In a confluence that happens just every several years, Holy Week leading up to Easter overlaps with the Jewish Passover, an eight-day celebration which began Monday at sundown.
That, along with the discussion surrounding Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” is heightening an already-growing interest among Christians about the Passover.
While many Jewish leaders welcome the opportunity to lead interfaith Passover services as a way to foster understanding among faith groups, some are troubled by one manifestation of Christian fascination with the subject.
A growing number of churches are holding their own “Christian” or “Messianic Seders,” which reinterpret the traditional ritual in ways that reveal “Christ in the Passover.”
Proponents say the services help Christians better understand the historic connection between Christianity and Judaism. Critics, meanwhile, say it is disrespectful for any religious group to appropriate rituals from another and that the Christian Seder distorts the original meaning of the Passover.
Today the most widely celebrated Jewish holiday, Passover commemorates the Jewish people’s freedom from slavery in Egypt more than 3,000 years ago. Unleavened bread is eaten, because the Bible says that is all the children of Israel had time to prepare in their haste to leave Egypt.
Practicing Jews celebrate the first two nights of Passover with the Seder, or Passover dinner. Foods eaten during the Seder symbolize stages in ancient Israel’s journey from slavery to freedom.
Haroset–a mixture of chopped walnuts, cinnamon, apples and a little wine–symbolizes mortar the Jewish slaves used to assemble Pharaoh’s bricks. Parsley symbolizes springtime, and it is dipped into salt water to represent the tears of the children of Israel in bondage.
A hard-cooked egg represents rebirth. A shank bone of lamb or other meat, such as roasted turkey, symbolizes the sacrificial lamb offering. Bitter herbs, usually grated horseradish, represent the bitterness of slavery.
The Passover Seder ends with a game for children. A matzoh–unleavened bread–is broken and pieces are hidden. The child who finds it wins a special prize.
Christian observers discover added symbolism for the death, burial and resurrection of the Messiah.
Jews for Jesus, for example, each spring blankets churches across the nation with a “Christ in the Passover” tour, weaving the story of the Exodus with events from the New Testament.
In their book, Christ in the Passover, Jews for Jesus founders Ceil and Moishe Rosen connect the Seder with the birth of Communion, which Christians observe as a reminder of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.
The lamb shank, they say, represents Jesus, who is referred to more than 30 times in the New Testament as the Lamb of God. They think the spattering of lamb’s blood on door frames in the Old Testament resembles the outline of a bloody cross, symbolizing Christ’s sacrifice much later.
They view the matzo as symbolizing Christ’s suffering, because it is poked with small holes and is broken during the Seder meal. The stack of three sheets of matzo–used in Jewish Seder to represent Abraham, Isaac and Jacob–in the Christian version also points to the Trinity.
An extra cup of wine, left untouched in the Jewish ritual to welcome the prophet Elijah when he reappears to announce the coming of the Messiah, in the Christian Seder represents the “cup of the new covenant” mentioned by Jesus in the Last Supper.
“Jesus’ Last Supper was the Passover overlaid with Christian meaning,” said Bruce Queen, pastor of Chamberlayne Baptist Church in Richmond, Va., who held Messianic Seders in two churches where he formerly was pastor.
While critics of the practice say it is disrespectful, Queen observed, “What we have done by just having a ‘cracker and thimble of juice’ seems much more disrespectful than the Messianic Seder.”
“When Jesus said, ‘Do this in remembrance of Me,’ I wonder if he meant a Messianic Seder,” said Queen.
While the Christian Seder plays heavily on the link to the Lord’s Supper, many scholars today question whether the Last Supper described in the New Testament was in fact a Passover meal.
The “synoptic” Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) seem to imply the setting for the Last Supper was a Seder. “With fervent desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer,” Jesus tells the disciples in Luke 22:15.
But the Gospel of John places the Last Supper before the festival of Passover (Jn 13:1), symbolically timing the crucifixion with the ritual slaughter of the Passover lambs.
While it is likely Jesus observed Jewish rituals that were practiced in his day, scholars say the Seder has evolved over the years, and that much of what is said and done around the Seder table today was unknown to Jews in the first century. In fact, some go so far as to question whether the Seder was even practiced as a home-based ritual before destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D.
Another problem is if the Last Supper was a Seder, that would place Jesus’ trial and execution on the first day of Passover, one of the holiest days of the year for the Jewish leaders whom the Gospels portray as active participants in Jesus’ trial and death.
These discrepancies lead some scholars to conclude the Last Supper was an ordinary Jewish meal.
“The Passover Seder does not contain any Christian references, neither expressed nor implied, and it is an act of intellectual dishonesty to impose them,” said a letter to the editor last year in the Chicago Tribune, responding to an earlier column about Seders going on in more than 250 Chicago-area churches.
Rabbi Ira Youdovin, executive vice president of the Chicago Board of Rabbis, agreed that the programs touted as promoting interfaith appreciation pose a problem. Rather than enhancing their understanding of Judaism, “they seek to co-opt an ancient Jewish ritual, still practiced by millions of Jews around the world, by re-interpreting its symbols into something that is no longer Jewish but Christian,” he wrote in a column.
But that doesn’t deter Christians like Queen, who says the Passover doesn’t belong only to Jews, because Christians also share the Old Testament. “The Messianic Seder has given those who have participated a new appreciation for the Lord’s Supper and our common Jewish roots,” he said. “I think that’s good.”
But John Roberts, a retired Baptist minister and associate scholar for the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies in Baltimore, noted that the Lord’s Supper instituted in Scripture has more differences than similarities with the Seder as it is observed today.
There are no women present, and no children asking “Why is this night different from all other nights,” he said. There is also no mention of lamb or bitter herbs, but just bread and wine.
Most importantly, he said, when the Lord’s Supper is mentioned in Matthew, Mark, Luke, Acts and First Corinthians, it doesn’t include unleavened bread. All use the Greek word artos, the regular word for bread, instead of another word, azumos, for unleavened bread.
“The Passover is the context, but the Last Supper seems to me to be a pre-Passover meal of a male teacher with his male disciples, a simple meal of bread and wine,” Roberts said.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.