Today the house-church I am a part of will meet to hold our yearly Passover Seder. Over the years, this tradition has come to be really important to me (as best we figure, this is our 10th year to celebrate it), and I think that I ought to explain why. This tradition means different things to all of us who participate in it, but this is what it has come to mean for me.
First, some clarifications. Passover is a Jewish festival, and I am – obviously – not Jewish. As Christians celebrating Passover, we do not mean to diminish the importance of this festival for Jews, nor to show disrespect to it or to our Jewish brothers and sisters through our admittedly untraditional use of Jewish rituals in observing the Passover. Also, in doing this I am not claiming (as some have before me) that “Christians are in some sense more Jewish than Jews are”. Though I recognize what is meant when people say this, I understand how this seems presumptuous and (justifiably) offensive to those who do not.*
There are Christians who have made a sort of identity out of practicing Jewish customs. (Here I am not talking about people who are part of the tradition of Messianic Judaism, a tradition that I respect a lot and do not know enough about.) I have one word of caution for these people. Though I have found a lot of value in celebrating the Passover, as I will explain later, I think that this needs to be approached carefully. From the time of the New Testament, the church fathers made it clear that it was not necessary for Gentiles to adopt Jewish practices in order to become Christians. In the early Church, the debate was a major source of contention – did Gentile Christians need to be circumcised?** Should Gentile Christians observe Jewish dietary restrictions?*** At the Council of Jerusalem, these questions were answered, and the Church concluded that it was not necessary for Gentiles to come to the Church through Judaism. Jewish traditions are not an essential element of the Christian faith, and the purpose is neither to co-opt Jewish customs for Christianity, nor to celebrate them legalistically. Though they can be a helpful, informative, and spiritually uplifting act of worship for the Gentile Christian, we must take care that we do not make them into something for us that they are not.
Clarifications and qualifications aside, celebrating the Passover has become a meaningful tradition for our house-church community. Here are some reasons why:
1. Celebrating the Passover helps us to understand the context of Christ better.
- It is not a coincidence that Christ’s death occurred at the time in the calendar year that it did. Passover is arguably the most important of the Jewish festivals, commemorating the miraculous deliverance of Israel from the oppression of slavery in Egypt. To celebrate this event every year in a time when Israel was again oppressed – this time by the Roman Empire – was not only a religious but also an innately political act. It was a time when emotions ran high, when Jews celebrated liberation and all the while were brutally reminded of the oppression of their occupation.
- Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the event that we celebrate on Palm Sunday, occurred as the city was filling with people coming to the temple to celebrate the Passover. In this time of high emotions and political frustration, is it a surprise that the people saw in Jesus the Christ that they wanted to see – a conquering king who would free them from their present-day oppressors? And, when it became clear that this was not the kind of messiah he came to be, that public opinion swung rapidly and violently?
- A symbolic note: in the Seder, traditionally a lamb was sacrificed at the temple and eaten. According to Mosaic law, this was to be an unblemished male lamb. The lamb was to be chosen four days before the Passover feast, and was to be taken into the household to live among the family. As our Seder script says, “After four days, when the lamb had almost become one of the family, and as the children had come to love the lamb, the lamb was taken to the temple to be sacrificed, for the forgiveness of sins.” Jesus’ triumphal entry – Palm Sunday – occurred on that day, four days before the Passover, when the people were to choose the lamb that would be sacrificed.****
2. Celebrating the Passover is a way for us to better observe and understand Maundy Thursday, the day on which Jesus ate his final meal with the disciples, washed the feet of his disciples, and instituted the sacrament of Communion.
- The Last Supper, Jesus’ final meal on the night before he was crucified, was his celebration of the Passover feast with the disciples (Matt 26:17, Mark 14:1-2, Luke 22:1-15). We have found that, when given the context of the rituals of the Passover meal, Christ’s actions during that meal take on even greater meaning.
- From the radical humility of washing the disciples’ feet to the symbolic placement of the breaking of the bread (the afikomen) to the meaning of the cup of wine that Jesus called “my blood, shed for you” (in Passover sometimes called the Cup of Redemption) to the gesture of giving Judas the bread (traditionally a token of affection) – celebrating the Passover gives us the opportunity to once every year be reminded of the deep significance of the Last Supper, which we celebrate throughout the year in a much-abbreviated form.
3. Celebrating the Passover has become an opportunity for us to celebrate the tradition that has become ours “through adoption,” as adopted sons and daughters of Abraham.
- As it is written, “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, and heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:26-29)
4. Celebrating the Passover provides us with an opportunity to be reminded of God’s desire for justice, and our responsibility to be doers of justice.
- Passover is a time when Jews celebrate the liberation of Israel (the nation of antiquity) from the oppression of slavery to the Egyptians. At the time of Jesus, it was an ironic celebration of freedom during a time when the Jews were under the oppression of the Roman Occupation. Today, Passover is an ironic celebration of freedom at a time when the current political nation of Israel (not to be confused with the ancient religious nation of Israel, which it is neither identical to nor continuous with nor the same as the current state) is the oppressor in the region, illegally occupying Palestine and subjecting the people to foreign, unjust rule. Passover is an opportunity to remember that irony, in solidarity with the oppressed, and a call to stand against that oppression.
- Passover is a time to remember Israel’s oppression in Egypt, which was the foundation upon which God built His commandments to His people. “You shall not oppress an immigrant, since you know the heart of immigrants; for you too were once immigrants in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9) In our community in inner-city Chicago, Passover is a reminder that we ourselves are to identify with the immigrant, for as it is written, “On that day tell your son, I do this because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.” (Exodus 13:8) God tells us that we observe the Passover as though we ourselves were immigrants, oppressed in the land of Egypt. How might this reality change the way that we interact with our immigrant neighbors in the year to come?
- As part of the Passover meal, Jews look for the arrival of Elijah, for it was foretold, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord. And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers.” (Malachi 4:4-5) We as Christians know that Elijah has already come (Matthew 11:13-14), but it seems that we have not yet seen the hearts of the fathers turn to their children. In our community in inner-city Chicago, it is estimated that 90% of children live in a single-parent home, and 1/3 of fathers in the community are in prison. In a time such as this, what would it look like for the hearts of the fathers to be turned to their children? And what are we called to do? After all, “You shall not pervert the justice due to the sojourner or to the fatherless, or take a widow’s garment in pledge, but you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this.” (Deuteronomy 24:17-18)
I look forward eagerly to our celebration of the Passover, as I have every year for the past ten years. But this year, I hope I am doing so in a spirit of thoughtfulness, as we seek to worship God and learn the lessons he would teach us as we remember the Passover as a community.
. . .
* If this is you: The saying, “Christians are in some sense more Jewish than Jews are” is a Christian-ism that, like other Christian-isms, bears meaning in our community that we often forget that those outside our community do not know. It is a simplistic and as such ill-advised way to express meaning-laden sentiments that demand a much more nuanced explanation out of respect to our Jewish brothers and sisters. If you have felt insulted or offended by anyone who said this or something like it, I apologize. We as Christians have a responsibility to be less careless and more sensitive to the way that we are understood by others, and we often fail in it. (If you would like an explanation that gets at what is meant by this at it’s best, I’m willing to try.)
** See Galatians 3 for Paul’s response.
*** See See Acts 10 for Peter’s dream.
**** via Dr. Kalantzis.