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?