The Passover Seder is a celebration which can last for several hours, during which the Jewish people commemorate and re-live, as a family of faith, their liberation from slavery in Egypt under Pharaoh.
The most important moment of the Seder is the account of God’s liberation of his people from Egypt “with a strong hand and outstretched arm” and it is commonly called Haggadah, a term that means “telling”. Over time, the text of the Passover ritual came to be known as the Haggadah. According to scholars, the Haggadah as it is known today as a liturgical text, was first drawn up around the seventh century of the common era, and was first printed in Spain in 1482.
The New Testament records that Jesus observed the Passover, but it says nothing about the manner of celebrating the Passover. At any rate, it was not a Passover Seder as it is celebrated today, since the latter came several centuries later. Some scholars would tend to see Jesus’ last supper with his disciples as a farewell meal.
Hence, the assessment of Catholic scholars in dialogue with Jews today is that expressions like “Christian Seder” or “Christian celebration of the Passover Seder” are to be avoided because they are both ambiguous and historically inaccurate.
The Passover Seder belongs to the Jewish tradition. Since it is a constitutive rite of Judaism, the Passover Seder can only be celebrated by Jews: they are its subjects and recipients. But that does not mean that its wealth must remain inaccessible to Christians.
The Bishops’ Conferences of North America and England and Wales give the following directive in their Guidelines for pastoral activity during Holy Week:
“In recent years the custom has grown in many parishes to arrange a demonstration Seder during Holy Week. This can have educational and spiritual value. It is wrong, however, to “baptize” the Seder by interspersing or concluding it with New Testament readings or Christian associations – or, worse, turn it into a Eucharist or a prologue to a Eucharist. Such mergings show a lack of respect for Judaism and a distortion of both Christian and Jewish traditions.
The primary reason why Christians may decide to hold a demonstration Seder should be to understand better the Jewish roots of our Eucharistic liturgy. Any sense of “restaging” the Last Supper is inappropriate, historically inaccurate and should be avoided.
Demonstration Seders arranged in cooperation with local synagogues are strongly encouraged. Wherever possible, a Jew should be invited to lead the Seder and assist the Christians present to understand its ritual and meaning to the Jewish community … In all events, Christians should take every care to ensure that the correct Jewish ritual is followed and that the Seder be respected in its full integrity.”
Fr Thomas Ryan, CSP is the Director for the Paulist Office of Ecumenical and Interfaith Affairs.