On Maundy Thursday, Christians remember the supper Jesus shared with his disciples “on the night he was handed over,” a night that fell during the Jewish observance of Passover. The synoptic gospels recount that during that meal, Jesus gave thanks for bread and wine, spoke mysteriously of them as his body and blood, and shared the loaf and cup with his friends. He also told them to “do this” in his memory. Thus, Christians believe, he instituted the sacrament of Holy Communion.
To mark this special night, some churches hold solemn Communion services, others mount joyous Love Feasts. Many stage a moving service of light and shadow called Tenebrae. And in some churches, members wash each other’s feet, emulating Jesus’ humble act of service to his disciples, as recorded in the gospel of John. All these are traditional practices drawn from the rich storehouse of Christian liturgy.
Lately, however many congregations are adding a new observance to the standard repertoire—a Passover Seder. Sometimes a rabbi or a Jewish family is invited in to lead the Seder, but mostly these “Christian Seders” Seders are put on by Christians for Christians, without Jews. Churches that hold these meals do so sincerely and devoutly, aiming to honor Jesus’ Jewishness, explore the Jewish roots of Christianity, deepen their appreciation for Communion, better appreciate its origins, and educate themselves about the practices of their Jewish neighbors.
Commendable as their intentions are, however, a Seder by Christians for Christians is rife with difficulties. The first problem is simply historical. Despite what Christians have been taught, historians aren’t certain about what sort of meal Jesus’ Last Supper actually was. Apart from the ritual sacrifice of “unblemished” lambs in the Temple, we know very little about other customs pertaining to the Passover Festival in Jesus’ day, especially practices that people may have observed at home.
Jesus shared a meal with his friends during Passover, a meal layered with significance for him and his friends. That much is clear. But whatever that meal was and meant, it was not a Seder. We can be sure of this because the Seder was introduced into Jewish ritual life generations afterJesus’s lifetime. The Seder Christians have adopted is a blend of traditions that were developed in the diaspora after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. With the traditional focal point of Jewish religious practice in ruins and the people dispersed, Temple sacrifice became impossible, and rabbis began developing new forms of ritual life to define and anchor Jewish identity differently in changed circumstances. The Seder was one of those new forms.
Ironically, some scholars believe that the Seder developed in part as a reaction to the growing dominance of the Christian church and its sacred meal, the Eucharist. If this is true, Christians who celebrate a Seder today are celebrating a meal that was meant at least in part to criticize them and to draw a sharp line between of Jewish rites and Christian ones. An anti-Christian critique is no longer a feature of contemporary Jewish Seders, but the polemical history of this tradition should alert us to an important fact about rituals—they do not exist in a vacuum. There is a context to everything we do, and in this case, the context is complicated and fraught.
For starters, then, when Christians hold a Seder for themselves, hoping, among other things, to do what Jesus did on Maundy Thursday, they are engaging in an anachronism. Neither Jesus the Jew nor any pre-70 CE Christian ever practiced a Seder of any kind, let alone celebrations like those that many churches today hold to “reenact” the Last Supper. But the Christian Seder is problematic for much more consequential reasons than this historical slip. Chief among them is the stubborn persistence among Christians of the ancient doctrine of supersessionism, sometimes called “replacement theology.”
In its simplest form, supersessionism asserts that Christianity has replaced or superseded Judaism in God’s plan and affections. There is now a New Covenant that replaces the Old. Jesus and the Church have completed and perfected what Judaism lacked, rendering it at best merely preparatory, and at worst obsolete. Despite years of interfaith efforts, supersessionism continues to shape our Christian thinking. We may not be conscious of it, and if we become conscious of it, we may reject it; but we draw on it whenever we adopt a defining ritual of Jewish identity and instrumentalize it to illumine and explain Christian beliefs.
This happens frequently at Christian Seders. Christians are told, for example, that the lamb on the Seder plate represents the sacrifice of Jesus, who is the Lamb of God; the bitter herbs point to his crucifixion; and the greens speak of his resurrection.It’s also common to interweave Jesus’ “words of institution” with the traditional Seder blessings of bread and wine, in effect celebrating Christian Communion as part of the Jewish meal. When we lay Christian meanings on the Seder in this way, especially when we insert Communion into the ritual meal, we send a message that the truly valuable thing about the Haggadahis the way it points to Jesus. The Christian Messiah, not the Exodus, becomes the “true” focus and “real” meaning of the night. The Jewish meal is nice, but it is also somehow less until Jesus perfects it, turns it into something new, something better, something more.
This is to write Jews out of their own story, replace them with Christians and the Christian story, and relegate the Seder’s ongoing significance for Jews to the distant background as a mere shadow of the real, a pallid preamble to the main act.
Congregations that hold Christianized Seders also urgently need to understand that what they are doing is not a neutral act. The long, violent history of Christian appropriation of and contempt for Judaism should make us think long and hard about doing it. It is no accident, to cite just one example, that throughout the Middle Ages, bloody pogroms regularly erupted precisely during Holy Week. These murderous rampages were often prompted by rabid anti-Jewish preaching that placed the blame for Jesus’ death squarely on Jews—and not just on ancient Jews, but on all Jews throughout the ages— and demanded unsparing violence against them.
Before inserting Communion into a Jewish Seder, it would also be bracingly instructive for Christians to remember that one of the great historical slanders against the Jews was the accusation that they stole consecrated Communion wafers and pierced them with sharp objects, subjecting the Body of Christ to the same torture they inflicted upon him on the cross. This is the shameful history of falsehood and contempt we inescapably carry with us whenever we engage in something like a Christian, or Christianized Seder.
If Christians knew this history better, we might show more restraint. But many of us do not. As a consequence, although few of us consciously think the religion of our Jewish neighbors is inferior to our own, this old reflex continues to assert itself; and we continue to operate in the universe of stereotype and unwitting slander that for centuries made it possible for Christians to believe it their religious duty to defame, forcibly baptize, exploit, expel, and murder Jews.
The Christian Seder is a prime example of just how unexamined the fraught relationship between these two faith traditions remains, and thus how easily the consequences of ignorance could be visited on our neighbors again, even in our supposedly enlightened, interfaith, inclusive age. That it could never happen here, that it will never happen again, that good liberal Christian folk would never do that—these are the lazy assumptions that allow us to meander through Holy Week innocent of our history, still acting out inherited patterns of disdain.
Remembering and retelling the story of the Israelites’ redemption from Egypt is one of the Seder’s characteristic features. Maybe instead of holding a Seder in Holy Week, we Christians might devote ourselves to remembering and retelling our own story in a way that does not ignore or downplay its bloody chapters. With lament and repentance, we might turn to the Jewish Jesus for the help we need to close that shameful book forever.
It is a good thing to want to learn more about the Jewish roots of our faith and to honor the Jewishness of Jesus; but performing Jewish rituals absent actual Jews is the worst way to accomplish those goals. Ritual is inescapably contextual. It arises from and is lodged in a particular community’s experience. We are not Jews, and we cannot celebrate a Seder on our own out of anything remotely resembling the actual experience of Jews, or with the theological and spiritual worldview such experience generates.
Canadian educator, Paul Olioff, puts it this way:
“TheHaggadahJews read around the Seder table is not an abstract story. The Jewish customs which some non-Jews are now embracing were practiced for years under the worst conditions, where every lit candle and every prayer risked being disrupted by the violent arm of authority, and entire communities prayed not only for a future homeland in Jerusalem, but for their very existence in that temporary space to last until the holidays the following year. It’s not just an aesthetic, but a tribute to a people who survived against all odds for centuries as a perceived enemy and a geographical minority. When I go to a Seder, I am always initially amazed the tradition has survived for this long.”
Christians can appreciate the Seder, admire it, be moved by it, learn about it, even joyfully participate in it when invited by Jews to do so. But aSeder will always ring hollow if practiced apart from the very people who have been layering it with meaning year after year after year. Adrift from its moorings in the complex web of Jewish spirituality, family life, and centuries of struggle and joy, it can only be a caricature, little more than pious play-acting.
To put it even more pointedly, a Christian Seder is a kind of theft. We may justify it by saying that the Jewish story is also our story; and in terms of origin, texts, and traditions, there is indeed much we share. But it is not onlyour story. It is first and forever also the ongoing, defining story of a people, a people we are not. We cannot do with this story whatever we please. We especially may not dilute or denude it of its specifically Jewish character to make it mean something Christian. We Christians urgently need to understand and accept that Jewish practices have vitality and meaning beyond their relationship to Christianity. We would do better to advance the project of understanding not with a Christianized Seder, but rather through building sincere relationships with Jews to discover together how best to learn with honesty, care, and respect.
To this end, congregations could invite a local rabbi to visit and talk about what a Seder means to Jews. She might even lead an instructional Seder for the church. (Just don’t invite her to do this during Passover when she is as busy and frazzled as your pastors and musicians are during Holy Week!) Or members could engage in a small group study of modern Passover rituals on their own, reflecting together on various versions of the Haggadah, but refraining from actually doing the ritual.
If members of the congregation are lucky enough to have Jewish friends or know families who would invite them, interested folks might participate in a Seder in a Jewish home. This is the best way for Christians to experience the Seder, both because it is properly grounded in Jewish family and relational life, and because it is humbling. As a Christian blogger married to a Jew observed:
“Sitting as a minority at a table full of people who are part of a community that has celebrated Passover for hundreds of years, many of whom have eaten these foods every year since they were born, with individuals who look forward to this holy feast with the same anticipation Christians feel for Christmas, Christians might sing Dayenu (“It would have been enough…”) and feel that the blessings that God has extended to you are truly enough, and you do not need more.”
Christians could also choose to attend a public Seder. Many synagogues and Jewish community centers offer these meals every year, particularly on the second day of Passover when it is customary to welcome anyone to celebrate and learn, as the words of the Haggadahdeclare: “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” Christians should accept.
Whatever the avenues for learning and participating, the guiding principle should always be that the Seder is Jewish, and Jews must be the ones who choose to share it with us. That they will often do so happily and generously should encourage us even more to avoid the offense of borrowing their distinctive practices without permission, then baptizing what we borrow.
The fact that during Passover Jesus gathered his friends, ate supper with them, commanded us to love each other, gave us a new way to know him in bread and wine, and humbly served us by washing our feet matters mightily to us Christians. The great drama of Maundy Thursday cries out for enactment, for remembering and ritualizing its wondrous scenes and their surplus of meanings. Most of all, it cries out for a meal. We can and should do what Jesus did that night by holding warm intergenerational suppers, great messy potlucks, happy love feasts, and solemn celebrations of Holy Communion. But not Seders.
We have our own feast. Let’s let the Jews have theirs.
No Christian Seders, please!