Christian seders: always a bad idea?
Can Christians host seders? Should they? It's a question I've seen raised and answered in a few places this Passover, with some interesting responses, mostly in the negative. I've never been to a seder, Christian or otherwise, and no parish I've been in has ever tried it, so I'm interested in the question without being very invested.
Everyone whose opinion I've read concedes that Christian seders are a well-intentioned practice -- usually, anyway, an attempt to learn more about what Christ believed and did, and what Jewish neighbors do today. But most think they're a bad idea nevertheless. An exception is Mark Silk, who gives the Christian hosts his blessing.
He notes concerns raised by Rebecca Cynamon-Murphy ("a Christian woman married to a Jewish man") in a piece at Religion Dispatches: the practice appropriates a Jewish ritual, ignoring the history of Christian persecution of Jews as well as the still-vibrant religious experience of Jews today. She gives a clear explanation of the danger of theological insensitivity and error:
Christians mounting their own reading of the Haggadah almost always want to discuss how Jesus is like the paschal lamb, using the occasion to show how all the Hebrew scriptures point to Jesus as fulfilling the prophecies. This theological exercise, known as supersessionism, is problematic enough in a purely Christian context, but as part of a Jewish ritual it is deeply out of place.
At Religion News Service, Silk writes,
Personally, I’m not offended. Christians started off as Jews, and if we started to ask them to strip away all the Jewish textual and liturgical and theological appropriations they’ve made over the years, there wouldn’t be a lot left of the religion. Moreover, they’ve got their own stake in the Passover banquet, inasmuch as all three synoptic Gospels present the Last Supper as a seder.
He also suggests that "Jews who want to give their Christian friends a good taste of Jewish anti-supersessionism should invite them to their own seders." I'm glad he makes a positive case for Jewish ritual and theology as powerful and effective in its own right, and I appreciate his willingness to acknowledge the validity of Christian interest in Jewish traditions as more than just cultural tourism. Still, I don't know if asking Christians to refrain from hosting their own "seders" is tantamount to asking us to strip away all elements of Judaism from our practice.
And was the Last Supper a seder? A friend of mine linked to this thoughtful (and very long) blog post by J. Mary Luti, a United Church of Christ pastor, that questions the reasoning that says Christians should experience seder to better understand what Jesus did that night.
[W]e really do not know for sure what the “original context” of Jesus’ ‘last supper’ was.... One thing we know for sure, however, is that, although it may have been a Passover meal of some sort, it was not a Seder in the modern sense. We know this because the introduction into Jewish ritual life of the Seder we know today came after the time of Jesus.
Modern day Jewish celebrations of the Passover are a melding of traditions that arose shortly after the destruction of the Temple (70 CE), through Late Antiquity and into Middle Ages. It is a developing tradition, too, with additions being made to the haggadah even to this day. Ironically, some scholars believe that the modern Seder developed in part at least as a reaction and resistance to the growing influence of the Christian church and its sacred meal.
That convinces me, assuming it's true (and it certainly sounds like Luti knows what she's talking about). Wanting to know more about the Jewish roots of Christ and Christianity, and about contemporary Jewish practice, is laudable, especially for Catholics who are inspired to both by the documents of Vatican II. But it's not necessary to play-act a seder to do that. Maybe finagle an invitation to an actual seder, hosted by Jewish friends, if you want to know what it's like? Or invite a rabbi or a scholar to speak, if you want to know about Jews in the time of Jesus? Or both?
But then, I'm not sure the warnings and admonishments (or blessings and invitations) are for "us," since I don't know that many Catholics are doing this in the first place. The idea strikes my Catholic imagination as sort of corny, especially as an observance of Holy Week -- we've got enough ritual of our own to worry about. (The alternative Cynamon-Murphy describes -- her church's "Mediterranean potluck with hummus, pitas, falafel" and a study of haggadot -- also strikes me as corny, to be honest, which is maybe why this whole question has escaped my notice until now.) Silk quotes from a guide to a Christian seder that lists some reasons Christians might be interested in such an undertaking, one of which is "the willingness to find new and innovative ways to worship." I don't associate that flexibility with Catholicism, especially not at this time of year.
Are things different at your parish, or have you experienced a "Christian seder" somewhere else? Or are you, perchance, going to a real seder tonight? Tell us about it.
About the Author
Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.