Monday, February 22, 2016

Should Christians Celebrate a “Seder Meal”? [UPDATED]

UPDATE on February 24: My colleague, Dr. Jeremy Holmes, has pointed out to me an excellent resource on his own blog: "Gearing up for Holy Thursday." Here, he walks through how his family does an educational Passover reenactment to help them understand better what Our Lord Jesus Christ did at the Last Supper when He transformed the Passover ritual into the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. They do not perform a rabbinical Jewish or quasi-Jewish ritual, which, as I explain below, is completely beside the point and actually a bad thing. Dr. Holmes also published a lengthier, more theological account in his article "Our Passover Eucharist" in Homiletic & Pastoral Review.--PAK

At this time of year, one not infrequently hears about Catholics or other Christians planning “seder meals” as part of their Lenten or Holy Week observances. To many, it seems like a good idea to reconnect with Jewish roots, but the purpose of this article is to demonstrate how wrong-headed this idea is, how it flirts with heresy, and what we might do differently if we’d like to do anything at all in this direction.

The Last Supper was a Passover meal. The original Passover was celebrated during the exodus from Egypt, when the people slaughtered a lamb and put its blood over their doorposts so that the angel of death would “pass over” them. Because they had to leave in a hurry, they did not have time to let their bread rise, and so they ate unleavened bread. This became a yearly celebration for Israel — something done “in remembrance” of the sparing of the firstborn’s life, and of the consequent exodus. The Passover lamb had to be taken to the Temple and sacrificed, and then the people would eat of the sacrifice; it was a sacrificial meal, and made visible the fact that even the laypeople of Israel were a “kingdom of priests.”

Now that the Temple has been destroyed, Jews do not eat the Passover meal; instead, they eat the “Seder,” which is not a sacrificial meal. Orthodox Jews refuse even to eat lamb at a Seder because no sacrificial lamb is possible for them now.

The ritual by the time of Jesus involved four cups of wine, parsley or some other green, unleavened bread, and the singing of certain psalms. Jesus transformed the Passover meal into a new ritual — the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. By identifying the bread as his own body and offering it to the disciples to eat, he pointed to himself as the new lamb of sacrifice (22:19): “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” Before giving the Eucharistic bread, Jesus had already given them a cup of wine; this was the second of the four cups of wine. But after he gave them the Eucharistic bread, he identified the third cup as his own blood (22:20): “And likewise the cup after supper, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” Each of the four Passover cups had a name, and the third cup was known as the “cup of blessing.” Note 1 Corinthians 10:16, “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ?”

Note that when Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus at the transfiguration, they were discussing Jesus’ “exodus” which he was to accomplish (Luke 9:31). Jesus’ passion and resurrection are the new exodus. Correspondingly, he gives his disciples a new Passover ritual to go with the new exodus. In this new Passover, Jesus is the lamb whose blood averts the angel of death; instead of Egypt, we are delivered from the state of sin and a heart inclined to evil (as represented by Pharaoh’s “hardened heart”).

In this way, the sacrifice Jesus offered on the cross founds a new ritual of sacrifice for us. As Jesus’ death and resurrection fulfilled the history and mission of Israel, so the liturgy he gave us to commemorate and re-offer his death fulfills the Passover and the creation of Israel as a nation. The celebration of the Eucharist creates the Church as the new Israel, the kingdom of God. As Jesus’ death took the punishment for the sins of the whole world, so the Mass is offered for the sins of all of us. But there is more than sin and redemption. Jesus’ perfect offering to the Father was also the fulfillment of man’s mission as cosmic priest to bring all of creation back to God in an act of worship. There is a cosmic aspect to the Mass; it is the fulfillment of creation’s purpose. This is why John Paul II said that every Mass, wherever it is offered, is offered “on the altar of the world.”

On Holy Thursday last year, a colleague of mine gave a talk before an evening Jewish-style meal. He explained that it does not make sense to celebrate a Seder Meal as a way to “reenact” the Last Supper. Historically, the Seder Meal was invented as a way to make up for the lack of the Passover Supper because there was no longer temple sacrifice after 70 AD. In other words, the Seder as now practiced postdates our Lord’s institution of the Eucharist, and is, in part, an ongoing sign that the Jews do not acknowledge Jesus as the Christ, the one Messiah and Savior of mankind, apart from whom there is no salvation. For these reasons, my colleague advocated a Passover-style dinner, not a Seder Meal. During this dinner, he commented on the different dishes at the tables, explained their Old Testament symbolism, and showed how their meaning was fulfilled in the sacrifice of the true unblemished Lamb, which is made present for us in the Sacrifice of the Mass.

So much, then, for why a Seder Meal would be a totally incoherent thing for Christians to do. There is, moreover, this theological consideration: separating the Jewish meal from the act of animal sacrifice, as the Seder deliberately does, fundamentally confuses the actual symbolism of the Passover supper, and therefore bars any understanding of how this supper foreshadows the Passion. Among other things, the anthropological significance of Jesus Christ replacing the sacrifice of another by His own self-sacrifice is lost.

Then, a practical consideration. A Seder meal is a currently practiced religious ritual for the Jews who do it. Hence, Catholics attending a Seder meal, even if no rabbi were present, would rightly be at a loss to know whether they were play-acting, going through an academic exercise, attempting to turn a Jewish custom into a Christian meditation, or even attempting to pray like Jews (as if we could momentarily function as people of a different religion). In short, it is not possible to simulate a Seder without implying that one is conducting a religious observance. In contrast, as we have shown, it is possible to serve a Passover-like meal for educational purposes, since the Jewish Passover, narrowly speaking, has not been observed as a religious ritual for close to 2,000 years. Such a meal can indeed be a welcome opportunity for sound catechesis about the Passion of our Lord and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

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