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April 21, 2016 6:45 am

Why Christians Should Celebrate Passover

avatar by Bernard Starr

Email a copy of "Why Christians Should Celebrate Passover" to a friend
The Last Supper. Photo: Wiki Commons.

The Last Supper. Photo: Wiki Commons.

The Passover holiday commemorates the exodus of Jews from slavery in Egypt. It is a celebration of freedom. On this basis alone, Christians should join Jews in celebrating Passover. Why? No exodus, no Christianity.

But there’s a more persuasive reason. In Jesus’ time, Passover was the holiest celebration on the Jewish calendar. Hundreds of thousands of Jews from surrounding nations and communities poured into Jerusalem for the annual festival.

For Jesus, a dedicated practicing Jew, Passover was a seminal event. Although the Gospels do not give us a fully developed biography of Jesus, they do make it clear that Passover looms large in his life. After announcing his birth, the Gospel of Matthew (2:13-16) reports that Jesus was taken to Egypt to escape the edict of King Herod to kill all Jewish children in Bethlehem two years old and younger. According to the Gospel of Luke (2:21-22), after the birth of Jesus, Mary performs the Jewish rituals and prayers mandated by the Torah and the family returns to Nazareth. In Matthew the family returns to Nazareth from Egypt about six years later, after the death of Herod (Matthew 2:19-21).

Then there is no news of Jesus for six years. The only thing we learn about him during this time gap is that he and his family traveled to Jerusalem every year for Passover, as cited in the Gospel of Luke (2:41) :

Now His parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover.

This arduous 80 mile trip over crude roads, with donkeys, provisions, and lambs for the ritual sacrifice, could take as long as seven days. Jesus’ family’s faithful participation is a testament to their dedication to Judaism and the Torah — and the importance of Passover in their religious practices.

We next meet Jesus at age 12 at that year’s Passover celebration in Jerusalem. During his family’s return trip from the festival, Mary and Joseph noticed that Jesus was not among the extended family and other Jews from Nazareth. They returned to Jerusalem to search for him and found Jesus in the Temple debating the Torah with learned rabbis:

And when they had fulfilled the days, as they returned, the child Jesus tarried behind in Jerusalem; and Joseph and his mother knew not of it. But they, supposing him to have been in the company, went a day’s journey; and they sought him among their kinsfolk and acquaintance. And when they found him not, they turned back again to Jerusalem, seeking him. And it came to pass, that after three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions. And all that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers.

– ( Luke 2: 42-47).

After this incident Jesus again vanishes from the Gospels, this time for 18 years. He resurfaces at age 30, when he is baptized by John the Baptist in the river Jordan and his ministry begins. Three years later, at the end of his ministry, Passover again takes center stage among events that will be monumental for Christianity and the world. Early on the day of the Passover feast, before Jesus is arrested in Gethsemane garden, the event that leads to his trial and crucifixion, he tells his disciples to prepare the traditional Jewish Passover as prescribed in the Torah:

Then came the day of unleavened bread, when the Passover must be killed [meaning when the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed and eaten]. And he sent Peter and John, saying, ‘Go and prepare us the Passover, that we may eat.’ And they said unto him, ‘Where wilt thou that we prepare?’ And he said unto them, ‘Behold, when ye are entered into the city, there shall a man meet you, bearing a pitcher of water; follow him into the house where he entereth in. And ye shall say unto the goodman of the house, The Master saith unto thee, Where is the guest chamber where I shall eat the Passover with my disciples? And he shall shew you a large upper room furnished: there make ready.’ And they went, and found as he had said unto them: and they made ready the Passover.

– (Luke 22:7-13)

That on the very day that Jesus forecast his imminent death he chose to celebrate the traditional Passover meal with his Disciples is a powerful statement of the importance of Passover in his life and his dedication to Judaism.

Unfortunately, art representations of the Passover Last Supper, the chief means by which the largely illiterate Medieval and Renaissance European populations learned about this important holiday, typically presented it as a Christian celebration, when it was exclusively a Jewish event.

Even Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper looks like a gathering of monks rather than a Passover Seder attended by dedicated Jews. And as Ross King, author of Leonardo and the Last Supper, has noted, the foods on the table are not the traditional ones for Passover; indeed, items such as eel and bread would have been a desecration according to the Torah. Moreover, it is known that Jesus ate only kosher food.

Other representations even more explicitly convert the Passover celebration into a Christian event, with the anachronism of Christian monks in attendance, as in Fra Angelico’s 1451 depiction, which takes place in a monk’s cell.

The fact that Jesus and his disciples were dedicated practicing Jews, as reflected in their Passover observance, is often overshadowed by emphasis on the ceremony at the end of Jesus’ Passover Seder, which became the Eucharist sacrament in Christianity.

These distortions are typical of a vast trove of Renaissance artworks that omit Jesus’ Jewish identity and heritage and instead picture him as a Renaissance-era Christian in settings alien to his origins in the Jewish village of Nazareth. Sadly, these falsifications of biblical history have served to drive Christians and Jews apart.

Over the centuries, the Passover Seder has evolved to reflect the different cultures of Jews as they scattered throughout the world after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. Today, in addition to retelling the story of the exodus from Egypt, may Jews include in their Haggadahs (the Passover ceremony guide) contemporary and personal perspectives on freedom, slavery, and other social issues.

In the present era of reconciliation, as reflected in Pope Francis’ pronouncement that “inside every Christian is Jew,” the Passover celebration offers Christians an opportunity to reconnect with the common foundation of the two faiths and experience the authentic Jesus as he lived and worshiped. At the same time, they can add to their Passover celebrations issues from a Christian perspective while honoring the Exodus and freedom.

Bernard Starr, PhD, is Professor Emeritus at the City University of New York (Brooklyn College). His latest book (expanded edition) is “Jesus, Jews, and Anti-Semitism in Art: How Renaissance Art Erased Jesus’ Jewish Identity and How Today’s Artists Are Restoring It.” He is also organizer of the art exhibit “Putting Judaism Back in the Picture: Toward Healing the Christian/Jewish Divide.”

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  • Charity Dell

    This article by Bernard Starr is a thought-provoking counterbalance to the plethora of articles now appearing on the internet in which some Jews and Christians (and some clergy from these communities) enumerate all the reasons Christians should *not* celebrate Passover or adapt/craft their own Christian observances of Passover. There are many objections cited, including:

    1. The issue of “cultural appropriation of someone else’s
    celebration” or “cultural tourism”; Christians have “their own traditions and customs” so they do not need to “borrow” anything from their Jewish neighbors.

    2. Christians already have a full week of Holy Week liturgies and services leading up to, and including Easter Day. Since we Christians observe Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday
    and Easter Vigil (or Easter sunrise service plus the morning
    celebration service), we “don’t need to cram another
    event during our festival time”.

    3. The fact that Jews suffered at the hands of so-called
    “Christians” in Asia Minor and Europe for centuries, so today’s Christians should not “rip off” the rituals of those who have experienced their greatest persecutions during Holy Week and the Easter season.

    While all these views have some merit, they all seem to “forget” that the entire corpus of New Testament literature
    was written by Jews (with the exception of Luke-Acts); Jewish ceremony, custom and ritual continued within the early church for hundreds of years and was carried with the spread of the Gospel to the surrounding nations and beyond; Jewish customs derived from the Jerusalem Temple tradition also continue to this present day within all churches.

    However, there are even more compelling reasons the Passover
    celebration (whether in “traditional” seder formats or “adapted” Judeo-Christian formats) can and should be joyfully observed in Christian homes and churches.

    1.I will borrow “Ockham’s Razor” and state that the simplest reason to celebrate Passover is: the Exodus event–like the Passion narratives–is part of *the Bible we regard as the Word of God*. We read, study, preach and celebrate the “history of
    our salvation” from Genesis to Revelation, and our churches freely re-enact many of those events that illustrate how God
    worked in supernatural ways with ordinary human beings to accomplish His purposes on this planet. The Bible–and its celebrations and festivals–belongs to all of us, a precious
    religious heritage of beings created in the image of God. Passover–like our Creation plays, Christmas pageants and
    Passion Plays–is a pageant of salvation and worship service
    centered in the home and/or parish fellowship hall.

    We who follow Yeshua of Nazareth do not discard the first
    thirty-nine books of our Bible or diminish the importance
    of the Torah, prophets, and writings “now that the New Testament is here.” We still recite the Creation story and
    teach our offspring the Ten Commandments; we still sing the psalms in worship and recite Psalm 23 at funerals/homegoing services; we still study the prophets and preach their messages about the God Who demands justice; and we still recite our “history of salvation” starting with Genesis 3:15. Exodus 12 is typically read as part of many church Holy Week liturgies.
    Just as we read Exodus 12, we can also “do” Exodus 12!

    2. Celebration of biblical festivals enables us to literally
    “step into the Bible” and experience events, using all our
    senses–sight, hearing, smell, touch, taste. We learn all the
    messages of Passover and the Gospels through the simple, ordinary act of humans who depend upon God for “our daily bread”–and God enjoins us to “remember” what He did for us,
    in the Exodus and in the “Lord’s Supper”. We eat and we remember God’s “mighty acts” (Psalm 150:2)

    3. Festival celebration also has a transformative effect upon
    us–we “step back in time” and re-live the history of our
    salvation, and in so doing, the festival changes us. In Passover, we cook lamb and realize that “something died in order for me to live”. We taste bitter herbs and recall the bitterness not only of the ancient Hebrews, but of our own ethnic group’s struggles with injustice and oppression; we taste the sweetness of fruits cultivated by humans and reflect
    that many humans are deprived of the basics of life; we dip herbs into salt water to remind us of the tears of slaves and
    the miraculous escape of those slaves through the sea to
    freedom; we eat a simple, flat bread to recalling escaping
    in haste.Passover forces us to reflect upon the God Who demands that “justice roll down as waters, and righteousness
    as a mighty stream.”

    Have I acted justly today? What do I feel about the stranger in my community or the refugee in my neighborhood? What does
    the Bible have to say to me about “those people” who are now
    admitted to my state? How have I oppressed the “stranger, the
    widow and the orphan” through neglect or apathy? Passover moves us to relieve suffering as a response to the ritual actions
    that recall the oppression of a people under tyranny.

    4. Passover celebration, with its relaxed, more intimate “family and friends” setting, provides a space in time to contemplate both the Exodus event and the Gospel narratives which illustrate how our salvation was accomplished. Our typical Eucharists/Holy Communion services tend to occur within services in which there is no time to ask questions or freely talk with each other about what we are doing. At a Passover Seder, we can experience that “sweet fellowship” with the Risen Paschal Lamb, the One Who took the time to celebrate and host the festival with his disciples and their families, and Who suffered to give us the salvation symbolized in the cup and bread we enjoy in our fellowships and churches all our lives.
    We can laugh and cry, we can talk and be silent, we can think
    and we can act, we can be fully human and still worship God at
    the table.

    Whether we use traditional or non-traditional forms of Passover
    Seders, we ultimately enrich our own understanding of the
    God of the Bible–the God Who kept His promises to Israel, and the God Who still redeems us through the blood of the Lamb, the Lamb Who suffered, died and was resurrected during Passover.
    In both the Passover and Holy Communion/Eucharist we give thanks and remember, and respond to God’s invitation to
    “taste and see that the LORD is good.” (Psalm 34:8)

  • Margaret Bottoms

    Wow, this is great. I am going to share this because it will show Christians how far away we have gone away from our true faith and how Jesus worshiped himself. Thank you.

  • Carol Ann

    Good article, but what does it have to do with salvaging Obama’s foreign policy?

  • Suneel Damerakula

    Sir, this is a good to read article on letting know the importance of the Passover festival. Although, this is celebrated within my brethren communities, Christians on the other hand have a complete different perspective of underdyanding and a complete different approach towards this festival. However, how different the Christians and my brethren Jews might be in their faith, having a common factor between these two communities might one day get them closer is my hope.

  • Peter Joffe

    What is the real difference between Jews and Christians?? Apart from regalia and rituals there is really only one thing that separates them. For the Jews the Messiah is still to come. For the Christians the Messiah has already come – Jesus). They are all blood brothers but in many cases they do not behave as such. Jews do not run around killing people but Christians and Arabs do. Who are the the good guys? Yes its the Jews with some Christians supporting them.

    • Don

      I think .the Jews fought their way into the promise land destroying cities and killing all the inhabinets. Wearing amoung the tribe was common place.

    • Charity Dell

      People who “run around killing people” are not “Christians” by any biblical definition. “Church members” who “run around
      killing people” are not Christians, including the anti-Jewish “church members” of history who not only found ways to “run around and kill” Jews and each other, but later “ran around” and kidnapped, stole, bought, traded, enslaved and killed Africans and indigenous peoples in the New World. Jesus warned us this would happen, when “those who kill you will think they are doing God service.” (John 16:1,2). That is why the Black spiritual reminds us “everybody talkin’ about Heaven ain’t goin’ there!”

    • Joel

      Non-believing Jews are separated from true believing Christians (i.e., Born Again) by unbelief in the person of Jesus Christ. Believing Jews and Arabs are most certainly my brethren. No one regardless of nationality is my brother unless/until he receives Jesus Christ as his own personal Passover. That is the significance of the Passover for believers. Just as the blood of the innocent lamb on the lintel and door posts protected the residents of the house from death, the blood of Christ applied to the heart of the repentant sinner is protected from eternal death.

    • Mspeak2000

      I don’t think it’s fair to say Jews don’t run around killing people while Christians and Arabs do. There are murderers in all ethnicities and religions.

  • Thank you for your perspective on this important theme.

    As far as I am aware, in the last few years many Evangelical churches, large and small, have been celebrating Pesach, rediscovering its spiritual meaning & historical Jewish-based traditions.

    The ingredients of the meal are those prescribed in the Seder and generally the minister/pastor/lay person in charge will explain the meaning of each element and how it relates to Israel’s journey out of Egypt’s slavery and how they relate tomodern day Jesus followers.

    The layer of Christian perspective is an integral part of the celebration, but without minimising or diminishing the Jewish reality of the Feast.

    Christians should celebrate Pesach; an increasing number of Christian are.

    • Charity Dell

      I am a Black Pentecostal Christian who celebrates the Shalosh Regalim–Passover, Pentecost, Sukkot–within the context of the Christian Year. In the church of my youth (late 1950’s–1970’s–yes, I’m dating myself! LOL), we celebrated Holy Communion on Sunday night, seated at tables in the sanctuary that were draped in white linens. Most church members wore white, the pastor wore his white robe and we literally sang a hymn as we approached the table: “Come and dine, the Master’s calling, come and dine…” After the scriptures were read and the matzah and Welch’s Grape Juice (the dark CONCORD variety)were distributed
      and consumed, we had a simple foot-washing service that concluded with us singing a simple hymn “I’m Going to Trust in the LORD” as we exited the sanctuary.

      Years later in the 1980’s, I was a children’s choir director at a local white Pentecostal church and realized that my young choristers had very little Bible background and no
      exposure to the Christian/Church Year. I decided to integrate the Church Year and the biblical pilgrim festivals into the choral year for these young singers.

      This forced me to become more creative and as a consequence,
      I introduced Passover as a major component of the Palm Sunday Pageant. (This church had not formerly observed Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday or Good Friday, so the children’s choir performed Holy Week and Easter music on Palm Sunday.) My choristers learned to chant the simple kiddush, berakhah for bread and Ma Nishtanah in Hebrew. Shortly thereafter, I crafted my own Passover Seder, utilizing some traditional elements of the haggadah but replacing commentary sections with more scriptural passages to “tell the story.”

      I wrote my own blessing for the candles, lamb and charoset,
      and essentially crafted “two-seders-in-one”, giving equal weight to both the Exodus event and the Last Supper event
      in the Gospel of Luke. Before the New Testament narrative begins, Jeremiah 31:31-34 is read and then we eat the Passover meal. The New Testament section of the seder begins with the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem of Matthew 21.

      This paschal celebration is designed to be communal in every respect–everyone lights the candles at the beginning, everyone says all the blessings, people take turns reading the scriptural and narrative sections, etc. Ritual actions
      in the Exodus section are “mirrored” in the New Testament
      narrative; for example, there are Four Questions; there
      are the “Ten Blessings of the Kingdom” (the Beatitudes) which parallel the Ten Plagues, etc. The Foot-washing Service is a part of this paschal celebration. No leader is needed; the seder is designed to be intergenerational and can be held in homes or in a church parish hall.

      I’ve been blessed to hold this Passover Seder over the years in my apartment and for church groups, and every year I attempt to improve it and it’s a joy to be able to sit down
      with folks and celebrate, literally eating our way through
      the Exodus and the Last Supper and recalling the history
      of our salvation. Chag Sameach to all–Christians and Jews–who celebrate the Passover!