Should Christians celebrate Jewish Seder Passover meals?
Every year during Holy Week leading up to Easter, there is growing popularity in Christian or Messianic Seder Meals. In today’s post we are going to look at theological reasons (from Scripture and Saint Thomas Aquinas) as to why Seder Meals might be a bad idea for Christians.
The Hebrew word “seder” literally means “order” or “rite” or “liturgy.” It’s the “liturgy” for the Jewish Passover meal.
Evangelical Protestants have popularized Christian passover seders to get in touch with their Hebrew Christian origins. More recently, Catholics have also started celebrating the Passover as a para-liturgy outside the normally approved Catholic rites and liturgies.
Can There Even Be a Christian Passover Seder Meal?
We need to begin by recognizing that when God instituted the Passover through Moses, the Passover was always intended to be an animal sacrifice. The slaughter of a passover lamb and the eating of it was a sacrificial memorial of God’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt. The influence if liberal Reformed Judaism in America has caused most Americans to forget that Old Testament Judaism (as instituted by Moses) is chiefly a religion of animal sacrifice and ritual purity.
Every Christian knows that animal sacrifice is strictly prohibited in the New Testament. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was identified by Saint John the Baptist as “the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world,” and Christ identified Himself as that sacrificial Lamb of God. Since the coming of Christ, it would be blasphemous and sacrilegious for a Christian to sacrifice a Passover Lamb since it indicates that Christ’s sacrifice either never happened or that it was insufficient.
So it is unthinkable for Christians to offer a true Passover meal.
Is it Sinful to participate in a “Christian” Passover Seder Meal?
The good news is that Christians of good will are not participating in Passover Seder meals because they deny the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for their sins. They all would likely say that they are celebrating Passover in the Jewish way “to learn more about my faith and to appreciate better what Jesus did for me on Good Friday.”
These Christians of good will do not believe that the “Christian” Passover Seder is a Old Testament ritual of sacrifice. They instead see it as a “educational moment.”
There is still something wrong with this. The Epistle to the Hebrews equates Christians returning to the ceremonial laws of Moses as tantamount to denying Jesus Christ. The Mosaic ceremonies have become anti-sacraments, and the epistle is written to dissuade baptized Hebrew Christians from dabbling in the old ceremonial rites (like Passover!).
Saint Thomas Aquinas explains that the baptized Christian observing any Old Testament ritual, sacrament, or liturgy is sinning and if done with knowledge and full consent, such an act would be a “mortal sin”:
just as it would be a mortal sin now for anyone, in making a profession of faith, to say that Christ is yet to be born, which the fathers of old said devoutly and truthfully; so too it would be a mortal sin now to observe those ceremonies which the fathers of old fulfilled with devotion and fidelity.” (Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I-II, q. 103, Art. 4)
Saint Thomas Aquinas (and the Ecumenical Council of Florence*) identify the observance of Old Testament rituals as mortally sinful. Why? According to Saint Thomas, it implies that the ceremonial and sacrificial work of Christ did not happen. Remember that in the biblical worldview, liturgy is doing something louder than words can say. Liturgy is the highest for of communication. So when you liturgically celebrate an Old Testament reality, you are literally shouting against the New Testament reality.
Protestants might read this and shrug their shoulders, but a Catholic with a profound sacramental worldview will at once perceive the liturgical significance.
New Covenant = New Liturgy
My suspicion is that Christians are attracted to the Passover Seder meal because they want an intimate liturgical experience that hearkens back to the days of Jesus Christ their Savior. The liturgy at the local parish doesn’t really communicate this to them…and so they resort to Jewish handbooks to recreate what they think Jesus did on the night before He was betrayed.
For the Catholic, there is a Passover seder meal available to them: the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. This Eucharist is the Passover. As Saint John the Baptist, Christ Himself, the Gospels, Saint Paul, and the Book of Revelation repeat over and over, Christ is the Lamb of God. And before He died He instituted a New Covenant with a New Liturgy.
The Jewish Passover Seder might feel special, but it’s just a meal with some herbs. It is a shadow of things to come. The Catholic Eucharist is the substance of the New Covenant. It is the true Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of the human Lamb of God. When God asked Moses to institute the Passover meal with little white lambs, He had in mind the eternal sacrifice of the Lamb of God who is the Son of God.
What about Seders for Educational Purposes?
Someone might say, “Okay, I understand. We should not participate in Old Testament rites religiously, but what if we do it educationally?”
I actually like this question because it shows that the person understands that there is a profound problem with celebrating non-Christian rites religiously.
I think Thomas Aquinas would say, “You can fully understand Passover by reading about it and by experiencing the Eucharist. You don’t need to play-act the older liturgy for the sake of catechesis.”
The Old Testament should be loved, studied, and respected. We can’t understand the New unless we understand the Old. But play acting the Old Testament rites is not appropriate. I also think it’s somewhat disrespectful toward Jewish believers of good will. Likewise, we don’t need to play-act polygamy (something sanctioned in the Old Testament) in order to have an educational knowledge of it. We don’t need to play-act Jewish dietary laws to understand them. We don’t need to sacrifice a bull like Moses said or live in tabernacles like Moses commanded. We are Christians and part of our explicit identity is that we do not do these things that were once noble and righteous for the Old Testament faithful. We live in a New Covenant.
Christ taught us that we are children of the Father and as such, the probational laws given through Moses do not bind us any longer.
If you truly want to experience the eternal Passover of God in Heaven, then go to the Eucharist. As Saint Paul said:
For Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us, therefore, celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (2 Cor 5:7-8)
So if you are invited to participate in a Christian or Messianic seder, kindly decline. You’ll find what you’re looking for in the Mass.
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PS: Lest anyone thing that I’m somehow anti-Jewish, please take a look at my book The Crucified Rabbi: Judaism and the Origins of Catholicism to see how much I love our Jewish roots as Catholics. It’s half price on paperback and Kindle until Easter Sunday! Read a preview of it here.
*Quote from the Ecumenical Council of Florence:
Note that this is not a “disciplinary canon” but a doctrinal canon because the canon reads that the Church “believes, professes, and teaches…”
712 It firmly believes, professes, and teaches that the matter pertaining to the law of the Old Testament, of the Mosiac law, which are divided into ceremonies, sacred rites, sacrifices, and sacraments, because they were established to signify something in the future, although they were suited to the divine worship at that time, after our Lord’s coming had been signified by them, ceased, and the sacraments of the New Testament began; and that whoever, even after the passion, placed hope in these matters of the law and submitted himself to them as necessary for salvation, as if faith in Christ could not save without them, sinned mortally.