Jewish friends have invited my wife and me - both Roman Catholic - to attend a seder. In addition to a Bible, is there anything we should bring, like flowers, etc.? Our hosts will provide the meal. Can we participate by offering a prayer? The more Bible study we do, the more we learn of how we're connected to our Jewish brothers and sisters.
- E. and J., via e-mail
The Passover meal, also called the seder, is one of the most spiritually fulfilling Jewish events for Christians to share. Father Tom Hartman, my best friend and former partner in the God Squad, always enjoyed coming to our family seder. Both the food and the rituals stuffed him and filled him.
The seder meal is rich in meaning for both Jews and Christians because it's the first example of God's saving power to a group.
Before the Exodus from Egypt, God had blessed one particular family of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and then Joseph. In the Exodus, the blessing of freedom from slavery was given to an entire nation - the Israelites (the Jewish people). Also, the Bible teaches (in Exodus) that in addition to freeing the Israelites, many non-Jewish slaves were freed by God from the house of bondage. The entire group leaving Egypt was called a "mixed multitude."
Another link between the Passover meal and Christianity is, of course, the Gospel accounts that say Jesus' last supper was a Passover meal. We see this in Luke 22: 7, 8, 11, 13, and most clearly in verse 15: "I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer." John 19:14 seems to indicate the meal was the night before Passover, but the connection with Passover is clear. As Paul taught in Romans 11, Christianity is like a branch grafted onto an old olive tree - different branches from a tree with a single trunk and common roots. That's how we ought to make our way in the world - as different branches of the same tree.
As for what to bring, say or do when attending the seder, I'd suggest leaving your Bible at home; you don't want to appear to be checking up on your hosts. Due to dietary issues, I'd urge you to bring flowers, not food. Just follow the leader of the seder and do what he or she tells you. At most seders, the leader allows everyone at the table to participate by reading a part of the seder story called the Haggadah.
The Passover Haggadah is the script for the rituals during the meal. There are many versions, but all include the story of the Exodus, songs and several important rituals before and after the meal. You'll be dipping parsley into saltwater and eating it to symbolize both springtime and the tears of slavery. You'll be eating horseradish mixed with haroset, a tasty combination of nuts, wine, apples and spices, to symbolize the bitterness of slavery and also the mortar used to build Pharaoh's buildings. You'll also eat matzoh and drink four cups of wine. (You might want to appoint a designated seder driver.) You'll open the door for Elijah the Prophet, who, by legend, will come to announce the coming of the Messiah for the first time (our count) or the second time (your count). You'll dip out 10 drops of wine in sorrowful memory of all the Egyptians who died during the plagues over Egypt preceding the Exodus.
My deepest belief in the spiritual value of the seder for Christians is that the Passover meal and the Eucharist, which began as a Passover meal, are now two of the most powerfully symbolic religious meals in history. They're linked, and inspire and transform all the believers who share them.
As the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber taught, understanding their differences is the best way to understand the similarities between Judaism and Christianity. The seder is a meal eaten for God, while the Eucharist is a meal eaten of God.
In the Eucharist, bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. In the seder, unleavened bread (matzoh) remains bread but is a symbol of other bread eaten during the Exodus by those who didn't have time to let the dough rise. The wine remains wine but is a symbol of joy and of God's four (or possibly five) promises of redemption found in Exodus, chapter 6. Judaism, unlike Christianity, doesn't have the Incarnation in its belief structure, but like Christianity, it embraces the belief that history is the record of God's saving power.
There's an invitation in the seder for all who are hungry to come and eat, so come hungry! I'm certain you'll enjoy yourself and discover that during the seder meal there are no prayers a Christian can't say in full faith.
The Passover meal is our common link not only to God's promise of freedom but also to the enduring possibility of friendship among what the Pope called "My brothers and sisters in faith."