Monday, March 29, 2010

Of "Christian Seders"

This morning's Houston Chronicle had a lengthy article about some controversy surrounding local Christians celebrating the Passover seder.

The article reminded me of the seders I have participated in over the years. Back when I was in college my home church in San Antonio celebrated the Passover seder under the direction of one of the local rabbis. That was my first introduction to this tradition, and I found it powerful and compelling.

Many years later I organized a seder for the church we were attending. My next door neighbors were Jewish and their daughter was a very good friend of my two daughters. They invited us to their home for the seder that year and I was surprised that they didn't realize that the Christian sacrament of communion was derived from it. My neighbor offered to help me plan the seder at church. She and her daughter attended and she brought an heirloom plate for the bitter herbs that had been handed down in her family.

Our pastor insisted that we close that seder with communion--clearly an adaptation that some interviewed in the Chronicle article would see as offensive. I remember being uncomfortable with that at the time because I worried it would make my neighbor uncomfortable. However if it did, she never let on and to me was enthusiastic about the experience, even joining in the communion herself.

Has your church celebrated a Passover seder? Did you incorporate Christian interpretations to the event or did you replicate a purely Jewish seder?


Teri said...

The only time we've done a Seder was when the second night of Passover (the night for the community Seder) was on Maundy Thursday (last year). There is a synagogue next door to my church and the rabbi and I are friends, so I worked with her to put together the service and meal. We used the same haggadah that our friends next door were using, at the same time, with the same was very very meaningful and really helpful in building our relationship with the Jewish people in our area.
We did end with communion, since we basically re-enacted Jesus' last night--complete with Seder rituals, silly songs, and food. So, since our story of freedom and liberation involves communion, we did that as well--at each table people passed pita or matzoh and goblets of grape juice.
We had a wonderful and meaningful time together. But having said that, I wouldn't do it just on our own schedule--the reason we did it is because Passover fell on the day we remember that chapter in our liberation story. Since it doesn't this year (and hasn't in most other years), we go to the synagogue for the second-night community Seder. :-)

Mac said...

What a thought-provoking post. Our church has not celebrated a Passover seder.

As a Ruling Elder in the EPC, I would probably side more with Rabbi Federow (quoted in the newspaper article), although from the other side of the question. I reach that tentative conclusion as a result of your recitation of your experience with your friend. You wrote “Our pastor insisted that we close that seder with communion. . . I remember being uncomfortable with that at the time because I worried it would make my neighbor uncomfortable. However if it did, she never let on and to me was enthusiastic about the experience, even joining in the communion herself.”

My first thought was “Where was the Session?”

We of the Reformed faith certainly do not accept the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation (the elements are miraculously transformed into the actual body and blood of Christ) nor even of the Lutheran doctrine of consubstantiation (the fundamental "substance" of the body and blood of Christ are present alongside the substance of the elements). Rather, to a certain extent, Reformed theology does recognize the sacrament as a “commemoration.” To a non-believer, one whose religion is steeped in ritual and remembrance, the sacrament of Communion could be seen as mere ritual, performed “in remembrance” of Jesus.

But it much more: itis a seal of all those benefits of Calvary for believers, and signifies their spiritual growth and nourishment. It is a bond and pledge of the communion of believers with Jesus Christ and with each other as parts of the Church.
[I know that you, dear QG, know all of this, and so, too, do most of your readers, but maybe, just maybe, that hundredth sheep will stop by to graze.]

Rabbi Federow is worried that Christian participants in seders will “take our symbols, our holiday, our ritual and start investing them in Christian meaning.” Thus, he apparently concedes that for his flock, the seder meal is merely a ritual, albeit one loaded with historic meaning for all of the descendants of Abraham and Isaac, including Christians. And there is indeed a certain ritual in the way that we prepare for and administer the Sacrament.

My concern arises from your friend’s decision to take part in the "ritual" of communion, without (apparently) understanding its whole import. From her spiritual and religious point of view, I am sure that she saw her participation in “our” ritual to be nothing more or less than the mirror-image of our participation in “hers.”

In our Book of Worship, we, as Ruling Elders, are also instructed that we are obligated to ensure that those receiving communion understand its whole nature and "to refuse the Lord’s Supper to those who are ignorant of its meaning or who are ungodly."

“Those who unworthily receive the sacrament . . . are guilty of the body and blood of Jesus and condemn themselves." Book of Worship, §3-3; §3-3 D.

I have no doubt that your friend was a godly woman, but unless the Spirit led her to confess Jesus Christ and Him crucified that very night, she could not have been sealed with other believers, and she probably did not receive Him into her heart. Even in a spirit of fellowship and a desire to be open and welcoming, we ought never allow the Sacraments to be diluted into something less than what they are. In the case of your friend, I believe that our loving Savior will never hold such an innocent act to condemn a person as “guilty of His body and blood,” but the elders who do not fully carry out their office may have some serious ‘splainin’ to do.


Quotidian Grace said...


I believe my friend took the communion in order not to draw attention to herself and also not to seem to be an ungracious guest. My memory is that the communion was passed around the tables rather than people coming forward--in which latter case she might well have just remained seated.

Our pastor at that church always made a point about how communion was open to all who confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and I recall him doing that on this occasion as well. I think that covered it.

I do take your point that if a church celebrates communion in connection with a seder meal--particularly if Jewish guests will be present--careful forethought about how the sacrament is offered and described is very important. Certainly that was not anticipated in the incident I described, and could have been improved.

Mac said...

Please be assured that I was not being critical. And as a 5 pointer, I cannot say with assurance that your friend was not one off the elect.

I know, too, that when I attend services at a Roman Catholic Church, I am always a little hurt that, as a believer in our Lord Jesus, I am nonetheless excluded from His table. But I also admire "the Church's" care to preserve its doctrine and theology. (As a recovering Catholic, I still sometimes find myself thinking of her in that way.)8>).

Quotidian Grace said...

No offense taken, Mac. It's a tricky balance between preserving doctrine and theology and being welcoming to seekers isn't it?

zorra said...

Well, as you know, I attended the Seder that is under discussion in these comments. :) That was meaningful...but the Christian Seder I remember most fondly was one we shared with two other couples in our little apartment in Pasadena, long ago. Our friend Nancy was the youngest of us all by a few years, so she got to ask the questions!