This 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 (http://www.reignforestshop.com/).