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Why the Church should not appropriate the Seder

09 April 2021

To give the Passover meal a Christianised gloss does not respect the integrity of Judaism or of the C of E’s liturgies, says Simon Reynolds


A Jewish family celebrates the Seder at Pesach (Passover)

A Jewish family celebrates the Seder at Pesach (Passover)

IT IS often remarked that, if you want to know what the Church of England believes, look at its liturgy. Since the authorisation of the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549, the shape, language, and symbolism of the Church’s liturgy is contained — and encountered — within a doctrinal framework.

This is no less true today (as anyone who endured the painstaking processes necessary to authorise the multiple elements of Common Worship will no doubt testify). It is an outworking of what defines the Church of England’s distinctive identity, often summarised in Prospero of Aquitaine’s aphorism lex orandi lex credendi (the rule of praying forms the rule of believing).

This is worth restating in the light of the energy generated on social media during Holy Week after the Church of England Twitter posted a video of an act of worship for Maundy Thursday, on its official website, containing linguistic and symbolic elements strongly resonant of the Seder celebrated by Jews at Pesach (Passover).

Leaving aside the question why, when the Church of England provides a fully worked-out liturgy for Maundy Thursday (as part of Common Worship: Times and Seasons), it was felt necessary to provide something entirely different, it does invite a measure of scrutiny of the theological, historical, and cultural literacy that informed the commissioning of this act of worship in the first place.

This is especially so after the video was swiftly withdrawn in response to social- media comment, accompanied by a statement from the Church’s inter-faith adviser. This induces curiosity about the degree to which members of the Liturgical and Doctrine Commissions are involved in the composition of acts of worship that carry a measure of official endorsement.

Certainly, this is not the first time that the publication of liturgical texts outside the Church’s authorised provision on its official website has proved problematic (another conspicuous example is the prayer provided at the time of the 2019 General Election, with its clear inference that the outcome would be a reflection of the divine will).

Briefly, there are a number of factors that, given due consideration, might have led to the side-stepping of such an act of worship in the first place.

Historical context
ONE is the historical context of the events celebrated and commemorated on Maundy Thursday. While the Gospel accounts differ in their placing of the Last Supper and the crucifixion in relation to the timing of Pesach, the simple fact is that, at the time of the crucifixion of Jesus, the ritual of Pesach was not primarily a domestic meal.

Following the Deuteronomic reforms introduced during the reign of King Josiah (2 Chronicles 34-35), the celebrations were centralised at the Temple in Jerusalem (which accounts for the vast numbers of pilgrims in the city to welcome Jesus in the Gospel accounts of the first Palm Sunday, for example).

It was only after the destruction of the Temple, and the dismantling of its cult following the siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE, that Pesach evolved into a domestic liturgy. Not only is the Seder shared by Jews today a much later rabbinic composition: it contains language, symbols, and other elements that would probably never have featured in any domestic meal during the Pesach festivities while the Temple still stood. The first recorded evidence for using the components of a contemporary Seder dates from as late as the ninth century CE.

Scriptural uncertainty
ALTHOUGH the Last Supper was a meal shared by Jesus and his disciples at the time of Pesach, the Gospel accounts differ in their understanding of its significance.

For example, only in the Lucan account does Jesus command the disciples to repeat the ritual — and some early texts do not include these words. St Matthew’s Gospel (whose Jewish author would have been familiar with several different covenants in Jewish ritual) is unique in specifying that the covenant at the Last Supper was the “blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26.28).

There was only one blood covenant to atone for sin in Judaism during the era of the Second Temple. It was not the Pesach covenant, but the one enacted on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. St John’s Gospel, which also has a strong Jewish accent, devotes five of its 20 chapters to the Last Supper. It states that it took place before Pesach and makes no specific mention of the sharing of bread and wine, although there are strong eucharistic resonances elsewhere in John.

Early interpretation
THIS alone suggests that the tendency effortlessly to join the dots between the Last Supper, the ritual of Pesach, and how the eucharist has subsequently developed, as a pretext for celebrating a Christian form of a Seder on Maundy Thursday, should be the subject of far greater scrutiny.

While it is emphatically the case that key personalities during the early Christian era delighted in employing the typology of Pesach as a hermeneutical tool, they did so as a means of illuminating the Christian paschal mystery as a whole rather than with any specific emphasis on the Last Supper alone.

The cross and resurrection are infused with the language and symbolism of Exodus, with the sacrificial character of the cross and Christ as the lamb of sacrifice, the rising of Christ enabling his people’s liberation, and the blood of Christ shed on the cross protecting his people from sin and evil. This is well illustrated, starting with Paul, then in much of the subsequent Easter preaching of the early Christian centuries.

Drawing on the account of Pesach in the Exodus (read at the baptismal and eucharistic liturgies to inaugurate Easter), it is offered as the model of salvation through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The blood of Christ (prefigured by the blood of the slaughtered lamb and daubed on the doorposts of homes of the Hebrews, signifying protection of their occupants in Exodus 12) was often associated with the signing (”sealing”) of candidates for baptism with the cross.

Where the link between Pesach, the Exodus narrative, and the eucharist is drawn, it is to demonstrate how the eucharist commemorates the entire salvific action of Christ in releasing his people from death. This enables them to be renewed — through baptism, as well as through receiving the body and blood of Christ in the eucharist — as participants in his dying and rising for the world’s salvation. Many people are familiar with the great Easter hymn of John of Damascus (d. c.750 CE) in the translation by J. M. Neale, for example, as it celebrates the fulfilment of the Exodus in the resurrection as “the Passover of gladness”.

Early practice
THIS theological momentum is reflected in some of the recorded liturgical practices of the early Christian era.

One obvious example is the account of Holy Week in Jerusalem provided in Itinerarium Egeriae (c.380 CE). Egeria, a nun from Galicia, and a pilgrim to Jerusalem in the final decades of the fourth century, describes, in considerable detail, the worship that she encountered during Holy Week.

As she recalls liturgical celebrations taking place at the sites associated with the events being commemorated, she refers to two eucharistic celebrations on Maundy Thursday. Significantly, neither is in relation to the site of the Last Supper. In fact, she describes the major celebration that day as being at the Eleona church, the traditional site of the cave in the Garden of Gethsemane.

This is amplified by more recent historical opinion, suggesting that, before the end of the fourth century, there appears to be no concern to pinpoint the location of the Last Supper or to integrate it into the Jerusalem liturgy. Rather, the Holy Sepulchre was the locus of the beginning and ending of the celebrations on Maundy Thursday, reflecting how the language and symbolism of Pesach applied not to a recalling — or even recreation — of the Last Supper, but to a celebration of the Exodus that is accomplished in Christ’s saving death and resurrection.

Contemporary belief and practice
TODAY, the Church of England reflects these theological, historical, and liturgical insights in Common Worship: Times and Seasons, which is why there is no act of worship for Maundy Thursday which alludes to the Seder.

This is the Passover of the Lord,” it confidently affirms: not in relation to the liturgy of Maundy Thursday, but in the introduction spoken at the start of the liturgy celebrated to begin Easter (whether on Saturday night or early on Sunday morning).

It is followed by the great Easter proclamation (the Exsultet) which is saturated in the language and symbolism of the biblical accounts of the Exodus (a large part of which is read in the succeeding vigil of readings), followed by baptism and the renewal of baptismal vows, after which the first eucharist of Easter day is celebrated.

The account of the meal to be eaten by the Hebrews before their escape from slavery in Egypt (Exodus 12) is provided as part of the contemporary Maundy Thursday liturgy, but as part of a clear framework. What is being celebrated from Maundy Thursday to Easter day is a single, continuous whole. On Maundy Thursday, within the frame of liturgical time, the Exodus is yet to be celebrated.

A theological task
OUR roots as Christian people go deep into the soil of Judaism. Our history down the course of the past two millennia has repeatedly demonstrated that, whenever we have forgotten or chosen to ignore this, we have been responsible for innumerable and indefensible injustices towards our forebears in the faith.

We add nothing to our desire to respect the distinctiveness and integrity of Judaism by appropriating a contemporary Seder and giving it a Christianised “gloss” — let alone imagining that, by doing so, we are recreating an “authentic” Last Supper that predates the development of what the eucharist has become.

Just as Judaism at the time of Jesus, with its Temple and sacrificial cult, evolved and flourished in new directions, so did the movement that became Christianity. While we continue to draw much nourishment from our Jewish roots, the early generations of Christians quickly recognised that Christianity was not a superficial rebranding of Judaism, sparing little theological energy and interpretative creativity as they sought to proclaim Christianity’s distinctive credal impulse.

Understanding why — and how — they did this should never be an optional extra for those who bear the responsibility for liturgical composition today. Liturgy that is simply good intentions, devoid of theological and historical rooting, always risks distorting what the Church believes.


The Revd Simon Reynolds is a Research Fellow at the University of Winchester. His forthcoming book Lighten Our Darkness: Discovering and celebrating choral evensong, will be published by Darton, Longman & Todd.

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