There are several theological layers to unpack here but I will try to be brief and simple. The purpose of the passover seder is the ritual "telling" (this is what the term "Haggadah," the name of the books from which the ritual is read during the seder, means) of the passover story. It is a ritual mentioned in the Torah, and of primary importance to the Jewish people then and now. Because of our shared salvation history, it is beneficial to Christians to attend and understand the passover, and thus to participate in the passover seder. Neverthless there are many questions from Christians each year as they consider adding additional layers of meaning to their holy week observances and discovering the seder meal.
1. Understanding the Old and New Law.
Before the Catholic Church was born on Pentecost, the people of God were under the Old Covenant, the law of Moses. Under the law of Moses, the observance of the Passover was a requirement, for which Judaism has developped a liturgical rite held in the home or the community. The Passover is NOT a salvific requirement, nor is it a liturgical rite, of the Church. It's observance today belongs to the Jews who have rejected Jesus Christ as the promised messiah. However, it belongs to our history as well, because "salvation is from the Jews." (John 4:22)
The person of Jesus Christ, our passover lamb, is in fact the requirement fulfilled (Matthew 5:17-18). Those of us who are familiar with salvation history and the Bible understand and recognize how perfectly Jesus' messiahship is visible in the study of the Old Covenant. Nevertheless, no act of obedience to the Old Law is salvific in and of itself for Christians-- Christians must follow Jesus, and only following Jesus are we saved. Many Christians participate in the Seder because it is "biblical," and yet miss the point that it is not their own Liturgical Rite to hold. Christians have accepted Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity, as the Messiah, and are thus given the Holy Eucharist and the sacrament of Holy Orders (the priesthood), which Jesus Himself instituted at the Last Supper (which scholars believe was a Passover seder) and THAT is our "salvific requirement"-- the biblical participation in the mass is a real participation in the life and body of Christ. For Christians, although it is profound and meaninful, the observation of the passover ritual is only a shadow of this reality. (Colossians 2:17)
Therefore, Christians who find meaning in the passover ritual will find endless meaning in the Holy Mass, and it is THERE that the Church has its own liturgical rite. Seder meals, then, according to the Bishops, should never be organized in such a way as to imitate or overshadow the importance of our participation in the mass.
Different Catholics have different ways of ensuring that-- some do not hold passover meals at all, which is fine, and others hold them but make it very clear that what they are doing is valuable but very different from the importance of participation in the Christian Meal, in the same way that many Catholics celebrate and observe Hannukah, for example, while recognizing that it's liturgical value in the year does not overshadow the importance of recognizing and celebrating and remembering the birth of Our Lord.
Because the Passover Seder belongs to the Jewish liturgy, our Bishops have encouraged us, both out of senstivity to our Jewish friends and out of the need for CLEAR catechesis, not to alter or change the seder in any way from the traditional Jewish manner of holding it if we are holding it in public places or in eceumenical settings. Many Christians (mostly protestants) offer "Messianic Seders." This is absolutely outrageous to Jews and should be avoided at all costs.
Catholics are encouraged by the Bishops to participate in an AUTHENTIC Jewish Seder, which, if they have taken their responsibility to learn the faith will catechize and teach them all they need to know about the Old Covenant, Salvation history, and the reason Jesus is the Messiah without their needing to alter or change the words or actions, much in the same way that attendance at a Jewish synagogue for Shabbat services will catechize them (presuming they have done the preliminary work of understanding the role of Judaism within salvation history) without their needing to alter or change the liturgy of the Jews.
Here is what the Bishops have said:
"God's Mercy Endures Forever: Guidelines on the Presentation of Jews and Judaism in Catholic Preaching" by the USCCB's Bishop's Committee on the Liturgy:
28. It is becoming familiar in many parishes and Catholic homes to participate in a Passover Seder during Holy Week. This practice can have educational and spiritual value. 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 following advice should prove useful:2. Practical guidelines for those interested in holding a seder meal.
When Christians celebrate this sacred feast among themselves, the rites of the haggadah for the seder should be respected in all their integrity. The seder . . . should be celebrated in a dignified manner and with sensitivity to those to whom the seder truly belongs. The primary reason why Christians may celebrate the festival of Passover should be to acknowledge common roots in the history of salvation. Any sense of "restaging" the Last Supper of the Lord Jesus should be avoided .... The rites of the Triduum are the [Church's] annual memorial of the events of Jesus' dying and rising (Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy Newsletter, March 1980, p. 12).
First, consider your audience. A Parish hosting a seder meal would be following the Bishops' guidelines better, for example, by hosting a joint Jewish/Catholic seder meal according to the Jewish tradition.
On the other hand, it would benefit everyone to also provide a bible study at some point around the meal (not the same day, or during) to explain the passover with a Christian worldview.
A seder held for a group, club, or bible study, likewise, would be better off holding a traditional Jewish seder and if possible, asking for help from a Jewish teacher in the preparation and delivery.
A family, of course, or groups of families, would be fine observing it either way, have much more freedom to explain or catechize DURING the event... a freedom which would be clearly out of place in a public event.
It is also helpful to think about how to engage all those present. A seder meal that includes many children will naturally need more "involvement" and games than one primarily consisting of adults, who can sit through long readings and prayerful considerations.
Second, consider the purpose of the passover. Passover seders are held on certain days and according to the Jewish calendar, in a certain order and within a certain framework. It is very meaningful, then, to maintain these dates and methods.
Any attempt to alter the ritual renders it devoid of the full meaning it holds FOR the Jews... and thus handicaps a Christian who wants to understand more deeply the roots of his/her own faith.While there is a lot of freedom there and you will want to read many different Haggadahs to find the one that "fits" your particular needs, it is important to maintain a sensitivity to the "correct" way of handling each part of the telling.
And lastly, the passover is only one part of many feasts observed by the people of the Old Covenant. If you consider participation in the passover, please also consider participation in the other feasts and explore the fullness of our salvation history. But if you do so, please spend an equal amount of time studying the SACRAMENTS of the Church, which are defined as "efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us, "and the reasons why Christ instituted each one. In the sacraments are the fruit of the Jewish feasts for God's people IN Christ. We see elements of each feast and sabbath in each one, and the more we study them, the more fully we understand and live our Christian faith. It would be a terrible tragedy for a Christian to observe the passover, and yet skip mass each week. Likewise, it would be a terrible tragedy for a Christian to observe Hannukah and skip Christmas, to observe Shabbat and skip the Lord's Day, etc. And yet we see this more and more as many protestant Christians, seeking deeper meaning, more truth, and liturgy which their souls crave leave the protestant churches to join messianic congregations in which a somewhat artificial (in that it is not accepted by Jews) form of Judaism is taught. If you are a Catholic Christian today, you are able and encouraged to participate FULLY in salvation--- by participating in the sacraments of grace. This is a great treasure and storehouse of grace for you and your family. I encourage you to study, love, and participate in the Jewish liturgical year, but I also remind you that the Church year exists for your Christian soul, and exhort you not to neglect it.
3. Understanding the connections and distinguishing the differences between the Passover Meal and the Mass:
The following is a transcript of a talk by my favorite Bible Scholar, Scott Hahn that should help you to understand the connection between the passover and the lamb's supper:
The Institution of the Eucharist in Scripture
The Catholic Church claims that Christ is really present in the Eucharist, that the sacrifice of calvary is repeated at every Mass, and that he gives Himself to us in Holy Communion as food unto eternal life.
With this in mind, let's look at Scripture. Luke 22, verse 15, our Lord says, "I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you." So we are assured that the Last Supper in the Upper Room was a Passover meal. In Mark 14, verses 22 through 26, we hear the words of institution, "And as they were eating He took bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them and said, 'Take, this is my body.' And He took a cup and when He had given thanks, He gave it to them and they drank all of it and He said to them, 'This is my blood of the New Covenant which is poured out for many. Truly I say to you, I shall not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.'"
You could also say it this way: that if the Passover isn't finished until Calvary, I would suggest that Calvary is really begun in the Upper Room with the Eucharist. When does Jesus' sacrifice really begin? Well, He insists on the fact that His life is not being taken away from Him. He is laying it down. Now in the trial, in the passion, it's being taken away; but in the Upper Room, prior to all of that, Jesus lays it down. He says, "This is my body. This cup is the blood of the New Covenant."
What happens when you differentiate and separate body and blood? You signify death. When your body and your blood are separated, death begins. That's obvious, I think. So Jesus is symbolically and actually beginning the sacrifice. St. Augustine has said that Our Lord held himself in his own hands and commenced the sacrifice of the New Covenant Passover as He was transforming the old. Calvary really began in the Old Testament Passover being celebrated in the Upper Room, when the Eucharist was instituted and the Passover Eucharist of the New Covenant really isn't over until Calvary, when He says, "It is finished."
No wonder St. Paul says in 1st Corinthians 5, "Christ, our Passover, has been sacrificed for us." Therefore, what? Therefore we don't have any more sacrificial offerings or ceremonies or feasts and so on to celebrate because all those ceremonies are outdated and done with? No. He says, "Christ, our Passover, has been sacrificed; therefore, let us keep the feast." And he goes on to talk about how we take out the leaven of insincerity and we have this unleavened bread. What's he talking about? Christ, our Passover has been sacrificed; therefore, we've got to achieve the whole goal of that sacrifice, the second half is communion where we eat the lamb.
Now you can't eat a lamb cookie in Egypt. If you didn't like lamb, you couldn't have your wife make lamb bread, little biscuits in the shape of a lamb and say, "God, you understand, we just can't stand the stuff." No, you do that, your firstborn would die. You had to eat the lamb. Jesus Christ has said to us, "My flesh is food indeed and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has everlasting life."
Let's turn to John 6 and see the context in which he says that. John 6, verse 4 tells us, "Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews was at hand." So everything that transpires within John 6 is within the context of the Passover. Jesus is talking to them now. At the time of the Passover, after multiplying these loaves, ending up filling twelve baskets with the fragments from the five barley loaves, He uses that as his point of departure for one of the most important sermons that He ever preaches and also one of the most disastrous from a human perspective.
He goes on talking about this bread and He goes on talking about Moses in context with that bread. For instance, in verse 32, "Jesus then said to them, 'Truly, truly, I say to you it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven. My Father gives you the true bread from heaven, for the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.' They said to him, 'Lord, give us this bread always.'" Welfare state! "Jesus said to them, 'I am the bread of life. He who comes to me shall not hunger and he who believes in me shall not thirst.'" And He goes on talking about this some more. The Jews would then murmur at him in verse 41 because He said, "I am the bread which came down from heaven."
They're thinking, "What is He talking about? This guy is Joseph's son. How does He say, 'I've come down from heaven?'" They only look at it from a human perspective. They don't see that He's the divine Son of God. Verse 47, "Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness and they died. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven.'"
How often did they eat the manna? Every day. How often do we receive the Bread of Life? Every day. This is not a once for all sacrifice, like many anti-Catholics allege in the sense that Christ is sacrificed and now there's nothing more to be done. Jesus Christ is sacrificed as priest and as victim, as lamb and as firstborn son and as the Bread of Life, he gives himself to us as well as the unleavened bread of the Passover meal, which commenced, of course, the whole feast of unleavened bread the week after the Passover celebration. Jesus Christ is the Bread of Life, the unleavened bread of God which came down from heaven which the Israelites received every day, the manna of the New Covenant.
Christ through the Holy Spirit makes himself available as the Lamb of God to be consumed continuously. That's the whole point of the Resurrection, incidentally. The Holy Spirit raises up that body and glorifies it so supernaturally that body and blood which is glorified may be internationally distributed through the elders and priests of the Church so that all of God's children can be bound back to the Father in the New Covenant sacrifice of Christ. He didn't die again. He's not bleeding and he's not suffering. He's reigning in glory and giving us his own flesh and blood.
Where do you get that? From the Old Testament -- the manna, the Passover, the sacrifice as it's described on Calvary as it's initiated in the Upper Room and as he states right here in verse 51. "If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh." Jews stop, wait a second. Hold the phone. "John, what do you mean 'my flesh?'" Verse 52, "The Jews then disputed among themselves saying, 'How can this man give us his flesh to eat?'" Cannibalism, paganism, barbarism, sin in the highest degree.
So did Jesus say to them, "I didn't mean it, guys. I was just kind of, you know, using hyperbole or metaphor." No. He actually intensifies the scandal. He actually raises the obstacle even higher. "He said to them, 'Truly, truly, I say to you unless you eat the flesh of the son of man and drink his blood,' which Leviticus condemns, the drinking of blood, 'unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life in you. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is food indeed and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him.'"
He said that four times in four different ways.
In verse 60, "Many of His disciples when they heard it said, 'This is a hard saying. Who can listen to it?'" That is an understatement. "Jesus, however, knowing in Himself that His disciples murmured at it" (the disciples, the followers, the spiritual proteges, not just the crowd now, the disciples themselves are taking offense at this and murmuring and grumbling), "said to them, 'Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the son of man ascending to where He was before? It is the Spirit that gives life; the flesh is of no avail. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.'"
What words? That you've got to eat my flesh and drink my blood, those words.
In 63 we discover why Christ's flesh and blood will be so powerful and animating for supernatural life. Verse 66, "After this, many of His disciples drew back...." We get the impression that the vast majority of them said, "This is just too much." "...and no longer went about with him. And Jesus turned to the twelve;" he didn't apologize. He didn't say, "Now that we're down to twelve, I'll tell you what I really meant." He didn't say that at all. In fact he is perfectly willing for this obstacle to remain scandalous even to the twelve. "Do you also wish to go away?" But "Simon Peter answered him, 'Lord, to whom shall we go?'" Almost implying we would leave if there was somebody else that we could trust more than you because what you said is rather baffling. But he says, "To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. And we have believed and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God."
So we have reason to believe that this sacrifice of the New Covenant Passover begun in the Upper Room and consummated on Calvary and ultimately as 1st Corinthians 5 suggests continued and celebrated as a climactic communion on the altars of the Church around the world when we receive the Eucharist in Communion. All of this is right from the Bible but you've got to know your Bible. You've got to know John. You've got to know Matthew, Mark and Luke. You've got to know Exodus. You've got to know the Psalms. You've got to know Corinthians and you also have to know Revelation.
Abridged from Scott Hahn's audio and video tape presentation,
"Eucharist: Holy Meal" as it appears in the "Catholic Adult Education
on Video Program" with Scott and Kimberly Hahn.
Full text available in our library.
Both the individual audio and video cassettes and the entire 20 cassette
library, complete with study guides, are available from:St. Joseph Communications
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Electronic text (c) Copyright EWTN 1996. All rights reserved.