Say no to Christian seders

By Ann Fontaine

As Holy Week nears I see church bulletins and websites publicizing liturgies and events, welcoming others to come and participate. One of the more popular offerings is a Seder. As soon as I see this, I remember a student colleague from divinity school saying, “Why do you Christians steal our sacred rites? You have not suffered as we have suffered at your hands, yet you feel free to take our liturgies for your pleasure.”

This is similar to questions Native Americans ask when Euro-Americans hold sweat lodge ceremonies. How can those of us who have not walked the path of another tradition and lived with the oppression and violence skim off the cream of an “interesting” ritual? Doesn’t taking a ritual out of it’s cultural context cut off its roots? Rather than a living tradition, tended and shaped by history and the life around it, the ritual seems to become only the flower picked for its ability to decorate.

Asking others why they have the ceremonies out of the context in which they emerged I receive a variety of answers. Many have never thought about the roots of the ritual. They enjoyed it and thought nothing more of it.

In the case of a Seder – a rationale is that Jesus celebrated Passover with his disciples or Christianity emerged from Judaism so we are just continuing that tradition. A second reason give is as a learning experience about another religion.

If it were not for the history of justification by Christians for violence against Jews and the Holocaust, perhaps holding a Seder could be seen as a fairly benign practice of pretending to be another by trying out their rituals. I wonder, though, how Christians would feel about Jews or Muslims having play Eucharists? Dressing someone up like a priest and saying the words from the Book of Common Prayer?

Addressing some of the reasons that are given in spite of the history

Jonathan Klawans, writing in Biblical Archaeology Review, discusses the question – Was the Last Supper a Seder? The short answer is “Most likely, it was not.”

Most scholars currently doubt that the Passover meal and the Last Supper were the same or even historically related. The Gospels do not offer a consistent timing of the Last Supper. Also where are the other elements: bitter herbs, the lamb, the four cups of wine?

Modern day celebrations of the Passover are a melding of traditions from shortly after the destruction of the Temple (70AD), through the early church and Middle Ages using the Exodus story as the base. To this day more is being added to the Haggadah (the book that is used for the Seder)

It was, however, common in the time of Jesus for followers to have meals together with their leader. There is record of this among many groups centered around a single leader.

According to Klawans:

In Chapters 9 and 10 of the Didache, the eucharistic prayers are remarkably close to the Jewish Grace After Meals (Birkat ha-Mazon).7 While these prayers are recited after the Passover meal, they would in fact be recited at any meal at which bread was eaten, holiday or not. Thus, this too underscores the likelihood that the Last Supper was an everyday Jewish meal.

The German New Testament scholar Karl Georg Kuhn believes that contrary to Jesus having a Seder with his disciples the synoptics actually prohibit it. Kuhn notes:

… that the synoptic Last Supper tradition attributes to Jesus a rather curious statement of abstinence: “I have earnestly desired to eat this Paschal lamb with you before I suffer, for I tell you that I shall not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God…[and] I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes” (Luke 22:15–18; cf. Mark 14:25 [“I shall not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God”]=Matthew 26:29). The synoptics’ placement of the Last Supper in a Passover context should be read along with Jesus’ statement on abstinence; in this view, the tradition that the Last Supper was a Passover meal argues that Christians should mark the Passover not by celebrating, but by fasting, because Jesus has already celebrated his last Passover.

It seems that perhaps Christians should not celebrate at all during Passover and especially not Seders.

What then could Christian do for a meal during Holy Week if we take seriously the objection of our Jewish brothers and sisters? One possibility is to attend a Seder offered to non-Jews by Jewish synagogues or friends. In one church I served – a Jewish family invited the members of that church to a Seder. It has become a long-standing tradition and has helped the two religious traditions get to know one another and work together on other projects. In another, a church began its life renting space in a synagogue. Now that the church has its own building, the 2 groups along with the nearby Presybterian church, who also started in the synagogue, have a lamb dinner together with each contributing food for the meal.

Another possibility is to use an early church Eucharist combined with the footwashing on Maundy Thursday. The rite of Hippolytus is from the third century (c. 225 AD). The Education for Ministry Common Lessons and Supporting Materials has a form of this service. Combining the early eucharist with the service of footwashing can offer a better teaching experience.

Other churches offer Agape or fellowship meals. An example can be found in the United Methodist Book of Worship. This could be an opportunity to learn about our joint agreement between the UMC and TEC.

No doubt there are other ideas your church has experienced you can share. Holy Week can be a time of sharing meals and deepening our spiritual lives without ripping off the spirituality of others.

The Rev. Ann Fontaine, Diocese of Wyoming, keeps what the tide brings in. She is the author of Streams of Mercy: a meditative commentary on the Bible.

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  1. Now, Ann!

    You’re throwing such a wet blanket on our religious tourism! After all, we don’t want to live there–We just want to sample the local color!


  2. deirdregood

    Thank you Ann for a stimulating post: great content and timely practical implications for Holy Week.

    There are good arguments to be made in response to Prof Klawans’ article: see for example,

    (posted March 19, 2010). So the discussion about what the Last Supper was is by no means clear. At some point however it is clear that followers of Jesus described the Last Supper as a Passover Seder. Bruce Chilton (in his book A Feast of Meanings: Eucharistic Theologies from Jesus Through Johannine Circles (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1994), esp. pp. 93–108–cited by Klawans) argues that these followers of Jesus were Jewish Christians attempting to maintain the Jewish character of early Easter celebrations.

    Ann rightly urges us to consider the practical consequences. She has made some good suggestions. I myself am lucky enough to have been invited by a Jewish friend to a Seder for non-Jews next week. Others will have further suggestions.

  3. At the Episcopal church my family used to attend, our rector objected to the idea of a Seder, asking how we would feel if Jews or Muslims tried out a Eucharist. I guess I’m unconvinced by that particular line of reasoning because the Eucharist is THE central ritual of our Christian lives and it is very directly transforming–we’re not just remembering the Last Supper but participating in it, showing in a very concrete way our faith in Christ and our obtaining forgiveness of sin through his body and blood. I wonder if Christians doing a Seder is more akin to Jews or Muslims participating in a foot washing or some other ritual that is not THE foundation of our liturgical life. I would certainly not object to that, as a Christian. But my ignorance of exactly what place a Seder holds in Jewish life is perhaps another argument for why Christians like me shouldn’t participate.

    At our former church, we ended up doing a Seder with the Sunday school children, under the leadership of a Jewish mom of some of the kids (their dad was Christian and they were raising their kids in the Episcopal Church). It was designed as a lesson: “Here’s what Jews do at Passover and why.”

  4. EH Culver

    There is a sentence in the Passover Haggadah that I find intriguing: “Our redemption is not yet complete.” As Christians, we believe that ours has been made complete by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Correct? Information,please.

  5. Derek Olsen

    Thank you Ann! I very much agree that Christian Seders are a bad idea.

    I definitely agree on the evils of spiritual tourism (and would add a note wondering why some seem so interested with the riches of other traditions when they seem not to have sampled the riches of our own…). Too, I have real doubts about whether whether the form of the Seder from the Mishnah reflects pre-70 AD practice.

    However, yet another foundational reason not mentioned here is that the theology of the Seder does not belong on Maundy Thursday. The Seder celebrates the release from captivity and bondage and the new life wrought by God. For us, this is the theology of the Easter Vigil and certainly not Maundy Thursday. Some parish communities I’ve worshiped at use a lamb dinner after the Vigil to make this connection, but neither do these communities try to turn them into Seders.

  6. tobias haller

    Thank you Ann. It is enough for me to be reminded of “Christ our Passover.” I think making use of other faith traditions when we have a rich and powerful tradition of our own is not enriching. It is quite another thing for a Christian to be invited to a Seder — but I think it important for Christians to recall that we are adopted into that family, and it is not our birthright — and so much of the language of the Seder is about actual, not symbolic, heritage!

  7. Thanks, Ann. In our context, where a significant number of our members are in Christian-Jewish households, one of our members familiar with the Seder tradition sometimes acquaints our young people with the meal by hosting a seder, but in a non-liturgical format. In short, we don’t attempt to “Christianize” it.

  8. We do a rite III Maundy

    Thursday service. We start with a handwashing in the church. We continue with a potluck meal in the parish hall commemorating the institution of the Eucharist during which we read the lessons and the prayers (and have a homily, optionally — sometimes we have non scriptural lessons which fill in for the homily). We continue with the Peace back in the church. And we finish with the stripping of the altar after communion. It’s a lot of fun and it celebrates our own traditions.

  9. It seems that perhaps Christians should not celebrate at all during Passover and especially not Seders.

    That’s about right, I think. Besides, Holy Week provides for a full week of traditional Christian liturgies.

    June Butler

  10. Luiz Coelho

    Thanks, Ann+

    For similar reasons, I once had a long discussion on facebook about one friend’s photograph of this Harvey Milk (who was a jew) icon that was being venerated at a requiem service held in San Francisco.

    While I acknowledge that as a valid intention of honoring someone who is so dear to that community, I think it’s just better to find ways of honoring people in their own religious contexts. Sometimes we forget how oppressive Christianity was to other faiths, despite our obligation to love all people.

    Sometimes we also forget we have our own traditions and have to respect them somehow.

  11. I interpret the Harvey Milk icon as suggesting that Christians consider the righteousness of his work, not that we appropriate him for our own use or remove him from his own context.

    Just as Judaism provides for the occasional righteous Gentile, so we can recognize a righteous Jew. Juxtaposition is a time-honored artistic technique.

  12. Luiz Coelho

    Josh, I have to disagree with you. Your argument is valid, and it matches exactly what some people argued when the aforementioned discussion took place. However, I had some points of disagreement.

    As an iconographer, I learned I didn’t have the right to choose whom to depict, but whom the Church recognizes as a saint (and I take it very broadly – I like the idea of local communities recognizing their saints without the need of any lengthy process such as canonizations, for example). That might not be very pleasing to many people, but that’s how I learned, and I respect this tradition. Therefore, as I understand it, iconography relies on a theology of “saint-making” that is not under control of the iconographer him/herself.

    But that’s not even the main point. I come from a Jewish family who resisted Inquisition for over three centuries, keeping secret prayers and habits, and hating every single manifestation of CHristianity. My generation is the 2nd that is Christian by choice, but I’m still aware of how offensive it was to some of my ancestors anything that resembled “catholic”: baroque altars, statues, paintings of saints, etc. To them, that artistic vernacular really meant oppression and hatred.

    Now imagine that I decide to honor a deceased Muslim by painting an icon of him/her. What would Muslims think, if to most of them these sorts of representations are forbidden? That’s why I see a parallel between those cases and the idea of Christian seders that Mother Ann presented here.

    The response, I think, was presented by Ann+ too, when she mentions the possibility of having interfaith activities such as Synagogues hosting seders for non-Jewish families. I think ideas like these provide manifold possibilities of interfaith interactions in local communities. Many of us are willing to learn about other faiths, but sometimes we don’t have the opportunity of doing that. In the Harvey Milk case, for example, my suggestion was that churches hosted a conference, or even an art show or built a monument to him – but something without clear religious overtones – and invited not only Jews but also lgbt organizations (many of which led by people with no religious affiliation) and whomever would be willing to come, to talk and share what they all have in common. Maybe an interfaith prayer service could follow it.

    That’s my humble opinion.

  13. Ann Fontaine

    From Israel Passover

  14. Some years ago the Diocese of NY studied this issue and recommended against Christian seders in Holy Week

  15. This Holy Week, King of Peace Episcopal Church will hold its 10th seder. Each year we have celebrated a traditional seder following a typical hagaddah with no extra Christian teaching or interpretation added. The seder is the only joint Jewish-Christian event in our town. There is no synagogue in our community and Jews and Christians together enjoy the seder.

    I hear where you are coming from Ann and I think we should shy away from appropriating the religious traditions of others. But a community seder that helps Jews in our community celebrate their rite with others has proved very good for this small south Georgia town.

  16. Frank – this is great- I am not opposed to the idea – I think it should be held on the appropriate Jewish date – but for me supporting other traditions to have space to celebrate in their own way helps us all.

  17. I’ve attended Seders in Jewish homes (great fun!), and I’ve attended explicitly Christian Seders. I think a “Christian Seder”, if well written, makes clear our debt to our Jewish forebears, while at the same time acknowledging the real differences in our faiths and traditions. I would be truly offended if Christians sat down, using a Jewish Haggadah, and attempted to duplicate a Seder as if we were a Jewish family. Remember the British sitcom about the woman who looks like the Queen, and takes care to dress and style her hair exactly like her? We’d look just as silly…

    I’d like to raise a related sbject: the Dorchester Chaplains in Holy Women and Holy Men – three Christians and a Jew, who gave their comrades on a sinking ship their own life jackets. It would be wrong to recognize the three Christian chaplains and ignore their Jewish comrade. In in their deaths they all exemplified what Jesus said: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” So it is truly meet and right to honor all of them.

    Still, although we might consider the Christtians saints, (we could call them all martyrs for charity) we must avoid calling all four of the Chaplains “saints.” Icons with the four of them – who gets the haloes? – it boggles the mind. The rabbi lived and died as a Jew, not a Christian. But I think it would be fair to call all of them Righteous.

    Personally, I am sure that the final judgement will not separate them, and they will all sit together at the banquet in the world to come.

  18. Jeff Wilhite

    “Holy Week can be a time of sharing meals and deepening our spiritual lives without ripping off the spirituality of others.”

    This was a very interesting read. Thank you for sharing it.

    I don’t believe practicing a seder really “rips off” Jewish spirituality, though, anymore than reenacting David and Goliath in a children’s Bible class rips off the glory of ancient Jewish battle victories. The reality is that Jews and Christians have a significant shared history and no single group gets to claim it exclusively. There is one God who has been revealing Himself to His children throughout all time, and He chose to establish an old covenant and a new covenant. The prophets, laws, and feasts of the old covenant are as much a part of Christian history as they are of Jewish history.

    A present-day Christian has as much claim on the passover tradition as a present-day convert to Judaism. The only thing that makes a tradition a “living tradition” is the fact that people practice it, and there isn’t any reason that present-day Christians shouldn’t be able to practice the feasts of the old covenant. It is not out of context; it is not play; it is not tourism. It is part of our Bibles and a significant part of Christian history which goes much farther back than circa 30 AD. Christian history goes all the way back to the Word that “was with God in the beginning.”

  19. How grieving this article is to me, since it is my goal to get as many Christians remembering God’s powerful miraculous work as possible. I have written a Seder, and I am a Christian, not Jewish, but I know I am grafted into His precious family. One day we will all celebrate the Passover together, but until that day, I will remember that God has freed me from the bondage of sin, and my Jewish brothers and sisters can remember that God has saved them from the bondage of Slavery. We both will eat the bitter herbs and drink the salty water and we will both weep for our sin and our slavery and we will both remember that God is good and we will both say Dayenu!

  20. Thanks, Ann+. As one in an interfaith relationship, we’ve certainly talked and had to negotiate our religious celebrations. A “Christian Seder” is absolutely a no-no in our house, and thankfully, I haven’t been anywhere that has seriously proposed doing one. I’ve certainly been present at many seders, community and otherwise, and its always been fascinating and opportunity to share a common language of liberation through God.

    Susan Gage (added by editor)

  21. Canon K F KKing Tssf

    With all the discussion . . . great stuff . . . I just “obeyed” the rubric in the “red book” of additional services. Yes, I am VERY loyal to the BCP rubrics as well as those in the “red book” which makes it clear that the Seder is inappropriate but offers a sensible option. ‘Guess it is something to do with generations and with being loyal to established norms.

    The Revd Canon K.F. King (Retired)

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