In a time when Christians are looking for new ways of making worship more concrete and meaningful, much attention has been given to the customs of the past. One of the traditions some Christians have begun practicing is the Seder meal, an important ceremony in the Jewish Passover celebration. On these pages, Steve Schlissel, pastor of Messiah's Congregation (CRC) in Brooklyn, New York, gives his perspectives on Christians using the Seder meal. Rev. Schlissel is a Jewish Christian.
The days before Passover were always a busy time for my mother. She had to fulfill the mitzvah (commandment) to purge the home of all traces of leaven (Ex. 12:15).
Her busyness wasn't unusual in our community. All Jewish homes buzz with excitement in anticipation of the feast that commemorates our freedom, our redemption from bondage in Egypt. The rabbis tell us that each generation of Jews must regard itself as having been personally delivered. This self-consciousness is heightened as Jewish families endeavor together to keep the commandments and traditions relating to Pesach (Passover). And the focus of all these energies is the Seder meal.
It is understandable that many Christians are interested in these traditions and attracted in particular to this meal. But before we as Christians simply adopt and "Christianize" the tradition of the Seder meal, it is important that we answer some related questions.
Can the Seder be legitimately severed from the familial preparation, the community anticipation, and the seven-day feast of unleavened bread that follows? If not, are Christians ready to go the whole nine yards? And if they are willing, doesn't that constitute a return to the weak principles condemned by Paul in Galatians? Also, if the Seder can be severed from its context, is it still recognizably the Seder?
Perhaps a more basic question is this: Why would a Christian want to eat the Seder meal?
Christians who have adopted the Seder point out that this celebration not only sheds light on the Lord's Supper (since it is the supper's historical antecedent— Luke 22) but also serves as a powerful teaching tool. The rich symbolism of the Seder meal forcefully illustrates much Christian truth.
The Seder Meal
Following some preparatory blessings and a ceremonial washing, the Seder ceremony begins in earnest with the questions of a small child. Traditionally the famous "Four Questions," which begin with the summary question "Why is this night different from all other nights?" are asked in Hebrew by the youngest child who is able to speak.
This question provides a platform for the father of the family to recount God's marvelous works on behalf of his covenant people: "Because we were slaves unto Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Lord our God brought us forth from thence with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. And if the Most Holy, blessed be He!, had not brought forth our ancestors from Egypt, we, and our children, and our children's children, had still continued in bondage… ." (How good it would be if we Christian parents regularly and personally recounted to our children what God has done for us in the Messiah!)
During the course of the ceremony (which takes about three and a half hours, including the meal) all the elements on the Seder plate are used or referred to. Among these are the shank-bone, which serves as a reminder of the Passover lamb; the pasty mixture of apples, walnuts, and wine called "charoseth," which reminds us of the mortar used by the Hebrew slaves in construction; horseradish, eaten to induce tears so that all may weep over the bitterness of bondage; and matzoh (unleavened bread), a reminder of the haste with which God's people had to leave Egypt.
The Seder celebration includes much singing and praising. One wonderful song, traditional to the meal, is "Danyenu" ("It would have been enough"), which lists the mercies of God in the exodus. After singing of each mercy, all at the table musically affirm that if God had only done "X," it would have been enough, but that he has, indeed, multiplied his kindnesses toward us. Often the family reserves a group of fun songs for the very end of the celebration, giving the children something to look forward to and thus holding their interest throughout the ceremony.
Learning from the Seder
Whether or not we participate in the Seder, surely it is here that we can learn some lessons from our Jewish friends. Anyone who has studied about or joined in this "covenant" celebration has probably recognized that it is almost entirely geared, from beginning to end, toward the children of promise. It is meant to teach them the identity of the redeemed, to impress upon them the obligations of redemption, and to educate them in the facts of redemptive history. Thus, the Seder is vital to giving Jewish children a sense of covenant continuity. Does our celebration of the Lord's Supper do the same?
The Seder may also remind Christians of the inseparability of food and sacrament. While the Jewish Seder does append the equivalent tokens of bread and wine to the meal in portions roughly equal to our Reformed Lord's Suppers, we should also note well that they are part of a meal! How much damage have we done to our understanding of the sacramental meal by our arbitrary separation of elements from the preceding banquet?
So we may learn some important lessons from the Jewish Passover ritual. And we must acknowledge that the New Testament suggests that it is quite easy to transpose the significance of the Pesach elements into the Christian tradition. In fact, Paul broadly applied several of these elements to Christians in a way that suggests the transposition is obvious. "Don't you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough? Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast—as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore, let us keep the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and truth" (1 Cor. 5:6-7, NIV.)
An Incomplete Meal
When we consider the many lessons we can learn from the Seder meal and when we study the sweeping applications made from one tradition to the other by New Testament writers, it should be easy to understand why many Christians now celebrate the Seder. And it would be logical to conclude that my answer to the question asked in our title is yes.
And it is. Kind of. But it's also no. For you see, I believe the Belgic Confession is correct when it states in Article XXV, "The ceremonies and symbols of the law ceased at the coming of Christ, and all the shadows are accomplished; so that the use of them must be abolished among Christians." And the Westminster Confession is correct in saying that though the gospel sacraments are "fewer in number, and administered with more simplicity and less outward glory, yet in them [Christ the substance] is held forth in more fullness, evidence, and spiritual efficacy, to all nations, both Jews and Gentiles" (VII, 6).
So in comparison with the elaborate Seder meal, the Christian Lord's Supper may be meager, but Christ is merely anticipated in the former but actually present in the latter. That makes the Supper infinitely more blessed. We need to appreciate that difference, and we also need to mourn the fact that unbelieving Jews don't.
Therefore, I would urge Christians who want to participate in a Passover Seder not to do so in their own church or home. Instead, try to secure an invitation from a Jewish friend to such a celebration and see how it's really done. And while you're there, pray for an opportunity to share with the family what the supper really means.