Seders give Christians the Passover experience

  • April 13, 2011
A rabbi holds up matzos during a Passover Seder. More Christians are experiencing this at interfaith Seders. (CNS photo)Christians can’t think of the Easter Triduum, let alone live through it, without thinking of the Passover. Increasingly, Christians are letting that thought lead them to an authentic experience of the Jewish Passover in interfaith Seders.

A Seder is a family meal that ritually re-enacts the Exodus story. It’s the beginning of the Jewish celebration of Passover. Foods served at the Seder are connected directly with the Exodus and the story of Israel’s escape from Egypt is retold, reading the Haggadah aloud through the course of the meal. The Haggadah is a sort of expansion of the Bible story with roots in the Mishnah, a collection of Jewish writings based on oral tradition.

“It’s a story of liberation,” explains Beth Porter. “We’re really meant to appropriate that story for ourselves as we sit at the Seder table — to think about our own journey from bondage to freedom.”

Porter has been participating in annual interfaith Seders since the 1990s, at large events at L’Arche Daybreak in Richmond Hill, Ont., and intimate family Seders at which she is the only Christian present. For her, the Seder is an experience of religion that she can’t shed at the church door.

“The Seder prepares one to think about how one is engaging in the world, to try to contribute to the freedom of all people and the well-being of all people,” she said.

Rabbi Roy Tanenbaum has been asked to lead a number of interfaith Seders, and was to do so again at St. Francis Xavier parish in Mississauga April 13. Jewish Passover is April 18-26.

“It’s an unusual experience to do a Jewish ceremony for non-Jews,” said Tanenbaum, but one he wouldn’t miss.

“It’s not to be declined. It’s something one does with enthusiasm.”

Tanenbaum isn’t quite sure what’s in it for Christians.

“There are Christian groups who do a Seder because they want to connect with their roots — because they think a Seder is very likely the Last Supper and they make all kinds of connections,” said Tanenbaum. “A Christian sees Jesus as the Lamb of God. They understand there is this intimate connection with the Exodus, with the concept of freedom and with the sacrifice of the lamb.”

Tanenbaum is happy to offer an authentic experience of a Seder to Christians. Any connections to Christian theology he leaves to others. He ensures everyone present understands the Jewish experience of Passover.

No one should mistake an interfaith Seder for the full Jewish experience. Interfaith gatherings are conducted in English, not Hebrew, and the ancient text of the Haggadah is usually condensed. Intense debates about the Exodus story that break out around a family dinner table are usually absent or quite subdued in a Seder held for Christians.

Porter recalls a Jewish family Seder she attended that wasn’t over until 1:30 in the morning. That’s not at all unusual.

Some Christians, particularly American Evangelicals, have taken to staging all-Christian Seders. There have been cases of Catholics tacking on a Eucharist at the end.

People should remember, this is an experience of Jewish religion, not some forgotten morsel of Christianity, said Tanenbaum.

“How does a Christian feel if they see a Jew put up a Christmas tree?” asked Tanenbaum. “I wouldn’t say it’s offensive. They’re secularizing what for me is a major religious holiday.”

Fr. Murray Watson, a Scripture professor at London, Ont.’s St. Peter’s Seminary, squirms at “problematic pseudo-Seders that uncritically blend Jewish and Christian elements in forms that are profoundly unhelpful and disrespectful, even when conducted with the best of intentions.”

Watson was part of the third annual interfaith Seder of University of Western Ontario’s Centre for Jewish-Catholic-Muslim Learning April 10. The event attracted about 100 people, “many attending the Passover for the first time,” said Watson.

Events like this are happening across Canada. In Winnipeg about 150 Christians, Hindus, Muslims, native Canadians and Jews gathered at Shaarey Zedek Synagogue for a Seder. This annual gathering has been going for 19 years.

Most Catholics have the Last Supper story deeply ingrained in their religious DNA. It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that the meal Jesus shared with His Apostles was a Seder. That’s a bit simplistic and somewhat romanticized, said Watson. Seders and the Passover have changed over the last 2,000 years. Many of the rituals and parts of the Haggadah actually date from the Middle Ages.

“The exact form today is definitely not the Passover as Jesus and His disciples would have celebrated it in the upper room in Jerusalem,” Watson wrote to The Catholic Register in an e-mail.

Even if a modern Seder isn’t really the Last Supper, there are still plenty of reasons for Catholics to want to experience the beginning of Passover, including intellectual and spiritual curiosity, said Watson.

“Interfaith Seders are valuable, both on an educational and intellectual level and on a community-building level,” said Watson. “They break down stereotypes and eliminate misinformation, promote sensitivity and bring together people who might normally not have much chance to meet and talk.”

Given the 3,000-year history of the Passover, there’s a great lesson in tradition for Catholics who attend Seders, said Watson.

“(Attending a Seder) I am a small part of a very long chain of tradition that has been passed down from one generation to another since centuries before the time of Jesus,” he said. “Despite all the painful events of their history, the Jewish people are still here and still living out their faith with joy, pride and fidelity. What an example and inspiration to us Catholics.”

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