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Catholic Activity: The Passover Meal: 2. Preparing for the Celebration


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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.


When we try to establish in Christian homes a family feast to teach our children their spiritual heritage we are only imitating the Old Law. The first ordinance of the Jewish religion concerns the family festival to celebrate the birth of freedom — the Passover: "each man must take an animal from the flock, one for each family: one animal for each household" (Exodus 12, 3).


The essential intimacy of the Passover feast is indicated when we learn that a Jewish adult finds that his memories of the feast include the happy bustle and excitement of getting the home ready for the celebration. If we think about it, the preparations within the family circle are an important personal involvement in any family feast.

Housecleaning is an essential part of the preparation for Passover. Exodus 12, 15 states, "On the first day you are to clean all leaven out of your houses." In accordance with that command the whole house is scoured and cleaned. In the Jewish family, the evening before the first Passover meal, the entire house is searched room by room for any evidence of hametz or leaven. The family goes from room to room by candle light, accompanying the father who uses a small wooden spoon and feather to sweep up the few crumbs of bread in each room so that it will be free of hametz.

Christians who wish to become more aware of our Jewish background have not carried on the tradition of looking for the evidences of leaven. However, the spirit of housecleaning remains a symbol for cleansing our hearts, preparing for the love we shall find there if we imitate God’s love for us. The season of Lent has been a time in which we have been purging ourselves of self-centeredness and lack of love and the physical preparation of cleaning our homes before the feast of Easter is a tangible evidence of our resolve to live a new life in God’s love.


Whether the festival will be in your own home or with a group in your church joining with members of other Christian churches, there should be hospitality based on respect, "Love thy neighbor as thyself" (Lev. 19, 18). The tradition of gracious hospitality is one that should be incorporated into our observance. In Exodus 12, 4 it says, "If the household is too small to eat the animal, a man must join with his neighbor, the nearest to his house, as the number of persons requires." There is always room for the lonely and poor at the Passover meal. In fact there is a tradition that when a man sits down to perform the Seder on Passover, he should invite the poor, saying, "Let those who are hungry enter and dine with us. We are all equal, and though you may be poor, do not be ashamed or fearful, for so too were our forefathers in the land of Egypt" (Christian Friends Bulletin, March 1962).

Families who make a custom of the Holy Thursday meal create their own family practices. Some continue to share the feast year after year with the same special group. Both the Old and the New Covenant teach, "Have we not all one Father? Did not one God create us all" (Mal. 1, 10; Eph. 4, 6)? In accord with that teaching others feel it is good to invite different guests each year. Some, for example, ask elderly people one year, people of other races and nationalities another, and on the third year people they know only slightly, "strangers": a child’s school friends or the parents’ business acquaintances or ecumenical co-workers. Some alternate, as circumstances dictate, between joining the communal celebration and having their own meal at home.

To emphasize the spiritual meaning of hospitality the commentaries in the Haggadah contain prayers such as this one from the "Passover Haggadah": "May the Seder each year be the means of drawing us ever closer to our family and friends and may it help to keep each Jewish home a miniature sanctuary where God’s spirit shall dwell, and where reverence, love and peace shall prevail." May all our homes be so blessed.


Each group that uses this modern Haggadah to clarify the relationship between the Old and the New will obviously make its own arrangements for holding it so it does not conflict with the local church services. Families, depending on the ages of the children and the availability of different times for church services, may choose to eat an early dinner on Thursday, before they go to church. At least two hours should be planned on if the entire meal is to be eaten. Eating dessert after coming home from church appeals to families of adults. If your family and guests are mainly adults, a late leisurely seder provides an opportunity to savor the insights and the fellowship after the liturgical services.

Family Involvement

The whole family should become involved in the preparations for the seder for the best realization of its significance. The father’s role varies greatly because of his work and family customs.

Frankly, however, there will be no celebration at all if the mother does not make the preparations. Her involvement in a family affair is the deepest kind of participation and sets the tone for the whole family’s acceptance of the spirit of the feast.

It has been suggested that because the pronoun "you" in the biblical verse "You shall tell your son" is "abt", feminine, it can be interpreted that it is the mother who shall impart the first instruction to the child. Whether she does so consciously or not, it is true that a mother does give the basic instructions. She communicates attitudes of joy and reverence toward spiritual things in a more persistent way than a father if she is caring for the child all day. The very young child learns the significance of spiritual matters by the unspoken communication of attitude and example. The mother’s attitude toward the extra work involved in the preparations for a family feast teaches everyone. Ideally there should be an attitude of serenity and gaiety even while doing the mundane cleaning and food preparations as against one of tension and irritability if these tasks are seen as an outgrowth of prayer. The mother’s willingness to let the young child invest something of himself in the preparations is also important, but if she insists on adult standards of perfection, the child may feel that involvement in the things of the spirit are hedged about with restrictions.

The parents will also do some formal teaching when they are guiding the kinds of participation the children will make in decorations, music, food preparation or helping with the actual cleaning and physical arrangements.

As is the Jewish custom, the mother begins the meal by chanting the blessing for the lighting of the candles and may alternate with the father in reading the commentary. Her commitment is integral to the whole feast; she is the hostess, presiding in her home.


Regardless of the locale of the seder, at home or in a community center, decorations are a sign of festivity and also serve as a way of reinforcing learning about the meaning of the many symbols.

Banners provide colorful and comparatively simple ways for people to tell spiritual truths. Techniques used may extend from the comparatively simple method of drawing designs on paper to gluing fabric to fabric or the more elaborate method of using creative stitchery. However, if young children are to become involved in the process of preparation, it may be more educational and fun to deliberately plan decorations that are meant to be used only once. As children grow older and gain different insights and interests, as well as developing different relationships in the groups gathering to celebrate, new forms and new ideas should be created to bring out the uniqueness of each seder.

When children are small and in the early years of grade school, they will be making simple designs. Shelf paper or rolls of newsprint are good for beginners’ crayola drawings. As the children grow older mothers will try to find new techniques and encourage them to change their approaches from drawing outlines of symbols and people and animals to more complicated things.

Even very young children can do the background coloring needed for color-resist drawings. A piece of paper, or a definite shape, is filled in quite haphazardly, but solidly, with a variety of colors. One rather dark color is overlaid to give a general hue to the whole area. Then an adult or older child can, with a sharp pointed object, draw in the desired lines to make the design. Delightful effects can be gained by the many colors exposed when the over-color is scratched off.

Or a large outline drawing might be made by someone older and tiny children could paste in "stained glass" made of small bits of colored construction paper, or simply cut up and pasted pieces of the many hued ads in magazines.

Lettering phrases from scripture or a hymn or poem in gay colors, or "stained glass", might be done by children in the early grades. Consulting with the children about what to letter is important as it provides an opportunity to talk about the meaning of worthwhile ideas, which is, of course, the purpose of their involvement.

As children grow older, they will want to choose their own messages, Junior high and high school students might want to make collage banners from among the things they have been reading and singing. They might create the collage by using long sheets of paper to paste designs or messages from pertinent and colorful photos they find in magazines on issues like oppression of people today or some signs of deep joy to symbolize this feast day. The older children in the family would also be expected, and allowed, to assume more and more responsibility for taking care of the decorations and menu, scheduling and guest list.

It is up to the parents to help the children discover their own best efforts. Some families prefer to make simple corn starch "clay" and shape small animals or symbols to use on the table. Or to design special tablecloths and napkins for the meal. Only imagination, patience and skill limit the kinds of things families can do.

Symbolic Motifs

The symbolism used in the banners and decorations can range from biblical stories and allusions to Christian symbols and phrases from hymns, poetry and scriptural texts.

The most obvious Old Testament symbols to use might be the paschal lamb, Moses, the marked door frame, a group of Israelites garbed as Exodus 12, 11 decreed for the first Passover, "with a girdle round your waist, sandals on your feet, a staff in your hand." A brick wall to symbolize the cities the Jews were forced to build in Egypt, the unleavened bread in baskets, the Jews marching through the divided sea or Pharaoh’s army being overwhelmed by the returning waters are other possibilities. A lyre and phrases from the Hallel might serve for another banner. The ten plagues of Egypt lend themselves to illustration: blood, frogs, vermin, wild beasts, cattle disease, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, the slaying of the first born. Studying different Haggadah books borrowed from the library or those borrowed from friends helps stimulate the imagination and develop sensitivity to the significance of the Passover.

Christian symbols of the paschal lamb surmounted by a cross and flying banner, the chalice, plate of breads, the Last Supper, loaves and fishes, phrases from St. John’s discourse at the Last Supper, bunches of grapes and sheaves of wheat for the bread and wine are also sources for designs.


Since this is a springtime feast it is appropriate to use the gathering of flowers as one of the means of participation. The efforts of young gardeners should be particularly appreciated, even to the bunch of dandelions. Some young people enjoy making paper flowers, which can be very lovely and very creative. If that is what they like to do, they should be encouraged to decorate the tables with them.


It is inconceivable today that any spiritually oriented celebration would be held without music and song. Younger members of the family who are musically inclined will practice for days in advance preparing a broad range of songs, both secular and sacred, to precede and follow the seder. They may also seek out music for the Hallel (Psalms 113 to 118) and use one of the many versions of "Where Charity and Love Prevail" or "God is Love". They might also practice for alternate or responsive reading of the psalm verses.

It would deepen the emotional bond to the Jewish people to come to love their music, particularly the chant of the Hallel, the Kiddush (the opening benediction) and the candle lighting. To learn to do this correctly would involve working with some Jewish friends or members of the synagogue. If you do not have many Jewish friends in your community, phonograph records can be obtained. Actually, using the Hebrew at your celebration might not result in the understanding which is the purpose of this meal, but listening to the records or having a brief explanation of them as they are sung during the evening should add much to our understanding love of Jewish tradition.


While lamb is not essential to the feast, it is especially meaningful if it is served. Learning a particularly tasty way to fix the lamb might become someone’s speciality. Homemade bread is a rare treat today and young girls might look forward to the contribution they could make by providing it for the occasion. Miniature loaf pans can be obtained for individual loaves of bread. These seem particularly delightful at the feast initiating the bread of life.

Young children love having a cake made in the form of a lamb. The molds are available in specialty shops. And young children delight in helping to sprinkle coconut on the fluffy white frosting to give the lamb his woolly coat. Or if you do not use the lamb mold, the circular form of the angel food cake can be seen as a symbol for eternal life.


Because horoseth is unique to the Passover meal it deserves a special notation. It is a pastelike compound of ground apples, nuts, cinnamon and wine to remind us of the days when the Israelites were forced to lay bricks as slaves of the Egyptians.

It is simple to do and boys like to help make it, as well as look forward to eating it. One needs only a little for the purposes of the meal, but there is rarely any left over. To make it chop or coarsely grate a seeded apple and a half cup of walnuts, to which is added a teaspoon of cinnamon and also sugar. Mix these together and add a tablespoon of red wine. These amounts will make a cup of horoseth.

One Haggadah makes this commentary: "Life is bitter sweet; the smell and pleasant taste of the Horoseth impresses upon us that, no matter how bitter and dark the present appears, we should hopefully look forward to better days. ‘Sweet are the uses of adversity’ ".

Communal Celebrations

If the festival is going to be held in a church or community center the bustle and involvement of joint preparation is an important and tangible means of building solidarity and awareness of our dependency on others. It is a very concrete way to bring about what the "Working Document on Jewish-Christian Relations" recommends: "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." Nor it is totally alien to modern Jewish practice, for some synagogues now hold a communal Seder for members.

Possibly in these days of mobility where the single family exists alone and there is a sense of isolation and loneliness, people feel a greater urgency to join in a common fraternal meal set up to promote greater understanding. Particularly when for Jews and Christians, both, Passover and the eucharist are feasts of God’s loving care for his people.

For a group initiating an ecumenical seder, it is easier to start working with another group or church membership with whom they have already cooperated on some other project. If the groups as such have not actually cooperated or there is some difficulty in making it an official occasion, perhaps one individual who has had community experience and knows others can make the overtures so that it can be a shared experience. Later on it might seem wise to hold this ecumenical ceremony with members of other churches with whom there has been little previous relationship, such as with those outside the immediate geographic neighborhood or with other racial or ethnic groups.

Meal planning is handled differently according to local custom, facilities available and the size of the group. When the group is small or a few dynamic people want to start, the food may be brought together by a system of sharing its preparation in the different homes. Some groups arrange to have the lamb roasted in a nearby restaurant or bakery, taking care to keep out one of the shank bones for the seder plate.

Or as a way of introducing the practice into your church or community, a "symbolic meal" can be quite simply carried out by a few interested persons where arranging for a large kitchen and dining room might seem difficult. A group, such as a Christian Family Movement or a social action committee, can arrange to meet in a classroom, or even in the back of the hall if that is where church services are held, using the full text and the symbolic foods but not eating an entire meal together. If desired a roasted leg of lamb can be sliced and cubed with portions served on toothpicks at the time allotted for the regular meal. A lamb roast so prepared will serve about fifty people. The rest of the symbolic foods are taken during the readings as they would be if a full meal were to follow. Paper plates and tablecloths and small paper cups for the wine can be festive indeed and the decorations as extensive as desired. Different families may wish to bring flowers as their contribution.

The time at which a communal seder would be held depends mainly on coordinating it with church services. If one congregation is involved, the meal can be taken two hours before services and then wait until after the liturgy is celebrated to eat dessert. When the members have brought their favorite desserts to share and they go forth from the eucharistic table enriched by God’s action, the seder becomes a long evening of deep fellowship.


The Haggadah as recorded in the Mishnah was brief and succeeding generations have added to it, although the essential items of the symbolic foods and the questions and the cups of wine remain unchanged. Christians who want to use a learning device in their homes or church groups who wish to relate the Old to the New are not bound by any tradition and may change it as they desire. This booklet is meant only to be the teaching servant of its users and they should make any adaptations which they find useful. In fact, if a family or group is led to do its own research and to create its own Haggadah, it would immeasurably increase their awareness of the beauty and love of both the Jewish Seder and the eucharist.

Those who wish to use this material but adapt it will find there are six main sections to adjust to family or group needs.

Parents of the very young children still in highchairs may want them to experience some part of the Jewish feast from the time of earliest memory. For this initial experience, they may find using Section I, the Introductory Blessings, to be enough. When the children are somewhat older, but not yet ready for a large or long gathering, Section I and Section II, the Traditional Passover Prayers, may be used. By the time the children are ready for several minutes of quiet listening, Section III, the Questions, which also involves one or more of them in asking the questions, may be added. Some people will feel that only when all the children are in school will they want to recite all the Hallel. However, we might remember that for centuries Jewish children have participated with delight in their long service.

Perhaps parents need to look at their attitudes about children’s behavior and the values of an early memory of this family festival celebrating the interdependence of the Christian teachings and the Jewish tradition. We should not ask for perfect, adult attendance to every word on the part of the young children, and should be willing to let the joy and love of the feast help us overlook some smiles and inattention on the part of the young in favor of their innate understanding of the celebration and its origins. Where the children with their parents make preparations for and share in the dialogue of making the connections between the Jewish practices which Jesus performed and the teachings he left us, they are helping build an understanding of "how anti-Semitism is essentially opposed to the spirit of Christianity" (Working Document on Jewish-Christian Relationships).

The father or a single leader may read the entire formula, but many families like to share the opportunity. The mother and the adolescents, or older married children back at home for the Passover meal, may take turns reading. Or if the group is mainly adults, the head table at the communal meal might arrange to share the leadership. Whatever serves the needs of the group best, should dictate how the text is read. The result should be a sense of solidarity of Jews and Christians in the experience of their unity of tradition.

Where this meal is to bring together members of different churches, the meal might best be held later in the evening, after services, where a leisurely evening of song, readings and God’s good food can be shared to the fullest.

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