Christians and Messianics appropriating Passover seder

"I'll talk about how Jesus is our Passover lamb, that through his shed blood Jesus passed over our sins, and how it liberates us from our bondage to sin," he said.

Afterward he will give his congregants at the 250-member evangelical church in the town of Windham, N.H., communion, with matzah as the Eucharist.

"We wouldn't do the seder if we weren't going to give it a Christological overlay," he said, adding that his congregation wants to "celebrate the various Jewish holidays and then show how we believe those holidays have been fulfilled through Christ."

Stuart is one of a growing number of ministers and priests from many denominations who are hosting Passover seders in their churches. The trend reflects a deepening fascination with the Jewish origins of Jesus and the likelihood that a Passover seder was his Last Supper.

According to the Christian Bible, it was during that meal that Jesus foretold his death and instructed his disciples that the wine they drank was his blood, and that the unleavened bread they ate was his body.

There is a wide range of ways in which different Christians present the Passover seder, and there is disagreement among Christians, and between some Christians and Jews, on how a seder should be handled in a Christian context.

At one end of the spectrum is Stuart's approach, which has been adopted by most of the evangelical churches that hold seders, including some Presbyterian churches. The so-called Messianic groups, also called Hebrew Christians, put even more of a Christological spin on the Passover seder.

Some Messianic seder leaders hold up a matzah, point to its holes and read from John's Gospels about how Jesus was pierced by the Roman soldiers, said Marvin Wilson, a professor of biblical and theological studies at Gordon College, an evangelical Christian college in Wenham, Mass.

But, Wilson said, "there's no clear New Testament validation for that interpretation."

For Julius Ciss, executive director of Canadian Jews for Judaism, an anti-missionary group, "Pesach is probably the most accessible holiday for Christians to use as hooks for the Jew."

Ciss said evangelical Christians use Passover "to elevate their appreciation of their Lord's Supper, and as a tool by which they can catch the potential Jewish convert off guard."

Ciss, who was a "Messianic Jew" for five years, said he was always surprised at how many Jews attended seders at evangelical churches and Messianic congregations.

"Jews can find it very compelling, especially if they have experiences going back to childhood of the seder being conducted in Hebrew when no one at the table understood its meaning," he said.

The church seders are condensed, in English, and led "by an enthusiastic orator with a lot of charisma," he said.

"The service is preceded by many Hebrew songs, the food is wonderful, and sometimes there is even Israeli dancing and people wearing" tallitim [prayer shawls].

"It makes it very seductive, so any guilt a Jew might have felt is totally assuaged when they feel like it's more Jewish than ever to do it."

Jews for Jesus, perhaps the best known of the Messianic groups, visits churches to teach their Christological gloss on the seder.

Tuvya Zaretsky, Jews for Jesus' Southern California district leader, takes his seder spin to churches about 35 times a year.

Zaretsky said he uses a traditional Haggadah and teaches people about the traditional meaning of the seder symbols and rituals.

At the seders, which have an average attendance of about 80 people, he distributes a brochure titled "Passover — Why is this night different? Since Y'shua [Jesus] observed it."

The brochure turns the seder elements on their head, and suggests that practices in use by Jews today came from the early followers of Jesus.

Hebrew Christians believe that the three matzot represent the God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, "and that the afikomen, which is broken, buried and brought back dramatically, represents Jesus the Messiah," the brochure states.

But that "completely distorts the meaning" of the seder, said Rabbi A. James Rudin, director of interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee.

"They'll say that their liberation is through Yehoshua the Moshiach" instead of through God, Rudin said. "I've seen it written in their materials that Judaism is like Egypt, and Jesus gives you the freedom to break through."

The Catholic Church has worked to respect the integrity of the seder as a Jewish ritual while getting close to Jesus' experience.

In 1988, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops issued guidelines on the presentation of Jews and Judaism, focusing on Holy Week and Good Friday, which for centuries was the day that mobs of Catholics would set out from church to pillage, rape and kill Jews for supposedly killing Jesus.

Some Catholic churches hold services of reconciliation with Jews on Palm Sunday, and some invite Holocaust survivors to address their congregations during Lent, a period of fasting and repentance.

"It is becoming familiar in many parishes and Catholic homes to participate in a Passover seder during Holy Week," guidelines state.

"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."

Others share this approach. The Rev. Betty Gamble, a minister who leads the Pleasant Grove United Methodist Church outside Covington, Ky., tries to recreate the biblical setting of Jesus' Last Supper.

But "I don't want to get into a Christological interpretation of the seder," said Gamble. "That just violates the ritual of another faith and violates a trust we have to treat each other with integrity."

Gamble said it is too easy for congregants to impose Christianity on Judaism.

"We have been taught for all these centuries that Christianity superseded Judaism, that we are the new covenant," she said.

"But after the Holocaust, we have to take that out of our thinking. We can't just wash our hands of responsibility, like Pilate did, but [should] own up to what was done in our tradition in the name of Jesus."

Still, said Wilson, "it's a given in the church that there are going to be Christological interpretations when a seder is presented there."