood consecrates the doorposts of believers…” (see also the collects # 25 of the Easter Vigil).

    The fact that we might feel the need to “create” a pseudo-liturgy that helps folks get the connection between Passover and the Eucharist suggests that we might need to trust the rites of the Church more, and celebrate them well.

    -Mark Hoggard

    1. Yes, in English and Germanic languages we lose sight of the fact that the Christian name for Easter is generally…Passover (Pascha in its Greek and Latin/Romance variations).

    2. There are subtle differences between the Easter Vigil and the Seder which the keen eye might spot. The presider announcing that “these are the feasts of Passover” doesn’t really transform a parish congregation gathered in a church for Mass into a family group gathered around a table for a meal.

      There is, surely, room for devout Christians to honour the tradition that underpins our faith. After all, if God hadn’t rescued his people from Egypt, there would be no Christianity. The Seder has performed this function for centuries and I don’t think we should be too scared to explore and express what is, when all’s said and done, our own heritage.

  6. Did a Seder celebration for years after the Holy Thursday service – was done for a catholic high school and it was planned, organized, and led by students. It was a very good educational experience and we even invited a Jewish rabbi to some classes prior to Holy Thursday.

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