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Should Christians celebrate Passover?

The ancient Hebrew feast has very different meanings for Christians and Jews

Seder plate at the Maxwell House Haggadah in New York, N.Y. Associated Press/Photo by Stace Maude

Should Christians celebrate Passover?
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For Christians who keep a seasonal religious calendar, last week was their high point. What is commonly known as “Holy Week” runs from Palm Sunday to Good Friday and finally Easter. But this time of the year is also Passover, and that has raised some interesting ecumenical and ritual questions over the past few decades. There’s been a growing trend of Christians patterning some of their Easter-week services after Jewish festivals, particularly the Seder meal. But while this trend has good intentions, it’s not really a good idea.

The question here is not whether Christians should accept invitations to celebrations hosted by their Jewish friends or their families. Nor is about attending Jewish ceremonies for educational purposes, as onlookers. Instead, I am asking if Christians should be designing Christian services after the pattern of Jewish ones. Should Easter be “taken back” to Passover, and should Christian “Lord’s Supper” ceremonies be turned into Seders? For historical and theological reasons, the answer should be no.

Now, it is true that Jesus was crucified at the same time of the year as Passover (John 19:14). And he did institute his supper while keeping the feast of unleavened bread (Luke 22:7, 14-15). But Christianity has never said that we simply continue and extend the Old Testament rituals and feasts. Instead, we believe that Christ has fulfilled them (Colossians 2:17). The various rites that we keep now are meditations and expressions of that truth. As St. Paul puts it, “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us, therefore let us keep the feast” (1 Corinthians 5:7-8).

This feast isn’t simply the Passover as it existed under Moses or even in the first years of the first century. No, the Christian Passover is the celebration of Jesus as the sacrifice made for us. This feast is principally kept in our faith and holy living. By extension it is also kept in our preaching and worship. When we focus on the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, we can also say that it is a way that the Christian feast is kept, but it is kept in a specific way, by “showing forth’ the Lord’s death (1 Corinthians 11:26). When we show forth Christ’s death, the giving of his body and blood, we show the final fulfillment and substantial reality to which we believed the older Passover meals under Moses or David or the prophets always pointed us.

Christian rituals and worship services shouldn’t try to be Jewish. That would do a disservice to both religions and it would actually misunderstand them both.

For Jews, the understanding of Passover and Seder is very different. As Jacob Neusner explains, Passover instructs its practitioners who and what Israel is. In keeping it, it takes its celebrants back to the ancient Hebrew narrative of the Exodus. Those who live “here and now, are really living then and there.” The seder also connects the Exodus narrative with later Jewish eschatology. A cup is set out for Elijah, and it is believed that when he returns, he will judge the other nations who have opposed and oppressed the Jewish people. Jews do not want people to interpret Passover in a way that would relativize or spiritualize the notion of Israel as a nation being opposed by other nations in the “here and now.” And they do not believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the fulfillment of their messianic hope. Instead, they look for a messiah yet to come.

Christians and Jews both claim the ancient Hebrew feast of the Passover, and both also give it a meaning based upon later events. But those later events are very different events, and they provide for very different meanings. Jewish practices retain the particular national character of the feast, whereas Christians make a more universal claim, using the older history to point beyond that older history to a spiritual fulfillment.

Christians also do not have a Biblical link between the Passover found in the Torah and a supposed future return of Elijah. This seems to be a Jewish liturgical concept which, while possibly beginning to form in the first century, did not fully development until the centuries after the definitive parting of the ways between Judaism and Christianity. And in fact, Christians have a different doctrine of Elijah’s “return.” Jesus instructs us that John the Baptist is Elijah: “He is Elijah who is to come” (Matthew 11:14). Christians believe that Elijah did indeed come back, but under the prophetic form of John the Baptist. John pointed onwards to Jesus, and it is Jesus to whom we now look to “come again to judge the living and the dead.” We do not view this in national terms, at least not as any sort of earthly or temporal nation.

This different understanding of history and theology accounts for the changes in ritual that developed in the first several centuries. This is why Easter and the Lord’s Supper are not simply Passover meals.

A study of the ancient Hebrew roots of Christianity can be a great way to recover those aspects of the New Testament that have been overlooked or obscured over the years. And a better understanding of Judaism today is a great way for Christians to show respect to their Jewish neighbors. But Christian rituals and worship services shouldn’t try to be Jewish. That would do a disservice to both religions and it would actually misunderstand them both. For Christians, to turn Easter into Passover is to get things exactly backwards.

Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the rector of Christ Church Anglican in South Bend, Ind. He has written for Desiring God Ministries, the Gospel Coalition, the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and Mere Orthodoxy and served as a founding board member of the Davenant Institute. Steven is married and has three children.

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