“For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.”–1 Corinthians 11:21 (NRSV)
“And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.”—Matthew 14:20 (NRSV)
Years ago, a faithful member of my congregation sidled up to me after Communion and cracked, “The service was great, but the portions were small.” I laughed. And then I didn’t.
So, let me ask, what’s up with equal-sized portions, little cubes of pre-cut bread, precisely measured thimblefuls of juice in identical, tiny cups? What’s up with strict Communion parity, exactly this much and no more for everyone, precisely the same?
You’d think we were on a group trip being served a set menu at a tourist trap instead of enjoying a homemade meal at the family table where you can eat as much as you want, according to your hunger, according to your delight.
St. Paul says that at the Lord’s Supper table no one should drink too much and get drunk, or eat too little and go hungry. But that doesn’t mean that everyone should be served exactly the same minimally calculated, pre-measured portions, which always tend to be small.
Now, to be sure, Jesus can convey his loving presence with us by any means at all, including one-inch square white bread cubes. His life will surely come to us even in shot glasses. And sometimes, like during a pandemic, we have no choice but to package him up in mass-produced, pre-proportioned containers, like a holy Keurig cup. It’s the necessary, safe, and prudent thing to do.
But when we have a choice?
When we have a choice, it might help to remember that Communion is a sign. Among other things, it discloses God’s generosity. It’s embodies God’s unrestrained impulse to feed, to feed abundantly and well, and to feed everyone without discrimination, holding nothing back. It enacts a divine justice that is not minimal, but maximal. With God, it’s not just enough for all, it’s always more.
If tiny elements are any indication of what we think justice is, the one who collected twelve baskets of leftovers after the crowds ate as much as they wanted might beg to differ.
Communities that get this will make sure there’s bread that looks and tastes like bread and flowing juice for all. There will be leftovers. They’ll gladly pass them around, too. Seconds and thirds for anyone who’s still hungry.
And we are always hungry. Everyone, so very hungry. Communities that get this will also give bread, wine, justice, and themselves away in the world, in very generous portions, with great service, and even greater joy.
O Christ of Boundless Treasures
Words: Mary Luti
Tunes: WEST MAIN, ANDÚJAR, WEDLOCK (American/Lovelace)
In an interview on PBS a few years before she died, Julia Child said, “A country that is afraid of food should be ashamed of itself.” She was referring to the anxiety about healthy eating in America that has led us to put warning labels on things we formerly ate with a carefree spirit.
Now, Julia Child knows perfectly well that in this nation we suffer from a variety of serious conditions with strong connections to the sorts of things and how much of them we put in our mouths. She is not a foe of healthy eating or safe eating. What gets her goat are the exaggerated messages we get from every side that make us feel that if we fail to make just the right choice between 1% and 2% milk on our weekly run to the grocery store, we may have sealed the fate of our health forever.
Shopping under the weight of high moral responsibility puts a bit of a damper on the joy of cooking, to say the least. In Julia’s view, we are victims of a mostly manufactured ethic about eating that is making us unduly skittish about simple enjoyment—we are a country afraid of our food. So whenever Julia, with that naughty gleam in her eye, tosses great gobs of butter, gallons of thick white cream, and oceans of good red wine into some hard-to-pronounce French concoction, you can be sure it is not merely an act of obedience to the recipe; it is also an act of disobedience to the food police.
Now, I bring up Julia’s dismay only because, if I read John’s gospel correctly, I think Jesus would have been on Julia’s side.
In this short text from the sixth chapter of John, we confront some big claims and even bigger bewilderment. Jesus’ listeners are confused and angry that a man whose parents and birthplace everybody knows to be local seems now to be claiming that he came down from heaven—and that he can go right back up there again whenever he wants. And of course we modern listeners are probably as put off as that ancient audience seems to be by that icky business about eating his flesh and drinking his blood.
We know, of course, that John does not intend us to take such extreme sayings literally. In fact, if we do take them literally, John sees it as a sign that we don’t “get” Jesus at all, that we are relying too much on a human way of understanding. If we don’t get “behind” Jesus’ statement, into the deeper meaning, John says we aren’t listening with the Spirit. This is the same dynamic at work in an earlier episode, Jesus’ famous dead-of-night meeting with Nicodemus, who could not fathom how a person could go back into his mother’s womb and be born again, as Jesus said we must. John makes fun of that sort of common-sense literalism. He wants us to look deeper, to see beyond.
But when you look at the Greek words John chooses to talk about eating flesh and drinking blood in this story, you really do have to sympathize with the disgusted folk who backed away. He does not make it easy for them to assume Jesus has metaphorical intentions. He doesn’t write “eat,” he writes something more like “munch,” “chomp,” “gnaw.” This is gustosyntax, finger-licking vocabulary! It is meant to make the point inescapable — Jesus’ flesh is in some sense“real” food, his blood in some sense“real” drink. Jesus means to be “eaten” — no, devoured— in a decidedly undainty and very hungry fashion.
What is going on here?
Well, one way of approaching things is to look first at a normal-sounding verse we might pass right over in our reflexive disgust at the body and blood stuff, verse 59: “He said all these things while he was teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum.”Ah, now we have a context! John places Jesus in a local town synagogue, preaching a sermon; and that means he’s got a text unrolled in front of him, going verse by verse, expounding its meaning, making applications, and engaging in back-and-forth disputation.
So, what text is Jesus teaching? We can’t know for sure, but because of all the references to Moses and manna in the desert in our gospel portion, it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine it was Exodus 16, in which the hunger and complaint of the Israelites was met by God with heavenly bread. The application Jesus makes of these verses is to himself. He says heis the bread that comes down from heaven. He says heis a new kind of sustenance for body, spirit, and the life of the world.
So far, so good. But what could be lost on us is yet another claim being made about Jesus in this scene. To hear that claim, we need to know that there is a tradition of Jewish interpretation that sees scripture itself, the Torah, the Law, as the reality behind the manna of Exodus 16. This tradition teaches that God was indeed feeding the people with bread in the wilderness, but it wasn’t just a wafer-like substance God was providing; it was in reality the holy Law, God’s very Word, the nourishing bread of God’s wisdom.
And how do you get that wisdom? Like the manna, you eat it up! Every day a little portion, because it doesn’t keep well and it won’t last if you leave it lying around. You learn divine wisdom daily, bit by bit, not only with your intellect, but also with your body. Like food, you ingest it, you ruminate on it, like a cow chewing its cud, letting it roll around in your mouth and swallowing slowly, luxuriously; and eventually you digest it so that it becomes part of you, life of your life, flesh of your flesh, blood of your blood.
“Day and night I ruminate upon your Law, O God,” says one of the psalms. “Your Law is like honey, sweet to the tongue,” says another. “O taste and see how good the Lord is,” another urges us. If John presents Jesus claiming to be food, claiming to be the manna, then Jesus is also claiming to be the Word, the Wisdom of God. And thus he invites everyone to eat him and drink him, to relishhim.
This same Wisdom shows up in Scripture in another guise too. She is personified in several Old Testament texts as a mother who builds a house for her children—everyone who wants to know her and live in her. And wouldn’t you know it? She sets a splendid table in that house, and then she goes out and calls to her children, “Come,” the scripture says, “Come from East and West, North and South! Eat my bread, drink my wine! Come to the feast I prepared for you!”
This is exactly what Jesus says in John 6: “Eat me and drink me, and you will know the endless, deep, soul-food-deliciousness of God!”
I suspect that all this may sound very odd, mystical and impossibly poetic to us modern American Liberal Protestant Christians who usually expect no more from Jesus and the Word than an ethic for living, a few guidelines to life’s big issues, and some inspiration for action in the world. But our ancestors looked for more. In Jesus’ life and teaching, in his person and work, and in his continued presence in the Spirit, they expected to taste yummy flavors, complex memorable textures, enjoyment and delight.
Our usual approach to Jesus and the Word is via the question and the doubt. Is it true? Can I believe this? We are cautious and measured, a little like the way Julia Child says we approach our food. Is this good for me? Will it harm me if I have an extra ounce of this or one more calorie of that? Are there trans-fatty acids in this passage?
We hang around the edges of Jesus, hang back on the outskirts of Wisdom, ready to peel off and back away when we reach the limit of our reason and our patience with things that seem odd to us. We are often among the first to leave when something in Jesus’ person or in God’s Word tests our assumptions about ourselves or threatens to alter our sense of the world.
You can see it in the way we typically study Scripture. We approach the Bible as an object of religious interest, at a cool objective distance. We ask a lot of historical, cultural and ethical questions of the texts, wanting to understand what they all mean. Not a bad thing, and in fact necessary. But we are rarely aggressively subjectiveabout our learning. We don’t yearn to live with, in and through Scripture. And even more rarely do we simply stand in grateful awe of it. We only seldom speak of lovingScripture, although our Puritan forebears did. They, like their Hebrew ancestors, also spoke of chewing on it, digesting it, licking up its sweet dripping edges as you would a double-dipped cone on a sweltering day.
And the same is true of the way our ancestors in the faith regarded Jesus. They believed that we are meant to eat the rich food and fine wine that he has proved to be for the empty and the thirsty; we are meant to enjoy the free banquet he has always been for the thankful and the poor in spirit; we are meant to feel the heady flush he can be for the lover of justice and the doer of good works.
We are meant to staywith him too, even when others are all telling us that we would be better off leaving him and going away. To stay with him, even though he is a hard person to stay with because he will not let us endlessly cultivate our fears and our skittishness and our carefully constructed and controlled diet of distancing doubts and questions. At some point he just looks at us and say, “It’s all right. Let your fears go. Eat and drink. Enjoy it, enjoy me, and be at peace.”
I will never forget the very first time I attended a Jewish service on the Sabbath, especially the moment they brought out the Torah to chanting and celebration. They danced the scrolls around the sanctuary so that everyone could touch their prayer shawls to them. They were joyfully greeting not some inert object filled with rules and regulations, not some dead letter or object of study.
No, it was not some old and interesting and very wise Book, but a livingthing, a gift of God to God’s people, the very Wisdom and presence of God, the joy of the community, their glory and crown. They danced it and sang it like people at a great feast who were done with the questions for the day and who were eager for, not afraid of, the food they were sitting down to enjoy.
And I envied my Jewish friends their ecstasy. I longed to dance in my sanctuary as they did, cradling in my arms the Torah, the prophets, the book of the Four Gospels — and even those vexing old letters of Paul. I longed to dance with the whole of Scripture, and with the great traditions of our faith, and with Jesus himself! To put the Wisdom of God and the Savior of my life under my head as I sleep at night, to eat them in the morning with my corn flakes, and to dream of it them in the heat of the day.
But I am a Congregationalist. Who and what could compel me to take Scripture and Jesus seriously enough, or to trust their truth enough to dance with them, to dream with them, and, of course!, to argue with them — but not in that cool, distancing way that says “Prove it!”, “Prove yourself!”, but in that intimate, tough, expectant and tender way that people who adore each other fight, always ready to yield, sooner or later, out of sheer love?
“I am bread and wine,” says Jesus. “I am realfood and drink. I am a body and a spirit. I am Life and Wisdom. I am here to make you hungry. I am to here be danced and devoured. Don’t go away! Come to me, come to the table of the Word, and stay with me! Stay with the Beloved Community where my own flesh and blood live and struggle and serve and learn and love. And at the table of faith, don’t be afraid of your food. Don’t nibble when you could chomp. Don’t sip daintily when you could slug it all down the hatch with gusto! Dance and play with your food, as God danced and played with me, Holy Wisdom, before the foundation of the world.”
Long live God, who feeds us; long live Jesus, our food; and long live Julia Child, who commanded us to eat, and never to be afraid!
Every country has a story about its beginnings that gives you a sense of that nation’s ideals. You know some of these stories. There was a reference to one in our first reading. The Exodus story—the one in which God acted powerfully to free the Israelites from Egypt and fashioned them into a people in the wilderness. By telling and re-telling this story, Jews learn that to be a Jew is to be a people saved from oppression, and therefore a people that must be engaged in repairing a world broken by tyranny.
The Roman Empire had a founding myth too—a story about twins fathered by Mars, the war god, who left them to die in the woods. A she-wolf found them and took them in. But when they grew up, they became bitter rivals. Remus was murdered by Romulus, who’d become powerful through warfare. Eventually the great city he established ruled the known world. Romans who heard this story learned to pride themselves on military might. They learned that to be a Roman meant never to shrink from the destruction of your rivals.
America has a founding story too. Nancy Taylor is the pastor of Old South Church in Boston. That’s the church of the patriots that gave us the original Boston Tea Party. When she was installed in 2005, Nancy’s sermon began with a re-telling of America’s origins. It’s probably apocryphal, but most origin stories, are, so… here’s what she said:
As you know, the Pilgrims … were aiming for Virginia when they were blown off course into these northerly waters. Although they were not where they had hoped to be, and the climate was much colder than they liked, their need to drop anchor was urgent. As their journal entries attest, they were running dangerously low on an indispensable provision—beer. So if you look at it in a certain light, you can see that this whole endeavor—the ‘New World,’ the Colonies, the Declaration of Independence, American democracy—it all began as a beer run.
I didn’t learn that beer-run story in school. l learned another story, that the Pilgrims came to America for religious freedom. Here they built a shining city on a hill, a beacon of hope to the world that became a nation of unique and superior virtue with a sacred responsibility to extend our aspirations to other nations. The story I learned set our country apart from other countries. It conveyed the conviction that America was exceptional.
Now, there’s a lot of truth in this idea of an exceptional America. America’s idealsarea unique gift to the world. Even our enemies acknowledge that here, against the odds, we have shaped a civilization that is freer, more enterprising, and more socially and politically dynamic than any the world has ever known.But our story also has sorrowful downsides—slavery and racism, manifest destiny, jingoistic nationalism, economic selfishness, disastrous military adventures, periodic spasms of fear and hatred of the outsider, especially the immigrant.
Our foundational self-understanding is dicey in another way too. From the start most Americans have believed that our preeminent position in the world is divinely ordained. America is on an errand for God. Many Christians in America sincerely believe that an ardent patriotism is basic not just to citizenship, but also to Christian faith.
I did a survey of church websites around the 4thof July a few years ago. Turns out that many churches begin their services with a parade of American flags. There are sermons in support of the wars and great reverence expressed for ‘the ultimate sacrifice.’ One congregation heard a sermon entitled, ‘God, the Greatest American.’ I imagine that many people left worship more persuaded than ever that to pledge allegiance to America is to pledge allegiance to Jesus, and to stand up for Jesus is to stand up for our country. The founding story of America has given rise to a vision of America not only as an exceptional nation, but also as a Christian nation. We gather around a cross-draped in the Stars and Stripes.
Jesus, meanwhile, pledged allegiance only to God. At least that’s the way I read the gospels. He taught that loyalty to God did not mean standing apart from others. It meant standing in solidarity with them. It didn’t put you above other people, it put you alongside them, especially in their pain. And that’s why for Jesus, allegiance to God demanded that he align himself daringly with the poor, the hungry, the imprisoned, the sick, the stranger, and the weak.
The gospels show me a savior who was singularly unconcerned with singularity. He was concerned with commonality—with shaping a beloved community. He didn’t care much for privilege; he didn’t cling to his own. And he knew all too well the brutality of a great empire that regarded itself as the best and most virtuous nation the world had ever known. The banner of Rome demanded Jesus’ allegiance, but he refused to bend his knee to its pride and violence. That may have cost him his life.
Now, I love my country, and I love the Fourth of July. I intend to celebrate today with a reading of the Declaration of Independence and fifty hot dogs, one for each State! Well, maybe thirteen for the original colonies. I will contemplate and give thanks for the America that was and is; but I also plan to contemplate and pray for the country we might have been, and the country we still could be.
One thing I’m going to ponder is what our country might have been like today if our foundational story had been the beer run story, not the exceptionalism story. What we would be like as citizens if we’d all been taught from our childhoods that we became a people when we were running low on life’s necessities? That we are simply a nation of people with ordinary and urgent needs, like all other peoples of the world. A people with a mighty thirst, hoping to find the means to quench it.
If the beer run had been our founding story, instead of the one that says we are different from everyone else and better than all others, maybe we would have grown up more alert to our kinship with the majority of the peoples on this planet who, among other things, have no reliable water to drink.
Maybe if we’d seen ourselves all along as having arisen from an effort to satisfy the same basic needs everyone else has; if we had understood our unity with all who thirst—for dignity, for justice, for well-being and happiness—maybe we would always have acted wisely and decisively to ensure that basic commodities and the freedom that comes from mutual respect are always abundantly available to all. Maybe instead of our tendency to place ourselves apart and above, we would habitually have stood shoulder to shoulder with the orphan, the widow, the stranger, and the enemy, as our scripture readings today emphatically command us to do.
I don’t know which patriotic songs you’ll be singing in honor of our freedoms today, but between the hot dog course and the watermelon, I plan to belt out every last annoying verse of ‘Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall.’ And I plan to down a few.
Now, beer-drinking is not something I can or should encourage you to do, especially if you’re not 21 or can’t drink safely. But I do hope you will have a Fourth of July filled with a clear-eyed and chastened love of country, and with ardent prayers for our leaders, as the Bible commands.
And I hope you will also take a moment to pray for the profound conversion of all Americans—of you and me—to a resolute path of justice, solidarity, and peace in a world where everyone else loves their country too.
And in this spirit I freely say—and mean it with all my heart—‘God bless America.’
During the pandemic, some congregations began using all-in-one containers of bread and juice that look for all the world like holy Keurig cups, or those little crinkly plastic coffee creamers you get in motels. You peel back a lid of plastic film to find a perfectly round, perfectly white, stiff and starchy stamped out wafer, and underneath, a precisely measured prim little thimbleful of juice. Exactly the same for everyone, compact, sanitary, not cheap, but very convenient.
I devoutly believe that the contents of that little contraption, duly blessed and consumed, were true Communion for all who partook of them. Which simply confirms my suspicion that Jesus has a quirky sense of humor and an infinite store of humility to be pleased to come to us by such fleshless, bloodless signs. That’s what you’ve got? Yuck, but good to go. Not even plastic can keep me away.
Still, judging by all the meals Jesus enjoyed that earned him a reputation as a glutton and a drunk, I think he might be just as glad to get back to being present with us in real chewy, slurpy, unprepackaged food, so that, having consumed his ample life, we might be present to the world in real chewy, slurpy, bodily, ample unprepackaged (and even unsanitary) ways, a kind of holy excess of real presence to all who hunger for the taste and mouth feel of companionship and compassion, not pale, plastic, finicky facsimiles thereof.
And judging from the miracles of multiplication Jesus performed, I wonder if he might not be just as happy to get back to being present with us in food distributed not according to strict, uniform, and teensy parity, but according to the measure of real hunger and need and the human right to a share of enjoyment of all earth’s goods, with doggie bags when we’re done, so that, having consumed his life, we might be present through food banks and soup kitchens and doorstep casseroles and loud table whacking advocacy in the halls of power for economic justice for those who starve amid plenty.
And judging from all the stories Jesus told about plowing and sowing, owners and workers and wages, I think he might be just as pleased to be present to us again in food that’s recognizable as food that labor actually produced, food that somebody sowed, reaped, milled, kneaded, baked, pruned, plucked, pressed, refined, bottled, and transported, so that, having consumed his life, we might be present to those who do all that every day yet whom we deem essential only when there are mortal risks to run and they’re the ones running them for us, present to them with a living wage, better conditions, and other effective affirmations of labors’ worth and workers’ dignity.
And judging from the gospels where Jesus is never depicted as eating alone, I think he might be just as glad to get back to being present with us in, with, through, under (or whatever you believe) signs that have to be taken, touched, broken, poured and passed from human hand to human hand, not personally packaged for antiseptic private ingestion, so that, having consumed his life, we might abandon the aloof isolation, self-protection, and self-delusion in which we often operate, reading and discussing the latest powerful book about issues and the people who have them but not rubbing bodies with anybody in hard won relationship, and be present to the world like he was and still is when we obey him, among and within and beside and wholly given away.
The holy Keurig cups were a necessary fallback (and they can still be useful for home visits and the like), but in my view the fact that they have been sold in bulk for years and widely used in many Protestant churches as a safe convenient delivery system for the Lord’s supper long before Covid came along, with its prudent precautions, betrays a fear of mingling and contamination that, were you to take a hard look at the history of such things would turn up no shortage of racism and xenophobia, a horror of a different sort of viral and uncontrollable infection, the hordes and all that.
Then there’s the sacramental minimalism they represent, the not so subtle embarrassment that we have to “Do this” as Jesus commanded, so we do it a little grudgingly mostly because he said we should, and even as we talk a good game about the feast, God’s abundant banquet table, the bread of heaven, and y’all come, we don’t have to bless and serve food that any basic regular person would recognize as such, and we don’t have to love it or enjoy it, much less be it or become it or live what at Christ’s table we say we do, re-member, and become one bread, one body, one flesh and blood.
The coffee creamer container with the tiny wafer (you can’t make me call it “bread”) and lipslip of juice were OK as emergency rations, but you can’t escape the possibility that they conveyed nothing of the lusty tasty gospel Jesus but rather a miserly, private, flavorless Jesus, convenient to use in the comfort of your own home or in a sanctuary where everyone can remain where they are and need not bestir themselves in any way to take and eat or to go and do likewise in this God-beloved world that so desperately needs abundantly-communionized people to communion all of life in Jesus’ holy and abundant name.
We like to say that a sacrament is an outward sign of an inward grace. True, but not just of inward things. Sacramental signs point to outward reality, too. Who we think God is, who we think we are, what we think we are doing in Jesus’ name as Christ’s Body fed with his life, what we are called to become, how we think the world was meant to be, how it was meant to feel and taste and smell and sound, and where that meant-to-be world is breaking in around us with justice and celebration, pardon and healing, reconciliation and joy.
People read signs. What are we giving them to read?
People feel meaning, they suss it out almost unconsciously from ritual actions and words. What are ours conveying?
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.
“At the end of the age… the angels will come and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire.”—Matthew 13:49-50 (NRSV)
There’s a reason Christians have traditionally depicted Hell as an inferno. The horror of fire is meant to deter us from sinning. To burn forever in flames, who’s not afraid of that?
Not many of us, apparently. Sinners are hardly an endangered species. It’s Hell that’s in trouble. These days, a lot of us just don’t buy it. We can’t believe that Jesus wants us to live moral lives based on fear. How could a truly loving God consign us to eternal fire? Hell may exist, we joke, but that doesn’t mean anyone’s there.
Meanwhile, toxic darkness falls hours before the sun sets in Australia, Borneo, and Brazil. Countless creatures flee towards extinction. Flames siphon life-assuring oxygen from the air. Politicians and profiteers steal indigenous peoples’ agency and place, dignity and livelihoods. Unique ecosystems vanish, unrecoverable.
Maybe Hell is due for a revival, at least as a bracing metaphor; although even hellfire seems too pale an image for what we deserve, we who disbelieve metaphorical flames while remaining oddly indifferent to real ones.
Even eternity in Hell seems too light a sentence for us who’ve convinced ourselves that firestorms happen only far away, and who don’t mind that things burn as long as it’s not us.
It was a world-changing day when humans discovered fire. It’ll be a world-ending day when we’re no longer afraid of it. It’s a soul-damning day when God calls desperate from a conflagration, and we whistle blithely in the blistering wind.
“For the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken; for a child is born to us… the Prince of Peace.”—Isaiah 9:4
It’s the O holy night, the silent night, the all is calm all is bright evening of our dear savior’s birth.
In the realm of heavenly peace, jittery angels wait for God’s signal to depart.
In the midnight sky, the Star positions itself over the manger, dimming its light until the big reveal.
Around fires in the hills, shepherds swap bawdy stories, scratch at fleas, glad for quiet, no wolf or thief.
In the little town of Bethlehem, strangers who came to be counted lie four to a bed in bad motels, grateful for any bed at all. Innkeepers and beggars count the bonus coins of these last days, a temporary gladness. Crouching at corners, hard soldiers familiar with blood are tossing dice, muttering curses, ears cocked for trouble.
In Jerusalem, Herod sleeps in a velvet chamber, sheets of Egyptian cotton tucked under his chin, digesting a dinner of lamb and mint, dreaming of music and wine.
In a nasty shed, Mary labors, Joseph is silent, the cattle are lowing, and little Lord Jesus will soon be asleep on the hay.
Then the angels will sing and the shepherds will run and see and the Star will explode and people in town will wonder why there’s so much noise in that back alley, ‘though not enough to call the soldiers, who are still tossing the dice, muttering and cursing, waiting for much bigger trouble.
It will come.
Sleep on, all you Herods. It will come.
Truly he taught us to love one another; His law is love and his gospel is peace. Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother, And in his name all oppression shall cease. Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we; Let all within us praise his holy name. (“O Holy Night”, v. 3)
“This will be a sign for you …a child, lying in a manger.”—Luke 2:12
We know all we know about the first Christmas Eve from a few gospel stories, all written decades after the fact, all different in detail. They have this in common, ‘though—no animals are mentioned at Jesus’ birth. No lowing cattle, no braying donkey, no stamping sheep, no droopy-eyed dromedaries parked outside.
Which is why, when it comes to Christmas, imagination is more reliable than Holy Writ. Christians know what to do with the bare bones of a good story: add flesh.
No animals? But there’s a manger, so there must’ve been animals! The evangelists probably just forgot. Surely God wants this corrected. Henceforth, then, let us sing about the donkey in the corner stall, paint loveable lambkins into the scene, arrange cattle in crèches where they belong and, while we’re at it, throw in Godzilla and a cat.
Thus have animals become gospel. It wouldn’t be Christmas without them.
I once got a card showing Little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay. An ox muzzles at it, stink-eyeing the babe, as if to say, “You’re cute, little boy, but you’re lying on my dinner.” Ugh, I moralized, there it is on a Christmas card—humans monopolizing all the space, making life hard for every animal but us.
But I also felt glad. Glad the ox was even there. Glad that we humans, so self-centered most of the time, noticed for once that a vital part was missing and rushed to paint, write, and sing it back in. Glad, too, more than I can say, that tonight is born for us the One in whose bright realm no one is ever missing, no creature great or small left out of Love.
Newborn Child, give us imagination to see who’s missing and bring them right back in.
In his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, Martin Luther King, Jr. glossed the parable of the Good Samaritan. He described driving from Jerusalem to Jericho during a trip to the Holy Land. Having traveled that winding road, he said he could imagine the fear of the two men who didn’t stop to help the bleeding victim in the ditch.
Dr. King imagined them asking themselves, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?”
Then he turns to the Samaritan. Dr. King imagines him asking a different question, the reverse: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’
The first question is full of fear, but the second creates Beloved Community. The first distances, the second closes a gap. It’s full of the empathy that is the hallmark of Jesus’ disciples, the lens through which they view every moral decision. It’s the most important question of all.
There is a third question we could ask ourselves when cries for help assault us, however. It’s not the empathetic question of what will happen to the suffering person if I fail to help, nor the fearful question of the peril I could be in if I do. It’s the existential question of what happens to my humanity when I pass my neighbor by. We could frame it this way: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will I become? What will happen to my soul?”
Our nation’s current immigration policies are creating horrific trauma. The violence being done to our neighbors by the people who ordered this policy, who are implementing it, who are passively or actively supporting it, and who are failing to do everything in their—our—power to stop it, is incalculable and lasting. And so is the violence we are doing to ourselves. Soul damage. Heart damage. Conscience damage. Damage to our humanity. This self-inflicted trauma also corrodes and corrupts for generations. No one escapes its consequences.
What harm could befall me if I stop to help my suffering neighbor? This is a question of fear, creating even more suffering, alleviating none.
What will happen to my suffering neighbor if I fail to help? This is a question of empathy, creating solidarity, healing, and hope.
What will I become if I pass the suffering by, if I ignore it, if I inflict it, if I condone it, if I participate? This is a question of truth, acknowledging that, act by act, omission by omission, I harden or soften my heart, I awaken or deaden my conscience, I become more human or much less, I live a soulful life or die.
Then the devil took him to the pinnacle of the temple,saying, “If you are God’s Son, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”—Matthew 4:5-6
Even the devil can quote scripture.
Shakespeare said it, but Jesus dealt with it—a Bible-toting devil tossing out passages with practiced ease. “Look,” he says, trying to get Jesus to jump off a building, “It says right here, and here, and here: ‘Nothing bad will happen to you.’ You can do it. Jump!”
The devil is proof-texting, cobbling together verses to argue his case, cherry-picking psalms to make Jesus think it’s “biblical” to do a really reckless thing, knowing that if Jesus takes the bait, he’ll end up dead.
It wasn’t the first nor would it be last time demonic intentions to do harm have come cloaked in biblical authority.
Now, the devil isn’t the only one who proof-texts. In the heat of moral battle, even ‘progressives’ disturb their Bibles for the right passages to prove him wrong. And themselves right. It’s a game we all play.
But while our government is busy traumatizing little lives, and too many citizens are obscenely proud of being indifferent to their pain—“They brought it on themselves! They broke the law!”—batting the Bible back and forth across the barricades misses the moral challenge by a thousand miles.
To do justice perseveringly it’s not enough to be armed with better scripture passages. The struggle isn’t about scripture. Not even about religion. It’s about humanness. The times require empathy, not verses; compassion, not one-upping; the retrieval of lost fellow-feeling, not “biblical” mouthing-off.
If we’ve been taking the Bible as seriously as it deserves to be taken, we’ll see that the best thing we can do at crucial times is to lay it down—quit the unserious game of dueling verses, and work harder, so much harder, at becoming fully human than at being right.
Thank you for the gift of Scripture, O God. May its wisdom teach us to put it down so that we can see each other and learn to care.