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.