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Catholic Activity: A Passover Supper On Holy Thursday



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Mary Reed Newland describes her Holy Thursday traditions.


Holy Thursday we have a Paschal supper. The shopping for this must be done early in the week. As far as we are able, we serve the foods served at a Jewish Seder supper (their Passover meal), although ours has a different significance. These are the foods Our Lord ate at the Last Supper, and this is the feast day meal that celebrates the institution of the Holy Eucharist; so we want it to be in every way possible richly significant.

I went shopping once for the foods for such a supper, at a market where I knew I could find some Jewish clerks to help me with the recipe for charoset (pronounced, I believe, haroset). One old man brightened when I asked him. "You are having a Seder? Oh, good. It is one of the most wonderful memories of my childhood, the Seders." He told me how his mother used to make charoset, and when I was leaving he called after me: "Happy feast day!"

I went to another counter to buy wine, and another Jewish clerk helped me eagerly, happy to think I was having a Seder.

Then I went to the fruit market and asked for the apples and raisins and nuts "needed for charoset," I said.

The smile vanished instantly from the face of the clerk. He coldly gave me my purchase and turned away. It was an odd feeling. I had never been taken for a Jew before, never felt so keenly a Christian's intolerance. It is quite different from the experience one has with people who don't like Catholics. It is much colder. Uglier.

But what is a Paschal supper?

There is much to tie together if we are to sum it up for our children — and sum it up we must or they will make no sense of it and will miss entirely the majesty of this story of God's love.

It started with Abraham, whom God called out of a pagan land and promised to make the father of a great people. This was hundreds of years after the deluge. Abraham was a descendant of Noe's son, Sem. He was a Semite. This was the beginning of the Jews; they were a chosen people. God gave Abraham the land of Chanaan, and sent him a son, Isaac, and it was out of this line that the Messias would come — to save all mankind from their sins.

Isaac was the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of that Joseph we heard St. Stephen tell about in his speech before the Sanhedrin (chapter 5, the feast of St. Stephen, December 26). When famine struck the land of Chanaan, Joseph invited his father Jacob and his eleven brothers and their families to dwell in Egypt, and this began the four hundred years' sojourn of the Jews in the Delta in Egypt They multiplied greatly in number, and adapted to the customs of these Egyptians, becoming defiled by idolatry, acquiescing in a land of magicians and infidels, until under a Pharaoh who had no memory of Joseph or his services, they were enslaved. Multiplied as they were, to him they presented a threat if an enemy should attack Egypt and arm these foreign inhabitants; so he ordered the extermination of all their newborn male children. It was for this reason that Moses was hid in the bulrushes where he was found by Pharaoh's daughter and raised as her son; and in his maturity he was sent by God to be a deliverer to his people.

In this role Moses is a type of Christ, and the freeing of the Jews from bondage in Egypt under his leadership is the great type of the Redemption: the freeing of mankind from bondage to sin and death by Our Lord; Jesus Christ.

Through Moses, God warned Pharaoh to let His people go, but in spite of terrible plagues visited upon his land, he refused. Finally Moses warned Pharaoh of the last most terrible plague. God had said:

"At midnight I will enter into Egypt And every firstborn in the land of the Egyptians shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sitteth on his throne even to the firstborn of the handmaid that is at the mill, and all the firstborn of beasts. And there shall be a great cry in all the land of Egypt, such as neither hath been before, nor shall be hereafter. But with all the children of Israel there shall not a dog make the least noise (i.e., bark at them), from man even to beast: that you may know how wonderful a difference the Lord maketh between the Egyptians and Israel." But Pharaoh would not hear.

Then God gave Moses the instructions for the first Pasch (pronounced pask), the meal to be eaten that night and as a memorial every year thereafter to commemorate the night God would pass over Egypt to slay the Egyptian firstborn and free the Jews.

This month in which would begin their freedom, He said, would be the beginning month of the year, and every family was to obtain on the tenth day of the month a yearling lamb without blemish. If they were not a large enough family to consume it themselves, they must find a neighbor whose family could consume it with them. They would keep the lamb until the fourteenth day and on that evening sacrifice it, dipping branches of hyssop in its blood to smear the transoms and lintels of their doors so that God would pass over their houses when he slew the firstborn of Egypt.

They were to roast the lamb and eat it all, head, feet, and entrails and break not a bone; eat it with unleavened bread and wild herbs, and whatever was left of the lamb was to be burned in the fire. They were to eat it in haste, wearing their shoes, their cloaks girded about them and with their staves in their hands, ready for the journey.

It is almost impossible to put into words all the mind sees here. The sacrifice of the lamb becomes the signal. The blood of the lamb the sign. They are to be ready, for when this is done they will be on their way to freedom. We have only to recall that St. John the Baptist pointed to Him and said, "Behold the Lamb of God," to see what it means.

The Gospels of our Lenten reading (if it has been on the life of Christ) show us that He timed His appearance in public carefully — before the raising of Lazarus, after the triumphant entry on Palm Sunday — so that He would be there to celebrate the Pasch with His Apostles. It is at this meal where He ate the Paschal lamb with them, that He broke with tradition (and He loved the Law), blessing bread and wine, instituting an entirely new act at the Paschal meal. The Holy Eucharist. . . . Only His divine hand could have consecrated that first bread and wine for the sacrifice — for all He had the power to give to priests — because the bloody sacrifice of the Lamb had not been complete.

It was when He left the supper, and went to meet the cross, that all men were on their way to freedom.

This is a beautiful night. We want to celebrate it tenderly and lovingly, but it takes years to manage it perfectly, I think, because children will be children and break the spell. But we can keep the spell in our hearts as we teach them the meaning of it, and some day they will be as thrilled as we. The seed we are planting this night is the seed of their own hungering after Holy Communion.

For our Paschal meal we try to have lamb, although not always roast lamb. The reason they were to roast the lamb was because of the need for haste: it was the quickest way to cook it. At a Seder, a roasted bone, the z'roah, is placed on the Seder tray to recall the roasted lamb.

We have a salad of "bitter herb" including as many of the original herbs as we can find in the market. Botanists and scholars now believe that these were probably endive, chicory, lettuce, watercress, sorrel, and dandelion, although in Europe in later ages horseradish was substituted and is now used. The custom of eating meat with herbs and bread was acquired from the Egyptians. (If you say that sorrel is not available, look around your potted plants and see if you have oxalis; that is sorrel — taste it and see.)

We have unleavened bread, matzoh, which was commanded by God because there was no time for them to set a yeast dough; and we make charoset by combining equal parts of peeled and chopped raw apple, raisins, nuts, a shake of cinnamon and, if you wish, a few drops of wine, although the apple makes it moist enough. Apparently one combines these ingredients to taste or by instinct. It makes a delicious relish, rather like a raw conserve, and at a Seder the bitter herb is dipped in this before it is eaten. Charoset is to recall the mortar used in brick-making — the work of the enslaved Jews in Egypt; and the bitter herb, maror, recalls the bitterness of their sufferings.

There are two other interesting objects on a Seder tray although we do not duplicate these: the beitzah, a roasted egg symbolizing the required offering brought on all festivals in the Temple. "The egg, while not itself sacrificed, is used in the Seder as it is the Jewish symbol of mourning (in this case for the loss of the temple where the sacrifices were brought)"; and the second is the karpas, a piece of parsley or lettuce symbolizing the meager diet of the Jews in bondage. "It is dipped into salt water in remembrance of the tears they shed in their misery. The karpas also signifies Springtime, the season of Passover."

Wine for the grownups, grape juice for the children, together with the unleavened bread, recalls what for Christians is the most poignant part of this repast: the institution of the Holy Eucharist. At the Seder an extra goblet of wine, the "cup of Elijah," is kept on the table in the hope that the Prophet Elijah may appear as a messenger of the Almighty and announce the coming of the Messias. As Christians we might keep the extra goblet filled to remind us of our beloved brothers, the Jews, out of whose faith and tradition our Faith has come, to whom the Messias has come, and with longing awaits them. They are His blood brothers and He longs for them. We must pray for their conversion always in our daily prayers.

For our dessert we bake a lamb cake. There are molds to be bought for these, or you might do as we have and, using a homemade pattern, cut a large flat oblong cake in the shape of a lamb. Iced with cocoanut frosting, we use it as the centerpiece for our table with candles on either side.

One thing more before we begin: the hyssop. It is generally conceded now that the common hyssop was not the plant the Israelites used, since it is not native anywhere but southern Europe. Most likely the hyssop used throughout the Old Testament for "sprinkling" and for this night of the Exodus was a Syrian or Egyptian marjoram; while it is thought that the hyssop used at the Crucifixion (sometimes called a reed) was a sorghum. We must remember that since every Jewish family was to use the hyssop, it had to be a weed they could reach out and pick practically from their front doors. So if you have a potted marjoram, or marjoram in your garden (even though it may not be the very same kind), you might pick a spray to put on your table this night as one more fragrant aid in the telling of this story. For processions in the summertime, a cluster of it would serve nicely for the Asperges.

The program of our meal, the prayers, the story, changes somewhat each year to suit the size of our family and the endurance of the little ones. Recently we have found it best to read the story in preparation for it on Wednesday, relating dinner-table conversation to its symbols in the meal on Thursday. The "Hallel" Psalms (112 through 117), all beginning with Alleluia, were recited traditionally at the Paschal meal, and so also at the Last Supper; you might follow your Grace before Meals with the shortest of these, Psalm 116, a hymn of praise and thanksgiving.

Alleluia! O praise the Lord, all you nations, give Him glory, all you peoples, all powerful His mercy toward us, the Lord is true to His promise forever.

The father of the family reads the Blessing of Bread (chapter 4); and in our family we use the Blessing for All Things when he blesses the wine. We repeat that this is not the same as when a priest blesses, but a lay person makes use of that dignity bestowed on him in Baptism, when sharing the Christ-life he also may claim a share in His Priesthood, and as a lay priest gives these domestic blessings.

Let us pray. O God, by Whose word all things are made holy, pour out thy blessings on this creature, wine, and grant that whosoever uses it in accordance with thy will and thy law, and with a spirit of thanksgiving, may experience by thy power health in body and protection in soul as he invokes thy most holy name. Through Christ our Lord. R. Amen.

(Wine is sprinkled with holy water.)

Not only do we want a benediction over our wine for this meal, but we also want to use the opportunity — and every opportunity that arises — to teach the children that wine is one of the fruits of the earth, to be savored and enjoyed and used with Christian reverence, especially since it was the substance Our Lord chose to sanctify by His sacramental use of it in the Holy Eucharist.

In the Gospel for Holy Thursday, in which Our Lord washes the feet of the Apostles, He indicates in it the kind of service He expects of us. To be a Christian demands an immolation of our entire self, pride included: "If then I being your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that as I have done to you, so you do also."

After the smallest are in bed, we can include in our final night prayers the other Hallel Psalms. The celebration of the Paschal meal, its meaning, will have helped them especially to love Psalm 113.

There is a legend from a Midrash (an ancient Jewish commentary on Scripture) which tells that on the night of the Exodus, the angels desired to chant song before God, and "the Holy One, blessed be He, prevented them, saying: 'The work of My hands is in distress, are drowning in the sea, and you wish to utter song before Me?'"

This is a legend, but a divine sentiment. Just as God had mercy on the Ninivites when they were sorry for their sins and did penance, so He sorrowed that His Egyptian children would not. They were souls who were drowned in the Red Sea, not just bodies. The desire in our hearts must be to lead all men to Christ. This feast celebrates the sacrament which, when we receive it together, binds us together in one Flesh, one Body. "As the loaf is one, we, though many, are one body, for we all share one loaf." We must pray that all the world will join us.

Activity Source: Year and Our Children, The by Mary Reed Newland, P.J. Kenedy & Sons, New York, 1956