The Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed piece last week raising the question, “Is Passover the New Christmas?” The article’s author, Diane Cole, the book columnist for the Psychotherapy Networker, pointed out that more and more non-Jewish people are celebrating Passover. Partly due to the rise of interfaith marriages or the universality of the theme of liberation (which she interpreted only as the political variety), these celebratory meals, called Seders, centered around unleavened bread and four glasses of wine, are becoming more and more popular.
But the second half of the article took an ugly turn – at least, ugly to my Messianic Jewish sensibilities. Cole began to decry a “deceptive” practice that many churches embrace where they “present the Seder through a Christian lens.” She interpreted these actions as “turn[ing] a Jewish religious ritual into a Christian one.” She doubted (with sloppy support) the notion that Jesus’ last supper was a Passover meal and tried to say a Christianized Seder is illegitimate because “the Seder service was not set in the way we know it today.”
She then quoted liberal ministers who have ceased to participate in these Seders because “they make Jews invisible.”
Several responses must be made.
First, responding to Cole’s assertion that “scholars” support her thesis, I must ask how wide a field of “scholars” she consulted. Among conservative scholars, there is remarkable agreement that Jesus’ last supper was indeed a Passover Seder.
Second, it is indeed true that the Seder has evolved over time and how we celebrate it today is different than the way Jesus celebrated it (or, for that matter, the way it was celebrated before Jesus). In fact, Cole herself wrote of new Haggadahs (the books that guide participants through the Seders) being published all the time to accommodate to changing times and cultures. That’s exactly the point. The holiday keeps evolving to connect a fixed event – God’s saving work in Egypt – to an ever-changing world that needs to know this unchanging God and his ever-necessary salvation.
Jesus made some remarkable changes that night that both underscore all people’s connection to the first Passover, when a substitutionary lamb was slain as a kind of sacrifice for sins so that God would “pass over” the houses with the blood of the lamb on the outside. Jesus’ historic words that night also point to his own sacrificial death as a means for people to have God “pass over” their sins. The evolving Seder points backward and forward. The Messiah’s fulfilling what was foreshadowed in Egypt is exactly what Christians celebrate – not only at this time of year but every time they celebrate what they call “the Lord’s supper.”
Third, we must recognize and blow the whistle on the narrow-mindedness of those who claim to be open-minded. They want Passover to be celebrated by more and more people, whether they’re Jewish or not, but only if they’ll celebrate it in ways they deem acceptable. The intolerance of such “tolerance” rears its ugly head once again. You can celebrate Passover as an interfaith couple who deny core beliefs of both Christianity and Judaism but don’t you dare and interpret the Passover with Jesus’ death as the climax.
Fourth, the charge of “deception” is particularly insulting. It implies that we who “turn a Jewish religious ritual into a Christian one” actually know we are distorting it simply to trick others to believe something that no intelligent person should believe. It says we’re distorting the truth and we know that we are doing so.
But Messianic Jews and most evangelical Christians really do believe we’re interpreting the story of Passover exactly as God meant it to be interpreted – as a sign of a fuller, more redemptive sacrifice yet to come, through the words and work of God’s promised Messiah. We honestly believe Jesus of Nazareth was that Messiah and, as such, he had the authority to interpret the Passover event as something that pointed to him. You may disagree with our interpretations of Jesus’ words on that first century Seder night, but to call us deceptive is to display a kind of judgmentalism far worse than what you accuse us of. In other words, you may think we are deceived but we’re not deceptive.
Far from making Jews “invisible,” we believe that Passover, especially as it was fulfilled in the person, death, and resurrection of the Messiah, highlights God’s unique and truly amazing role of the Jewish people in his plan. He chose the Jewish people and he continues to call them back to him. He had a plan for every moment of their history to point forward to Messiah and he still has a plan for them to return to him in the days ahead. (See Romans 11:11-26, in case you’re tempted to believe that God has finished his work with the Jewish people). We should remember this every year when we celebrate Passover. And we should invite others, Jews and Gentiles, to join us.