Many Christian Seders are framed by the view that the Jewish Seder is full of symbolism pointing toward the Messiah, something I see as taking away from the original focus and beauty of Passover. The reality of mixed messages is muddied by the context that the Last Supper could not have closely resembled the modern Seder. The components of the Jewish Seder experienced today come from the period after the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 C.E. (some 40 years after Jesus was crucified).
So what are Christian faith communities to do with local traditions that emphasize Christ and the Last Supper as central components of their Seder meal events? I think it valuable to look for denominational guidance and reflect on what the motivation for holding such an event is. As someone who has experienced several Seders hosted by Jewish friends and a couple hosted by Christian faith communities that focused on the Jewish Passover (without overlaying Christ), I believe Christian Seders are inauthentic and inappropriate especially during Holy Week.
I was pleasantly surprised to see that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Episcopal Church support this view and wish that I had done my homework prior to attending a “Christian” Seder this week.
The Episcopal Church states:
Because of its apparent connection with the institution of the Eucharist, Christians have sometimes celebrated Christian Seders. These have sometimes been offensive to Jews. The celebration of a Christian Seder during Holy Week is considered inappropriate because it is a festal celebration.
The ELCA states:
Despite the good-will expressed in such a desire (not only to know the background and origins of the Eucharist but to come closer to those of Jewish faith), the celebration of the Seder meal poses certain problems.
- In trying to imitate what might have happened are we restricting the newness and radical nature of the Eucharistic celebration?
- Do we think that the closer we get to what really happened the closer we will be to truly understanding the Eucharist?
If we look at the meal tradition in the gospels, we will notice something peculiar: Jesus was breaking every ritual norm when he celebrated a meal. He would eat with those deemed unworthy (or ritually “unclean”) and, when he ate with “religious folk,” he always introduced an element to unsettle the ritual purity of the event (Matthew 9:9-13; Luke 7:36-50; Luke 19:1-10). The meal tradition Jesus initiated (constituted by all the meals Jesus celebrated with his followers and not only the Last Supper) was to be perhaps a ritual, which did not have its center in itself but was to be a liturgical ritual which always points away from itself making its participants aware of their responsibility to those who were not yet part of the meal celebration. The meal tradition as celebrated by Jesus was so radically different, so radically new that the meal (the sharing of bread and wine – and not the elaborate ceremony of the Seder meal) became the central act by which the early Christians (and all subsequent generations) remembered Jesus. The desire to celebrate a Seder meal as “Jesus did” can dilute the memory of the radical newness of what Jesus began as it can divert attention from the primary “passage” which Christians celebrate in the Easter Vigil and which culminates in the Eucharistic celebration on Easter Sunday (the Eighth Day).
There is, however, a second problem too. We do not know how the Seder meal was celebrated at the time of Jesus nor do we know if the Last Supper was a Passover meal at all. The gospels accounts are conflicting. In the Gospel of John, Jesus celebrated a meal with the disciples before the designated time for the Passover meal. This allowed John to equate the death of Jesus with the sacrifice of the Passover lamb. But perhaps even more importantly is the fact that we simply have no written accounts of the Seder meal from the first century. In fact, the earliest written accounts of the Seder meal date from the medieval period; they witness to a Seder meal which had developed and changed significantly from the meal celebrated in the first decades of the first century of the Common Era when the Temple was still the center of Jewish ritual and religious life. Following the order of these Seder meals does not in any away get us closer to what the meal might have been for Jesus.
It is an admirable and truly Christian practice to be open and welcoming of other religious traditions. Christian liturgical practice, however, cannot simply be an imitation of another tradition nor can it hope to be more “faithful” by being more historically authentic. Perhaps a far more urgent concern for Christians in the twenty-first century should be the extent to which their meal practice is attentive to the outsider, to the dispossessed, to the one who cannot return the invitation.