Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

Catholic Activity: The Passover Meal: 1. Introduction



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A Catholic family can enter more deeply into the Passion of Christ by having a seder meal, similar to the Passover, or Last Supper that Jesus would have celebrated with his Apostles. With the knowledge that Christ has come and redeemed the world, we can incorporate a Christian attitude during the seder meal. Arleen Hynes discusses the preparation necessary for a seder meal, including housecleaning, guests, scheduling, appropriate decorations, music, and finally, the traditional foods.



Gathering around the table for food and conversation is a traditional and most pleasant form of fellowship and shared learning. This meal formula is designed to help individual families and friends as well as large ecumenical church-sponsored gatherings to do both in an atmosphere of spiritual understanding of the Passover and Holy Week.

The purpose of this meal celebration and the directed conversation at table before the meal is to draw relationships between the Passover and important New Testament truths. It is vital to our understanding of these relationships that we recognize that Jesus was a faithful Jew who observed Judaic laws — from the circumcision to the feast of the Unleavened Bread, his Last Supper. That, as the "Working Document on Jewish-Christian Relations" (1969) says, "it was within Judaism that Christianity was born and wherein it found essential elements of its faith and cult". This is based on the Vatican II statement that the church "affirms that her salvation is mysteriously prefigured in the exodus of the chosen people from the land of bondage".

No attempt has been made in this meal formula to reconstruct an authentic Passover ritual of either Christ's time or of present day Judaism. But by using some of the basic Jewish prayers and an adaptation of the traditional questions of the Passover meal, Christians can become somewhat familiar with the tradition of the Jews. New Testament texts are used not only to build appreciation and understanding of the Christian beliefs but also of their relationship to Judaic roots.

The Passover meal carried on the learning tradition established by God through Moses when he commanded his people to commemorate his loving kindness towards them in the Exodus. "And when your children ask you, 'What does this ritual mean?', you will tell them, 'It is the sacrifice of the Passover in honour of Yahweh who passed over the houses of the sons of Israel in Egypt, and struck Egypt but spared our houses" (Exodus 12, 27).

The Jews were directed by Moses to gather in family and neighborly clusters to eat and recall together, "And on that day you will explain to your son, 'This is because of what Yahweh did for me when I came out of Egypt' " (Exodus 13, 8). The lesson of God's freeing the Israelites from slavery was to be taught in the fullness of both intellectual knowledge and the warmth of the heart surrounded by loved ones, family and friends.

For centuries the Jewish families have been following a traditional formula for their family Seder services. The small book which gives the text for this order of service (Seder) is called Haggadah, which means "the telling" as prescribed in Exodus 13, 8. The Jewish Haggadah includes not only the order of the ancient ceremonial events, and the story of the exodus, but a running commentary of prayers, legends and exposition of the rites.

Modern historical research has raised many questions about the Last Supper. The only New Testament reference to any particulars of the Passover meal, aside from the fact that it was to be prepared by the disciples to share it with their teacher, Jesus, is in the mention of hymns being sung as they left the meal, "After psalms had been sung, they left for the Mount of Olives" (Mark 14, 26: Matt. 26, 30). It seems that this reference is to the singing of the Hallel (Psalms 113-118) which closed the family service.

However, a brief recounting of the history of the Haggadah will offer insights into the Jewish history of the Passover festival itself.

It was not until about the thirteenth century that separate books appeared for the Seder service in the Jewish homes. It is thought that the custom arose because of the expense of larger books.

Each Haggadah is illustrated in various ways. The first ones, illustrated manuscripts, were, of course, beautiful and richly decorated. The early printed Haggadah booklets followed the custom of using colorful drawings and decorating the borders of the pages. Sometimes they contained pictures of the preparations for the festival in the kitchen and the home. Other common themes for design were the ten plagues of the Egyptians and incidents in biblical history. Copies of famous paintings of the day, such as Holbein's, were also used in early printed versions. Over the centuries several hundred versions of the Haggadah have been printed. Today many versions continue to bring the commentaries up to date in referring to the massacre of Jews in Hitler's time and the creation of the state of Israel. The different versions are sometimes known by the name of the person who illustrated them. The artist Ben Shahn's lovely 1965 edition is a recent example.

In many Jewish homes each family member and guest has his own copy of the Haggadah to follow the Seder. It is hoped that where families and friends and ecumenical groups gather to celebrate their Jewish origins in the joyousness of the New Law they will also provide individual copies for those present in order to reinforce the learning by sight as well as the sound of the leader's voice.

In ecumenical gatherings of family or church groups we can strive to achieve the warmth of the Jewish Seder and perhaps then a better understanding of the significance of Judaism to the roots of Christianity will be gained. However, the home or communal service would never supplant the official worship in our churches. It is designed to serve only as a preparation in understanding and fellowship for the liturgical church service, to augment the significance of the liturgy in our lives. For as the "Working Document on Jewish-Christian Relations" says, "We call to mind the strong link that binds the Christian liturgy to the Jewish liturgy, which continues to live in our own time. The fundamental conception of liturgy as expression of community life conceived as service of God and mankind is common to Jews and Christians. We grasp the importance for Jewish-Christian relations of an awareness of those common forms of prayer (texts, feasts, rites, etc.) in which the Bible holds an essential place."

Both feasts, Passover for the Jews and Easter for Christians, recognize that all things come from God: light, bread, wine, freedom — all good things. The Jewish prayers are said in a spirit of thanksgiving and blessing, a recognition of the total dependence of each upon God. The Exodus celebrates the Chosen People's freedom from oppression. Each Jew is to become aware of this personally at each Passover. For the Christian, the Paschal season celebrates man's redemption from the effects of sin by Christ's passion and resurrection, and God's gift of grace, especially through Holy Communion. Both are rooted in history and in Scripture to show God's fulfillment of his plan of salvation.

A footnote to the book of Exodus in a recent edition of the Bible makes some very specific comparisons. "The Jewish Passover hence becomes a rehearsal for the Christian Passover: the lamb of God, Christ, is sacrificed (the cross) and eaten (the Last Supper) within the framework of the Jewish Passover (the first Holy Week). Thus he brings salvation to the world: and the mystical re-enactment of this redemptive act becomes the central feature of the Christian liturgy, organized around the Mass which is at once sacrifice and sacrificial meal" (Jerusalem Bible, p. 91, footnote 12 a).

All Christians should rejoice over the recent steps that have been taken to bring about a better understanding of these relationships. In 1964 the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. adopted a "Resolution on Jewish-Christian Relations." It said in part:

The spiritual heritage of Jews and Christians should draw us to each other in obedience to the one Father and in continuing dialogue; the historic schism in our relations carries with it the need for constant vigilance lest dialogue deteriorate into conflict . . . The General Board urges that the members of its constituent communions seek that true dialogue with the religious bodies of the Jewish community through which differences in faith can be explored within the mutual life of the one family of God — separated, but seeking from God the gift of renewed unity — knowing that in the meantime God can help us to find our God-given unity in the common service of human need.
In December of 1969 a "Working Document on Jewish-Christian Relations" was released by a committee composed of priest members of both the Vatican and the United States Catholic unity secretariats.
Cognizance is increasingly being gained in the Church of the actual place of the Jewish people in the history of salvation and of its permanent election. This fact points toward a theological renewal and toward a new Christian reflection on the Jewish people that it is important to pursue. On the other hand, it appears that still too often Christians do not know what Jews are . . . They do not see them as that people which in its history has encountered the living and true God, the one God who established with that people a covenant, of which circumcision is the sign, the God who accomplished in its favor a miraculous Exodus, which it relives each year in its Passover, both as a remembrance of its past and an expectation of the full realization of its promises . . . it is no less true that it was within Judaism that Christianity was born and wherein it found essential elements of its faith and cult. From the experience lived in the covenant with God emerged the Christian universe, which derived from that experience the very marrow of its concepts.

The dignity of the human person requires the condemnation of all forms of anti-Semitism (Vatican II Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions). In view of these relations of the Church and the Jewish people, it is easier to see how anti-Semitism is essentially opposed to the spirit of Christianity. Still more do these relations show forth the duty of better understanding and mutual esteem. . .

We call to mind the strong link that binds the Christian liturgy to the Jewish liturgy, which continues to live in our own time. The fundamental conception of liturgy as expression of community life conceived as service of God and mankind is common to Jews and Christians. We grasp the importance for Jewish-Christian relations of an awareness of those common forms of prayer (texts, feasts, rites, etc.) in which the Bible holds an essential place. . .

The problem of Jewish-Christian relations is of concern to the Church as such by the very fact that it is in 'searching into its own mystery' that it comes upon the mystery of Israel. The problem hence retains all its importance even in those places where a Jewish community does not exist. Moreover, it includes an ecumenical aspect. Christian Churches, in search for the unity willed by the Lord will find this by a return to the sources and origins of their faith, grafted on the Jewish tradition, which is still living in our own day.

Vatican II's Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions in 1965 set forth the background for the recent renewal of these teachings. Msgr. John J. Oesterreicher's translation of this document reads in part:

As this Sacred Synod probes the mystery of the Church, it remembers the spiritual bond that ties the people of the New Covenant to Abraham's stock.

Thus the Church of Christ acknowledges that, according to God's saving design, the beginnings of her faith and election go back as far as the days of the patriarchs, of Moses and the prophets She affirms that all who believe in Christ — Abraham's sons according to faith (cf. Gal. 3,7) are included in the call of this patriarch — she also affirms that her salvation is mysteriously prefigured in the exodus of the chosen people from the land of bondage. The Church, therefore, cannot forget that she received the revelation of the Old Testament through the people with whom God, in that loving-kindness words cannot express, deigned to conclude the Ancient covenant . . . For the Church believes that by His cross Christ, who is our Peace, reconciled Jews and Gentiles, making the two one in Himself (cf. Eph. 2, 14-16)....

Since the spiritual patrimony common to Christians and Jews is so rich, this Sacred Synod wishes to encourage and further their mutual knowledge of, and respect for, one another, a knowledge and respect born principally of biblical and theological studies, but also of fraternal dialogues.

In keeping with these statements this meal celebration is planned to extend as far as possible an appreciation of the Passover and the Christian understanding of the Last Supper and Easter.

An earlier version of this meal formula designed for Catholic use was published in Worship magazine, April 1957 and reprinted in Act, the Christian Family Movement bulletin the next year. Families throughout the country have used that version. The quotations used here from the Haggadah are taken from the special Haggadah issue of Christian Friends Bulletin, March 1954, Vol. II, No. 2 published by the Anti-Defamation League. The purpose of that Haggadah was an ecumenical desire to provide knowledge about the Passover celebration. The translations from the New Testament are from The Jerusalem Bible, Doubleday and Co., Inc., Garden City, N.Y., 1966. Quotations from the Mishnah are from the first English edition 1933, Oxford University Press, Amen House, London, Translated by Herbert Danby, printed in 1964.

Other books referred to in the following "Celebration" are The Christian Friends Bulletin of March 1962, The Living Heritage of Passover and the Passover Haggadah, Prayer Book Press, Hartford, Conn., both designed for adult education use.

The basic materials for parents and leaders to reread before the celebration are the Scriptural references: the book of Exodus, especially Chapters 7 through 13 about the plagues of Egypt and the Passover. The Gospel accounts of the Last Supper are given in Matthew 26, 17-30: Mark 14, 12-26: Luke 22, 7-39 and John, chapters 13 through 17.

Activity Source: Passover Meal, The by Arleen Hynes, Paulist Press, 1972