Are there Seder meals in a Christian context?
Out of a profound desire for authenticity, Christians have shown an ever-increasing interest in Seder meals. This desire for authenticity is grounded in the wish to know (and perhaps even experience) the origins of the Eucharistic celebration and to know "what really happened."
Despite the good-will expressed in such a desire (not only to know the background and origins of the Eucharist but to come closer to those of Jewish faith), the celebration of the Seder meal poses certain problems.
- In trying to imitate what might have happened are we restricting the newness and radical nature of the Eucharistic celebration?
- Do we think that the closer we get to what really happened the closer we will be to truly understanding the Eucharist?
If we look at the meal tradition in the gospels, we will notice something peculiar: Jesus was breaking every ritual norm when he celebrated a meal. He would eat with those deemed unworthy (or ritually "unclean") and, when he ate with "religious folk," he always introduced an element to unsettle the ritual purity of the event (Matthew 9:9-13; Luke 7:36-50; Luke 19:1-10). The meal tradition Jesus initiated (constituted by all the meals Jesus celebrated with his followers and not only the Last Supper) was to be perhaps a ritual, which did not have its center in itself but was to be a liturgical ritual which always points away from itself making its participants aware of their responsibility to those who were not yet part of the meal celebration. The meal tradition as celebrated by Jesus was so radically different, so radically new that the meal (the sharing of bread and wine – and not the elaborate ceremony of the Seder meal) became the central act by which the early Christians (and all subsequent generations) remembered Jesus. The desire to celebrate a Seder meal as "Jesus did" can dilute the memory of the radical newness of what Jesus began as it can divert attention from the primary "passage" which Christians celebrate in the Easter Vigil and which culminates in the Eucharistic celebration on Easter Sunday (the Eighth Day).
There is, however, a second problem too. We do not know how the Seder meal was celebrated at the time of Jesus nor do we know if the Last Supper was a Passover meal at all. The gospels accounts are conflicting. In the Gospel of John, Jesus celebrated a meal with the disciples before the designated time for the Passover meal. This allowed John to equate the death of Jesus with the sacrifice of the Passover lamb. But perhaps even more importantly is the fact that we simply have no written accounts of the Seder meal from the first century. In fact, the earliest written accounts of the Seder meal date from the medieval period; they witness to a Seder meal which had developed and changed significantly from the meal celebrated in the first decades of the first century of the Common Era when the Temple was still the center of Jewish ritual and religious life. Following the order of these Seder meals does not in any away get us closer to what the meal might have been for Jesus.
It is an admirable and truly Christian practice to be open and welcoming of other religious traditions. Christian liturgical practice, however, cannot simply be an imitation of another tradition nor can it hope to be more "faithful" by being more historically authentic. Perhaps a far more urgent concern for Christians in the twenty-first century should be the extent to which their meal practice is attentive to the outsider, to the dispossessed, to the one who cannot return the invitation.
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in Ecumenical and Inter-faith Relations.