I know that holding Passover seders in churches has fallen out of favor and fashion. There are some good reasons for this, I suppose, but none that would prevent me from doing it anyway. Why? Because Passover has impact. And for Christians, understanding Passover can make a monumental difference in how we understand our own faith.
There are some issues, however. A Christian can attend a Jewish Passover, gain a great deal of information about both Biblical and contemporary Judaism, but then miss the relevance of Passover to Easter. On the other hand, it is possible to find “Messianic” seders, which do a good job of pointing out how Passover points to Jesus as Messiah, but by following largely Protestant theology, they lose the link to the Church and the sacraments. Neither approach gives the Catholic Christian access to the depth of meaning to be found in the celebration of the Exodus.
Several years ago, I sat down to write a Passover haggadah, (order of service), that would make clear connections between the Exodus, the Last Supper, and the Mass. It was designed to be the big finale for a six week Lenten after-school program for Middle School kids I led called “Follow the Lamb.” Basically, it was a thematic Bible study, in which we followed the practice of sacrificing a lamb through the Scriptures. Seeing the Last Supper for what it really was would tie everything together with Jesus Christ.
My biggest concern at the time was to put together a Passover for Catholics that wouldn’t destroy the integrity of the Jewish Seder as it is still celebrated. Luckily, I had a friend who, now Catholic, had been raised in an Orthodox Jewish home. Roy was an invaluable resource in tackling the project. He was completely attuned to Jesus as Messiah, but equally aware of sacramental theology and Christian liturgical tradition.
We ended up with a seder spread between three tables: the Table of Israel, the Table of Jesus, and the Table of the Church. Each table has its own leader. And while everyone participates in every aspect of the traditional Passover, what belongs to each “table” is led from that place. For example, the story of the exodus is told from the Table of Israel. The washing of the feet is explored from the Table of Jesus. The use of unleavened bread for Eucharist is explained from the Table of the Church. The kids in “Follow the Lamb” loved the seder, and really seemed to gain something of value from having done it.
I decided to use our version at home. Our family has been celebrating Passover this way every year for at least the past ten. We delight in making our mixture of apples, nuts, and wine. We buy a box of matzah, a little extra horseradish, and roast an egg and a shank of lamb. Before I took on directing the parish choir, we held our seder on either Holy Thursday or Good Friday. That is, we deliberately linked the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus with the Jewish Passover He celebrated the night before He died. Because we’ve made this an annual family tradition, our kids have experienced the link between Judaism, Jesus, and Catholic Christianity. They’ve all tried a little Hebrew along the way, and have a real sense of where our faith came from.
This year, as part of faith formation, we took Christ Our Passover to the parish. After the Vigil Mass for the First Sunday of Lent, nearly seventy people joined in a part pot-luck parish seder supper. We set up three tables in a horseshoe in the parish hall. Our pastor led the Table of Jesus, I led the Table of the Church, and Bruce, a formerly Jewish parishioner who became part of the Church through RCIA, led the Table of Israel. People of all ages participated, as did people from pretty much every level of parish involvement. They came to share, to be together, and to learn more about the roots of their Catholic Christian faith. They left uplifted, with new insight, and perhaps with a few new friends.
For Christians, attending a Passover seder is more than dabbling in multiculturalism. It should--and does-- feel like reading the prequel to the greatest love story ever told, the story of Jesus’ self gift on the Cross. Sure, it’s possible to read and study about the Jewishness of Jesus, the roots of Christian practice, and the origins of Catholic liturgy. But something comes to life in the breaking of bread, especially when that bread is matzah.
Lent is our preparation for the Paschal Mystery. These forty days can be enriched in many ways, with missions and holy hours, penance services and Stations of the Cross. But wouldn’t it make sense to explore just why we call the foundational events of Christian faith “Paschal,” that is “passover?” If St. Jerome was right, and “ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ,” then perhaps we ought to do more to acknowledge that the Bible begins with Genesis, not Matthew. There is much to discover about Jesus through the faith He Himself practiced. What we do at the parish level to build the faith of our people can help open the door to a deeper understanding of why we place our trust in Jesus of Nazareth, the High Priest who gave us Eucharist at the Last Seder He celebrated.
Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a wife and mother of eight children, and a disciple of the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales. She is an author, speaker, musician and serves as Faith Formation Coordinator at St. Maria Goretti Parish in Lynnfield.