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Entire family gathers around a festive dinner table for the occasion. Friends, neighbors and even strangers who are unable to be in their own homes are invited to share in the festivities.
The celebration centers around the history of Exodus: God through Moses frees his people from slavery. The Passover Seder includes a retelling of the Exodus Story, prayers, blessings, songs and a festive meal commemorating the mysterious event in the context of companionship of family and friends.
Those present are given copies of the ‘Haggadah’, a book containing the order of ceremony. The Hebrew word for order is ‘Seder’ and ‘haggadah’ means “telling”, in this instance, telling of the story of God’s intervention in freeing His people from slavery in Egypt. This fulfills the biblical injunction: ‘Thou shall tell thy son in that day… it is because of that which the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt.” (Exodus 13-8)
The youngest son present opens the celebration by asking the question: “Why is this night different from all other nights?”
In answering, the father tells the story of how God freed His people, the Israelites, from Pharaoh. In this retelling of the story of the emancipation of their people, the Jews become more firmly rooted in their Jewishness. The prayers they say, bless and thank God for His deliverance.
To elaborate the character of the exodus story, special foods adorn the Seder plate:
- Three Matzoth: wafers of unleavened bread which recall the haste with which the Jews had to eat when leaving Egypt.
- Maror: the bitter herbs, a reminder of the bitterness of slavery in Egypt.
- Haroseth: a mixture of chopped apples, nuts, cinnamon and wine symbolizes the mortar which the Israelites slaves used to make bricks in Egypt to construct the massive Pharaoh’s buildings.
- Zeroa: A roasted lamb shank, a reminder of the sacrificial lamb, symbolizes the paschal offering that God took the Israelites out of Egypt with a strong arm.
- Karpas: usually green vegetable, or Parsley: a token of gratitude to God for the new growth that comes in the spring time.
- Salt water or Vinegar: This Karpas is dipped into salt water or vinegar to symbolize the tears of the people or the crossing of the Red Sea as they were led out of Egypt.
The Seder plate, often very ornate, is used only for the ritual part of the meal. It has a place of honor among the household’s possessions.
At the center of the table is a cup of wine known as “Elijah’s Cup. It expresses a welcome for the prophet and the belief that one day he will announce the coming of the Messiah and the messianic age.
Though the Passover Seder lasts for several hours, it does not seem long because it is interspersed with the Exodus story, prayers and songs, blessings, a festive meal and the companionship of loved ones. A final blessing brings the festivities to a close:
The Passover service is not completed.
With songs of praise we have lifted up the cup,
Symbolizing the divine promises of salvation,
And we have called upon the name of God.
Let us again lift our souls to God in faith and hope.
May He who broke the Pharaoh’s yoke,
Forever shatter all fetters of oppression
and hasten the day when swords shall at last be broken and wars ended.
Soon may He cause the glad tidings of redemption to be heard in all lands,
so that mankind freed from violence and from wrong
and united in an eternal confidence of brotherhood,
may celebrate the universal Passover in the name of our God of Freedom
The Seder was Jesus’ own last Supper. It is the origin of our Christian liturgy of the Eucharist. From the earliest days of Christianity, the death and resurrection of Jesus has been understood as His Passover.
When Catholics assemble to celebrate Mass, we may not realize that our Eucharistic liturgy has its origin in the Jewish Passover ritual. The unleavened bread and wine we use as Mass, as well as the Psalms we sing, were used at Passover meals in Jesus’ day and are used by Jews today.
Jesus and all of the first Christians were Jews. They had celebrated the feast of Passover since childhood. For them it had overwhelming theological significance. If we are to understand what was in the mind of Jesus as he went to his death, and what was in the minds of his first disciples as they reflected on the meaning of His life and death,…. As they began to celebrate their first Eucharistic Meals….. we must come to understand the meaning of Passover.
Seder and Eucharist
The Passover Seder and the Eucharist dwell on these four fundamental common grounds:
1. Both Celebrate an Exodus
- A deliverance from bondage to freedom: The Passover celebrates the deliverance of the Jews form bondage and slavery in Egypt to the freedom to worship the God of Israel. The Eucharist celebrates the deliverance brought about by Jesus from the bondage of sin, death, slavery, oppression to the freedom of the Resurrection.
2. Both are Ritual Meals
- Both of these celebrations have a prescribed set of procedures with blessings and prayers. No one who celebrates Passover as a Jewish person or Eucharist as a Christian can afford to forget the certain prescribed rites of ceremony. The Latin Church insistence on unleavened bread could be seen as a sign of respect and concurrence with the ancient tradition and its desire to remain faithful to it.
3. Both are Memorial Celebrations
- In biblical language and thought, ‘memorial’ refers to liturgical events, which both celebrate and represent past mysteries of salvation so that they can be appropriated personally by those living in the present. Hence, for a Jewish person: celebrating The Passover would mean that one would identify oneself with the first group of the Jewish people who were personally and physically liberated from Egypt.
- As a Christian, one would look upon the Passion of Christ, reflect upon the death and His resurrection and make it actual again by celebrating the Eucharist. The words of Jesus at the consecration: “Do this in memory of me.” In other words, Jesus would mean to tell us, that when ‘you eat this bread and drink this cup, you represent, confect again, make real, actualize me! Hence in celebrating the Passover and the Eucharist, we tap into God’s ‘once for all’ and at the same time an on-going eternal saving, liberating, sacrificial, merciful, redemptive and propitiatory love.
4. Both Signify Hope and the Strengthening of the Community
- Every Jewish Passover celebrates the hope of ultimate liberation of all human kind from all forms of bondage.
- Every Christian Eucharist also celebrates that hope. It is an ongoing Hope. It is a hope for ultimate liberation from death, sin and oppression, a hope for union with God.
Catholic Update, March 1998 CO398, Arthur E. Zannoni
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