NEW YORK (Mar. 13)
The Rev. James Stuart is getting ready to lead members of his flock at the Windham Presbyterian Church in a Passover seder.
But it is not a seder that Jews would find familiar.
“I’ll talk about how Jesus is our Passover lamb, that through his shed blood Jesus passed over our sins, and how it liberates us from our bondage to sin,” he said in an interview.
Afterward he will give his congregants at the 250-member evangelical church in the Boston bedroom town of Windham, N.H., communion, using matzah as the Eucharist.
“We wouldn’t do the seder if we weren’t going to give it a Christological overlay,” he said, adding that his congregation wants to “celebrate the various Jewish holidays and then show how we believe those holidays have been fulfilled through Christ.”
Stuart is one of a growing number of ministers and priests from nearly all denominations who are hosting Passover seders in their churches.
This growing trend reflects a deepening and expanding fascination with the Jewish origins of Jesus and the likelihood that a Passover seder was his Last Supper.
According to the Christian Bible, it was during that meal that Jesus foretold his death and instructed his disciples that the wine they drank was his blood, and that the unleavened bread they ate was his body.
There is a wide range of ways in which different Christians present the Passover seder, and there is disagreement among Christians, as well as among some Christians and some Jews, as to how a seder should be handled in a Christian context.
Toward one end of the spectrum is Stuart’s approach, which has been adopted by most of the evangelical churches, such as some Presbyterians, which hold seders. Most mainline Protestant denominations have member churches that define themselves as theologically conservative and evangelical, though the majority in those movements are not.
The so-called Messianic groups, also known as Hebrew-Christians, Jews who are theologically evangelical Christians, put even more of a Christological slant on the Passover seder than Stuart.
Some Messianic seder leaders hold up a matzah, point to its holes and read from John’s Gospels how Jesus was pierced by the Roman soldiers, said Marvin Wilson, a professor of biblical and theological studies at Gordon College, an evangelical Christian college in Wenham, Mass.
That approach “may be reading too much into the seder,” said Wilson, because “there’s no clear New Testament validation for that interpretation.”
For Julius Ciss, executive director of Canadian Jews for Judaism, an anti- missionary group, “Pesach is probably the most accessible holiday for Christians to use as hooks for the Jew.”
Ciss said evangelical Christians use Passover “to elevate their appreciation of their Lord’s Supper, and as a tool by which they can catch the potential Jewish convert off guard.”
Ciss, who was a “Messianic Jew” for five years, said he was always surprised at how many Jews attended seders at evangelical churches and “Messianic” congregations.
“Jews can find it very compelling, especially if they have experiences going back to childhood of the seder being conducted in Hebrew when no one at the table understood its meaning,” he said.
The church seders are condensed, in English, and led “by an enthusiastic orator with a lot of charisma,” he said.
“The service is preceded by many Hebrew songs, the food is wonderful, and sometimes there is even Israeli dancing and people wearing tallesim (prayer shawls).
“It makes it very seductive, so any guilt a Jew might have felt is totally assuaged when they feel like its more Jewish than ever to do it,” Ciss said. “It’s all done to make them feel less guilty about being Christian.”
Jews for Jesus, perhaps the best known of the “Messianic” evangelizing groups, visits churches across the country to demonstrate their Christological gloss on the Passover seder.
Tuvya Zaretsky, Jews for Jesus’ Southern California district leader, brings his interpretation of a seder to churches about 35 times a year, most of them during the Passover-Easter season.
The other six full-time, and one half-time, missionaries on his staff in Los Angeles do the same, he said in a telephone interview.
Zaretsky said he uses a traditional Haggadah and teaches people about the traditional meaning of the seder symbols and rituals. At the seders, which have an average attendance of about 80 people, he distributes a brochure titled “Passover — Why is this night different? Since Y’shua (Jesus) observed it.”
The brochure turns the traditional Jewish view of seder elements on its head, and suggests that practices in use by Jews today were adapted from the early Hebrew-Christian followers of Jesus.
Hebrew Christians believe that the three matzot represent the God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, “and that the afikomen, which is broken, buried and brought back dramatically, represents Jesus the Messiah,” the brochure states.
The Messianic orientation “completely distorts the meaning” of the seder, said Rabbi A. James Rudin, director of interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee.
“They’ll say that their liberation is through Yehoshua the Moshiach” instead of through God, Rudin said. “I’ve seen it written in their materials that Judaism is like Egypt, and Jesus gives you the freedom to break through.”
Other Christians’ interpretations of the seder “are more harmless, but in many the Exodus story is washed out and replaced by the Jesus story.”
The Catholic Church has been working to maintain respect for the integrity of the seder as a Jewish ritual while trying to get close to its Messiah’s experience themselves.
In 1988, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops issued guidelines on the presentation of Jews and Judaism, focusing on Holy Week and Good Friday, which for centuries was the day that mobs of Catholics would set out from church to pillage, rape and murder Jews in retribution for killing their Messiah.
Some Catholic churches hold services of reconciliation with Jews on Palm Sunday, and some invite Holocaust survivors to address their congregations during Lent, a period focused on fasting and repentance.
“It is becoming familiar in many parishes and Catholic homes to participate in a Passover seder during Holy Week,” the guidelines state. “It is wrong, however, to `baptize’ the seder by ending it with New Testament readings about the Last Supper or worse, turn it into a prologue to the Eucharist. Such mergings distort both traditions.”
The Catholics are not alone among Christians in this approach.
The Rev. Betty Gamble, the minister who leads the Pleasant Grove United Methodist Church just outside Covington, Ky., on a ridge high above the Licking River Valley, tries to recreate the biblical setting of Jesus’ Last Supper.
Her church of 150 members sets a low, U-shaped table akin to Roman times. Sitting on cushions piled on the floor, they dine on sop, an ancient type of lamb stew, using flat bread to scoop it up.
The whole evening is presented as a first-century experience precisely “because I don’t want to get into a Christological interpretation of the seder,” said Gamble. “That just violates the ritual of another faith, and violates a trust we have to treat each other with integrity.”
Gamble said it is too easy for congregants to impose Christianity on Judaism.
“We have been taught for all these centuries that Christianity superseded Judaism, that we are the new covenant, that we have replaced the Jews.
“But after the Holocaust, we have to take that out of our thinking. We can’t just wash our hands of responsibility, like Pilate did, but own up to what was done in our tradition in the name of Jesus,” Gamble said.
Yet no matter how hard a minister or priest works to make clear the separation between Jewish practice and Christian theology, said Wilson, “it’s a given in the church that there are going to be Christological interpretations when a seder is presented there.”
For that reason, Rudin, who runs a seder each year for foreign diplomats stationed in New York, feels strongly that seders should be conducted only by a rabbi, with Christians as guests.