Eternal beasts (or ‘Is this cat in heaven?’ part 2)

"The Peaceable Kingdom," by Edward Hicks (c. 1834)

I like to think that one of the gifts in the age to come will be enjoying lap time with my cat and maybe the company of other animals, but Sister Mary Martha will have none of that. No way, no how, the blogging sister says. (Motto: “Life is tough. Nuns are tougher.”) But even she acknowledges that many Christians think otherwise, and so they do. A recent article in Christianity Today, which I mentioned in my last post, offered a range of opinions.

Jewish thought is just as ambiguous. (Look here and here, for examples.) Jewish commentators hint at a possible dividing line: The Aristotelian-leaning rabbis, such as the great medieval scholar Maimonides, are less inclined to see a place in heaven for animals. But the more mystically inclined, such as those who follow Kabbalah, think animals will be in heaven, in part because their rabbis taught that souls transmigrated—that human souls not ready for heaven enter the bodies of animals (ideally kosher ones, of course). But that’s another issue.

Muslims, on the other hand, generally agree that the Koran teaches animals will be in paradise, part of the enjoyment God promises to his faithful ones. The Islamic concept of “Jannah,” or paradise, differs dramatically from the Christian, but I’m struck by the reasoning here. Animals, Muslims say, do what they were created to do by God, and so they “submit” to him–an important word, since that’s what the word “Islam” means. From that perspective, it makes that sense that God would admit them to paradise. That is, if I’m interpreting this teaching correctly, Muslims say God allows animals into heaven, rather than excludes them, precisely because they don’t have the choices we do, and he will be merciful.

I don’t know if we’ll reunite with pets and other animals in heaven. I hope so: they would fit with the joy.

I know, I know: there are all kinds of logical objections. If animals go to heaven, for instance, will we have to put up with mosquitoes and cockroaches for eternity? (C.S. Lewis helpfully pointed out in the Problem of Pain that “if the worst came to worst, a heaven for mosquitoes and a hell for men could very conveniently be combined.”)

Maybe the bigger question here is why I—why we—are so taken by this question. Why does this matter? Perhaps the way we think about animals offers clues to how we think about the creation and even the creator. I want my old cat in heaven because he was worth something, part of God’s good creation, and I like to think that God is generous even to cats and dogs, not to mention lambs and wolves who can enjoy a peaceful meal together.

I imagine heaven would give animals the same essential gift we Homo sapiens hope for: to live fully as intended. Dear departed Stache will get to live out his perfected “catness,” whatever that means, much as I look forward to fully live out my perfected “humanness.”

One last thought: If we embrace the idea of a God who cares for his creatures even into eternity, shouldn’t we care about them as well in the here and now?

You’ve seen one holiday, you’ve seen them all. Not so much.

I took a bit of vacation this week, and so this week’s column updated and adapted material from one published on Dec. 20, 2003.

If an alien dropped in on us right now, he (she? it?) would find us sorting through the remnants of holidays stacked up for more than a month: Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, the winter solstice, Christmas, Kwanzaa, New Year’s. (We’re not quite finished yet. The Christian feast of Epiphany is Jan. 6.)

Our other-worldly visitor might think all these festivities shared a common origin, that they were only variations on the theme of brightening dark and cold nights, of finding comfort in the winter chill as we wait for spring’s eventual return.

But he (she? it?) would be wrong. Similarities and even shared traditions don’t mean these holidays are the same. (A movie star and I share a birthday and we both eat cake, but that doesn’t make us brother and sister.)

For instance: Christmas – the Christian celebration, not the social and economic spectacle – marks the birth of Jesus Christ in a Palestinian village around the year 4 B.C.

Hanukkah, the Jewish “festival of lights,” observes the rededication of the Jerusalem temple after it was recovered from Greek occupiers in 165 B.C. The feast lasts eight nights because the story says that after the victory, a small vial of oil miraculously provided light for that length of time.

The winter solstice, the longest night of the year, marks the northern hemisphere’s turn toward spring as days start to lengthen again. The anticipation of warmer weather was reason enough to celebrate in ancient societies, and among pagans these seasonal changes took on religious significance.

Not surprisingly, with the rise of the Christian church in Europe, seasonal rites as such were abandoned or reinterpreted with Christian teachings. But in our more diverse time, solstice is making a comeback.

Then there’s Kwanzaa, a modern American invention, created during the 1960s as a week-long celebration of African culture and heritage.

You get the idea: similar timing, similar observances (gifts and candles galore), but vastly different meanings.

These various holidays don’t only mark different events. As a local theologian points out, they also reflect different ways of thinking about the world and how it works. The contrasts are especially noticeable when we compare holidays like Christmas and Hanukkah, which claim unique historical events as their basis, with the solstice, which marks a recurring natural cycle.

“I think you can argue that those who celebrate solstice understand time to be cyclical,” according to Philip Kenneson, professor of theology and philosophy at Milligan College. That is, a pagan view sees time like a wheel, constantly revolving alongside the cycles of nature.

It’s an idea about the world shared by ancient pagan societies and many Eastern religions. In this view, “any particular moment in time is not any more important than another,” Kenneson said. “There’s no sense of movement to history.”

By contrast, Judaism and Christianity – the religions most influential in Western cultures – typically view history as an unfolding “story” made up of unique events. In this view, said Kenneson, time takes on a different kind of significance.

“History as we understand it in the West is rooted in a more linear view of time,” he said. “Specific events have meaning. They contribute to or thwart a certain movement in history.”

While he won’t go so far as to call this a biblical view of time, he does say “a lot of this is assumed in Jewish and Christian understanding.”

There is overlap, of course. Christians and Jews observe natural cycles – look at the church calendar or the Jewish feasts – and those who observe the solstice don’t deny that new events occur.

Even so, Kenneson thinks a fundamental difference exists between those who find meaning mainly in the recurring cycles of nature and those who find it in a developing story.

 “Those cycles by themselves don’t tell the whole story. They are real, but they don’t shape our whole lives,” Kenneson said. “(In the linear view) there’s something above and beyond that. The direction of history has been forever altered.”

Maybe that’s why we wish each other a happy new year. We not only anticipate the year to be different. We expect it to be literally meaningful – to truly mean something.

 First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 2 Jan 2010.

‘We say prayers in the plural’: Bernie Madoff, Yom Kippur and East Tennessee Jews

Image: cover of an Australian children's book by Camille Kress
Image: cover of an Australian children's book by Camille Kress

Rabbi Earl Jordan takes the Bernie Madoff scandal personally.

Madoff, you might recall, is the New York financier who is now in prison for cheating thousands of investors out of about $65 billion. His crimes sent a wave of disgust throughout the Jewish community.

“You can imagine how the Madoff scandal embarrassed and angered us,” said Jordan, the new rabbi at B’nai Sholom Congregation near Bristol. “Jews are fond of talking about the list of Nobel Prize winners (who are Jewish). Not that anyone expects his child will be a Nobel Prize winner because of that, but with our history, we’ve had some need of building confidence. When we have somebody like a Madoff, he’s such an embarrassment to the whole community.”

During this same phone conversation, Jordan mentioned the July arrests of 44 people in New Jersey, including five rabbis, who were charged in an elaborate scheme that involved international money laundering and the sale of human body parts.

Bernie Madoff
Bernie Madoff

“It’s been a hard year for Jews,” he said.

Spiritually speaking, that year is coming to an end. Tomorrow marks the end of the most important 10-day period in the annual Jewish calendar: Yamin Nora’im, literally “the days of awe,” or, as they are more commonly called, the High Holy Days.

They began last week with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and conclude tomorrow with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Yom Kippur is observed with a 25-hour fast, excluding young children and the sick or infirm, and an extended worship service. The day is solemn but not sad because when the day ends at sunset, Jews will feel released from burdens of sins committed against God in the past year and invigorated by anticipation for the year to come.

But these observances are not between one person and God. They are centered in the community, in large degree because Jews regard the sins of one person as shared to some extent with their community. Madoff’s transgressions caused spiritual shockwaves, not just financial ones.

“When one person sins, the stain is on the whole people,” Jordan said.

That also helps explain why Yom Kippur means forgiveness only from offenses against God, not against other people. Jews must reconcile directly with anyone they have wronged. In fact, rabbis of old taught that a person would not be forgiven at all until he had “appeased his neighbor.”

“We feel a communal responsibility,” Jordan said. “We say our prayers in the plural.”

Jordan, a 75-year-old Boston native, has come out of retirement for the second time to serve B’nai Sholom. (“I was retired four years and I was bored out of my skull,” he said.)

During a career lasting almost a half century, Jordan served congregations in seven states, taught at universities and administered Jewish nonprofit organizations. He moved to East Tennessee a little over a month ago.

He is rooted in the more liberal Reform tradition but is also a member of the Conservative denomination, a breadth of perspective the congregation shares because of both history and necessity, since it is probably the only synagogue between Roanoke, Va., and Knoxville.

“I was fascinated by the circumstance here: a small congregation that was willing to go to the expense and trouble of a full-time rabbi,” Jordan said. “I loved the idea of people coming from so wide a geography. I thought that would be interesting, and the people here sold me. They seemed so warm and welcoming.”

bssignJordan’s arrival has kindled new interest in the 105-year-old congregation, which counts 55 households as registered members. The synagogue was full during last Friday’s Rosh Hashanah service, with at least 120 worshipers.

To Jordan, that’s a start.

“My agenda is to make the congregation a little more welcoming than it had been,” he said. “The same people had been doing the work to maintain the congregation … but they’re burned out. They’ve needed some new motivation and some new programming.”

He comes with ideas and is already talking with members about the congregation’s future, conversations he hopes to extend into regular Saturday-morning gatherings. It’s too early to know exactly what will develop, he said, but he feels comfortable in his new community.

“I’ve found a fertile place to develop new friendships,” he said. “That’s one of the things I am so impressed with. I don’t feel like a stranger.”

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 26 Sept 2009.

The URI tries on its Bible Belt

coexistPat Griggs of Johnson City, a self-described activist, traces her “call” to a quarter century of interfaith involvement.

In the early 1980s, she helped organize people of different faiths to protest nuclear arms. On the morning of Sept. 12, 2001, she sat in a school parking lot to make sure the children of Muslim friends made it to class without incident.

So joining the effort to re-launch a local chapter of the United Religions Initiative? No question.

The URI is a worldwide network designed to encourage cooperation among people of different faiths, whether Christian or Jewish or Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist or Wiccan or agnostic. The ultimate goal is world peace, based on the idea that before the world can find harmony, the religions of the world must learn to live together.

URI was born in 2000, the brainchild of Bill Swing, the Episcopal bishop of California, who dreamed of an organization that would serve as a kind of United Nations for religions. Today, URI claims more than one million people from 120 faith traditions are involved in more than 320 local self-governing organizations, or “cooperation circles,” in 60 nations. The U.S. and Canada comprise 44 circles, including the one in Johnson City, the only circle in Tennessee.

The local “CC” was formed in 2000, but small membership limited its efforts mainly to hosting an interfaith dinner each Thanksgiving.

Last spring, however, the Rev. Jacqueline Luck, who moved to the area in 2007 as the new minister of the Holston Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, gathered the few CC members for lunch, and they decided the time was right for a new start.

With Luck acting as coordinator, a dozen people from at least five faith traditions gathered at the Johnson City public library on Aug. 31 to gauge interest in interfaith cooperation and discuss what a revitalized CC might do.

“There was a lot of energy in developing a circle,” Luck said in a phone conversation this week. “The roots are already planted. We just need to nurture it a little bit.”

Since CCs are self-governing, there is not one model. Some emphasize environmental issues; others focus on educating about religions; still others work to help poor people. Whatever shape the local group takes, Luck thinks it can make a big impact.

“I think the main thing is learning to work together,” she said. “Anything to help with this community, to work on local issues that cut across faith boundaries. That’s why I think it’s a natural to do justice work. In this area, caring for the earth is a strong possibility too. It’s trying to love our neighbor in one way or another. That’s common ground too.”

URI logoThese goals sound praiseworthy, but the URI has been the object of criticism from its start. Various religious groups, including the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches and several evangelical Christian bodies, keep the URI at arm’s length. (For examples, go here and here.)

They suspect that the URI is promoting a philosophy that artificially erases distinctions between faiths or dilutes doctrine to a hodge-podge of vague spiritual clichés. Many Christians, for example, find it hard to reconcile the URI’s goals with Scriptures that teach Jesus is “the only name under heaven by which we might be saved.” They point out that the URI’s charter is written with such broad strokes that it never even uses the word “god.”

But seeking common ground, say URI supporters, is not the same as asking believers to abandon their own faith.

“The URI is a bridge-building organization, encouraging mutual respect among all faiths, with domination by none,” according to Sandy Westin, technology and communications coordinator for the URI in North America. “It in no way encourages homogenization of religious belief, but rather encourages respect for the sacred wisdom of each religion, spiritual expression and indigenous tradition.” The URI charter, Westin pointed out, encourages members to deepen their roots in their own traditions.

“We’re trying to learn to communicate with each other, trust each other and work together toward this ideal of hoping all religions can exist together,” Luck said. “I’d like us to be visible in the community as an example of what’s possible, to be standard bearers for harmony among religious people.”

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 12 Sept 2009.

Kennedy: Perhaps another ‘man after God’s own heart’

Edward Kennedy in 2008
Edward Kennedy in 2008

Thinking about Sen. Edward Kennedy this week, I found my mind oddly drifting toward King David, that renowned ruler of old Israel.

Sunday school lessons highlight David’s heroics – his life as a simple shepherd, his showdown with Goliath, his psalms. But his political career and family intrigues actually resemble scenes from “The Godfather.”

As a warrior, David earned such a blood-soaked reputation that God refused to let him build a temple. His worst moment combined dereliction of duty, adultery, deception and murder, starting a chain of events that spiraled down to open rebellion by his oldest and favorite son and generations of trouble.

Even near the end of his long life, when he was feeble and perhaps senile, David gave more than the throne to his son Solomon. He also passed along a hit list. David spectacularly broke almost all of the Ten Commandments.

And yet God kept David in his pocket. He was, according to the Bible, “a man after God’s own heart.”

Perhaps that was because David ultimately threw himself before God, whether it was challenging giants or dancing nearly naked in the streets during a worship procession.

He composed psalms that questioned and railed at God in fear and frustration, cried to him for vengeance against enemies and gloated over their downfall. But knowing his sins, he invariably came pleading for mercy and forgiveness. He always praised God in the end, seeking him wherever he might find him – under the stars, below the mountains, in the temple, in his bedroom, through the valley of the shadow of death. Despite everything, this womanizing, scandalized, troubled chieftain could still write, “My help comes from the Lord.”

Maybe it was that relentless if imperfect pursuit that warmed God’s heart.

Culture and circumstance – not to mention 3,000 years – put a lot of distance between King David and Sen. Kennedy. Even so, elements in Kennedy’s life and career sound familiar.

Bobby, Jack and Teddy: The Kennedy brothers in 1957.
Bobby, Jack and Teddy: The Kennedy brothers in 1957.

The senator for years lived a kind of high-wire act, often played out in public, that tried to balance great personal gifts, high ambitions, deep flaws, terrible tragedies and a durable faith.

As one of the most effective legislators in American history, he likely made a more profound impact on the nation than his celebrated brothers. Along the way, he showed graciousness in an ungracious town, whether dealing with political allies or foes, junior staffers or people on the street.

The best-known and perhaps most powerful Roman Catholic politician in the country, Kennedy cited his faith as one of his central motivations in his commitment to helping ordinary people through education, higher wages and, above all, health care. In what was for him typical bipartisan fashion, he worked with Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch to pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, an effort to relieve governmental burdens on the exercise of religion.

But Kennedy didn’t walk lockstep with his church, and he put himself at odds with Roman Catholic teaching most severely with his support of abortion rights, an inconsistency that not even the famous Kennedy mystique could overcome. And despite the personal peace that his second marriage brought him, divorce and remarriage offended many fellow believers.

Kennedy was a flawed person, and he knew it. In a 1991 speech at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, Kennedy openly addressed “the faults in the conduct” of his private life.

“I realize that I alone am responsible for them, and I am the one who must confront them,” he said.

Despite this – or possibly because of this – by all accounts he found strength and comfort in his faith, especially during his last years. The Cape Cod parish priest regularly visited the Kennedy home and held a private family Mass there every Sunday. Kennedy led his family in prayer after the death of his sister Eunice three weeks ago, and he spent his own last hours in prayer.

“He was a Rabelaisian figure in the Senate and in life, instantly recognizable,” wrote John Broder in The New York Times obituary this week. “He was a celebrity, sometimes a self-parody, a hearty friend, an implacable foe, a man of large faith and large flaws, a melancholy character who persevered, drank deeply and sang loudly.”

Something about Edward Kennedy makes me hope that, like King David, he was finally a man after God’s own heart.

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 29 Aug 2009.

The 1,600-year-old online Bible

  1. from I Maccabees 6, Codex Sinaiticus. Note the faint erasure mark.
  2. from I Maccabees 6, Codex Sinaiticus. Note the erasure on the third line. 

Robert Hull, professor of New Testament at Emmanuel School of Religion, has spent much of his three-decade academic career studying ancient biblical texts, how they were first written down and how they changed from copy to copy. What was added? What was deleted? Maybe most important: why?

Such work, formally known as text criticism, might seem like an obscure exercise in eggheadism, but the findings trickle down to the Bibles people read and even to what they believe.

“Studying the early texts presumably gives us a better idea of what the original text said,” Hull said as we sat in the Emmanuel library this week, looking at facsimiles of ancient Bibles. “It also gives us an insight into the early church’s handling and thinking about the texts.”

Scholars like Hull, whose doctoral work at Princeton specialized in text criticism, were given a new tool this week when a Web site was launched that presents the entire text of one of the most important ancient Bibles.

The Codex Sinaiticus – literally “the book of Sinai” – dates from about the year 350 and contains the earliest complete copy of the New Testament as well as most of the Old Testament. About 800 pages of the original 1,400 pages remain, all handwritten in Greek.

The book got its name from its earliest home, the Orthodox monastery of St. Catherine’s, at the base of Mount Sinai in Egypt. The manuscript came to the world’s attention 150 years ago when a Russian scholar named Constantine Tischendorf obtained pages from the monastery and had them published. While some pages remained in the monastery, most eventually landed at institutions in Russia, Germany and England.

So until now, scholars wanting to study the text had to undertake long and difficult travels, perhaps to all four locations and with no way to directly compare passages housed in different countries.

But in 2005, the four institutions agreed to put the entire text online, digitally reuniting the book. That project was unveiled last week (

A Codex Sinaiticus manuscript displayed at the British Library in 2007.
A Codex Sinaiticus manuscript displayed at the British Library in 2007.

The site not only includes detailed photos of the pages, but transcriptions of the text, translations into four languages, including English, a search engine, and even different types of lighting, which allows viewers see page textures, faint notations or flaws – all hints about the history of the text.

The site is a boon to scholars, letting them see details they may have missed before, if they ever had a chance to see them at all.

“Remember that until now, when someone looked at a lot of these pages, they were limited to using natural light or candles,” Hull said. “With digitizing (Sinaiticus) on the Web, paleographers (scholars of ancient texts) possibly can confirm a reading that was dubious or challenge something we thought was established. It will give us a clue about the history of the passage.”

No absolutely original texts of the Bible, or autographs, are known to exist, only copies of copies, and just a few of them the size and scope of Sinaiticus. Many fragments are the size of a postage stamp.

While some pieces date from close to the originals, with each copy scribes could mistakenly introduce an error, or someone might add comments that worked their way into the text.

Scholars estimate that the Greek New Testament as we now have it contains about 300,000 variations. About 90 percent of them are trivial, Hull said, such as misspelled names or grammatical errors.

But that still leaves thousands of more substantial differences. Variant readings in the story of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, for instance, can affect the theological overtones of the Christian communion service. Does it matter that the earliest copies of Revelation say the number of the mysterious beast is 616, not 666?

Is the Christian message compromised because the earliest texts of the Gospel of Mark, including Sinaiticus, end with the women who visit Jesus’ empty tomb “afraid”? (Scholars are convinced the familiar final dozen verses were added later, perhaps to harmonize with the later books of Matthew and Luke.)

Not at all, according to Hull.

“No single variation by itself would overturn Christian doctrine,” Hull said. “The Gospel of Mark still has Jesus raised from the dead.”

But studying the ancient texts – a task made immensely easier with the online Sinaiticus – can help clarify Christian history and thought, and perhaps even help believers better understand what is essential to their faith.

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 11 July 2009.

Still troubled after all these years: The messy history of Israel and Palestine

A Jerusalem newspaper on May 14, 1948, announcing the modern state of Israel.

Israel was a nation full of heroes.

That’s what I concluded as a teenager when I nurtured a fascination with the new nation of Israel. The nation seemed to be a modern miracle brought into existence by faith, ingenuity and courage.

A lot of history has passed since then. May 15 was the anniversary of the nation’s founding in 1948, when Britain ended its post-World War I “mandate” as Middle East caretaker, in theory leaving Arabs and Israelis to sort out their own problems. It hasn’t worked very well.

Israel through adolescent eyes

My interest in Israel sprang partly from family: my father was Jewish. But long after my parents divorced and I had converted to Christianity, I clung to a thin claim to Judaism. As the Yom Kippur War raged in 1973, my brother and I even discussed the merits of fighting for Israel, should the war last several more years. (Our Israel-loving pastor assured me that we could be good Christians if we fought for love of Israel, but not if we hated Arabs.)

My early adolescent eyes saw an idealized story, enhanced by biblical quotations: A long struggle to gain a Jewish homeland, historically justified after the Holocaust. A bold underdog fighting for survival against the surrounding Arab foes. A new community carved from a sliver of land, finding a noble form in the kibbutz. The new Israel was transforming Palestine from a chaotic, barren desert into a fertile, blossoming society.

This straightforward reading was inspiring to a sort-of-Jewish boy whose own country was militarily and morally bogged down in Vietnam.

Winners get to write history

But as the cliché says, the winners get to write the history, and my lopsided view of Israel omitted the plight of the Palestinians. I was reminded of this a couple of weeks ago, during a conversation with Hanna Massad, pastor of Gaza Baptist Church. (See last week’s column.)

Massad’s parents were Palestinian, living in Jaffa in 1948. Overnight they became refugees, forced from their homes along with 700,000 other Gazans, including more than 50,000 Christians. Many of their ancestors had lived in the same places a thousand years earlier. Masses of displaced people scattered around the region, landing in camps in Syria, Jordan, the West Bank or beyond.

All this was part of a maze of political dealing and double dealing that started as the old Ottoman Empire, which had controlled the region for centuries, was defeated by the Allies during World War I.

During the next 30 years, declarations and agreements among European powers, Arab leaders and Zionist organizations – Jewish groups committed to establishing a national homeland in Palestine – tried to balance their various interests. Religion, ethnicity, economics and property claims only complicated matters, as both Jews and Muslims cited Scripture and history.

The British, given control of the region in 1922, sometimes favored Arab interests, sometimes Zionist. Zionists and Arabs occasionally appealed to their common heritage and tried to cooperate and make room for each other. But those times grew less frequent as time passed, as frustrations grew and as sometimes deadly violence flared among both Palestinians and Zionists, usually in reaction to changes in British policy.

By 1947, when the British government referred the matter to the newly formed United Nations, reconciliation seemed impossible. The UN finally recommended forming two states, Arab and Israeli, with Jerusalem designated as an international city.

After the British left on May 14, 1948 – a day earlier than scheduled, which caused chaos – the tensions erupted into war. But Israel secured its foothold and took over most of Palestine. The 61 years since have spiraled into bigotry, terror and vengeance, occasionally punctuated by hopeful attempts at peace.

No one is clean

My first inclination still is to sympathize with Israel. Given the history of the Jews – repeatedly driven from place to place over three thousand years – it’s easy to understand their sense of insecurity even as they established a modern homeland.

But if I take a step back, I can begin to see more of the Palestinian complaints, how their own claims to law, history and religion were set aside 61 years ago. I can see past the stereotypes and meet real people in this story, such as Hanna Massad and his family.

I can see that my adolescent view, with its easy heroism and uncomplicated morality, isn’t adequate. I can see, as the Scripture says, that no one is clean. No, not one.

 Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 16 May 2009.

Christians serve Passover seders. Is everyone OK with that?

seder-starter-kitThis is a story of two stories. One story is about redemption, freedom and new life from the hand of God. The other is about – well, much the same. The question is how much one story can be shared and changed to tell the other.

Next week is the Jewish Passover, the annual festival that retells and celebrates how the people of Israel were freed from slavery in Egypt. The centerpiece of the holiday is a ritual meal, the seder.

This year, Passover occurs during the Western Christian Holy Week, which is part of the other story. The two events don’t always coincide, but the timing is significant because, according to the Christian Scriptures, Jesus was crucified around Passover time and, while scholars dispute this detail, Jesus’ last meal with his disciples, when he instituted the Lord’s Supper, or Eucharist, may have been a Passover seder.

It’s little wonder, then, that many Christian families and congregations have started to observe a seder, but with a twist: They not only tell the story of the Exodus but tie it to Christian teaching. Beyond the shared spiritual heritage, they also draw parallels between their own faith and the Exodus, with their common themes of redemption and renewal.

“Whenever I do this, it’s always strengthened my faith and helped me to realize again what God was willing to do bring me into his family,” said Arthur Joyce, pastor of the Johnson City Alliance Church. “It is a definitely a spiritual experience.”

Joyce started observing seders at home more than 20 years ago as a way to increase his family’s understanding of Christianity’s history. Then he started inviting congregation members to join them, and within a few years it grew into a regular, if not annual, congregational event. The meals have grown so popular that the church must take advance reservations, capping the attendance at 70 people because of the limitations of the church kitchen.

“I’ve had some folks who won’t miss it,” he said. “It’s a rewarding experience for them in that it draws them closer to God, to let them know how much he loves them.”

Joyce considers their ritual “an educating and worship experience.” They serve the Lord’s Supper at the end of each seder – “as Jesus did,” said Joyce. “We’re using his words and I make a definite point that this is what Jesus did at this part.”

Many Jewish people are comfortable with this Christian innovation. Joyce has talked informally with a rabbi who sounded supportive, and he knows of other churches where rabbis have led the meals.

But the thought of Christian seders troubles others, including Howard Stein, rabbi of the B’nai Sholom Congregation in Blountville.

“I’m very concerned about the phenomenon,” he said this week. “By introducing Christological ideas and imagery into the Jewish ritual, Christians are co-opting the Jewish observance and thus attempting to impose a Christian world view on a Jewish ceremony.”

Rather than helping Christians understand the symbolism and significance of the Passover, Stein said, the practice changes the observance to conform to Christian theology. The two faiths may share a religious heritage, he said, but we can’t forget they eventually separated.

“The early followers of Jesus were still part of Judaism, but there was this difference in belief in whether Jesus was the messiah,” he said. “That’s the central divide. Over time that difference caused them to diverge, and that raises a problem in injecting Jesus into the Passover ritual.”

There’s also a historical problem: Today’s elaborate seder tradition didn’t exist in Jesus’ time. The Passover meal was, by comparison, a simple affair. The more intricate ritual developed in the centuries after the Jerusalem temple was destroyed some 40 years after Jesus walked the earth.

“The seder we have now is modeled on the Greek-Roman symposium, a meal with instruction and discussion,” he said. “So placing too much symbolic weight on the various elements of the seder is historically inaccurate.”

If Christians want to understand the Passover, Stein advised, they should talk to Jewish friends or leaders, and attend a Jewish seder to listen and learn.

“Having a relationship depends on understanding each other’s beliefs,” he said. “The distinction goes back to how we look at Jesus, and looking at that distinction is important.”

The two stories share much, but not everyone thinks they can they share a meal.

 Johnson City Press, 4 April 2009.
Image: A “seder starter kit” available from the Christian online retailer Reign Forest Ministries, an online Christian retailer (