WASHINGTON — As often happens, Passover, the Jewish feast commemorating the liberation of ancestors from slavery in Egypt, and Easter, observing the resurrection of the crucified Jesus of Nazareth, coincide this year. Passover began the evening of April 14 and ends the evening of April 22. Easter Sunday is April 20.
But does that mean Christians should incorporate a Passover Seder, a ceremonial meal that commemorates the Exodus with specific foods and texts? And should they connect that event with the Last Supper observed by Jesus and his disciples, as the Gospel accounts record?
The question of what constitutes Jewish and Christian practice has shifted in recent years. Many Christians want to connect with the "Hebraic roots" of their faith, carrying Bible versions that use Hebrew names for Jesus and his followers and buying Jewish-themed worship music recordings. Some Christians even wear a tallit, the traditional prayer shawl, in church.
And while 60 percent of American Jews, according to a 2013 Pew Research Religion & Public Life survey, say believing Jesus is the Messiah puts one outside of Judaism's ranks, a record 34 percent of the American Jews surveyed affirmed one could hold such a belief and still be considered Jewish.
An estimated 3,000 churches, mainly Protestant congregations, participate in a "Christ in the Passover" presentation annually, given by missionaries connected with Jews for Jesus, a 40-year-old evangelical outreach. Many other Christians believe that observing the Passover connects them with the roots of a faith whose founder was a Jew and whose disciples were almost exclusively Jewish.
A Seder-free zone
But one Christian writer stood athwart the ceremonial border crossing this week, yelling, "Stop." Rebecca Cynamon-Murphy, a member of a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregation in Glen Elyn, Ill., penned a widely read item for the Religion Dispatches blog arguing "Why Christians Should Not Host Their Own Passover Seders," citing the sotto-voce requests from friends who knew Cynamon-Murphy's husband is Jewish. She believes something is amiss when Christians mimic a Jewish practice.
"I don't think that we become the people God wants us to be when we are not authentic to ourselves and the environment that we come from," Cynamon-Murphy said in a telephone interview from the East Coast where she celebrated Passover with her husband's family.
"In the core of it, that's what's wrong with it. It's trying to be something we are (not)," she added. "It's offensive when we do it to those we're trying to be or mimic, whose experience we're playing pretend with, play-acting with. I think it's offensive and we really don't learn that much."
Cynamon-Murphy said her unease came from "actual individual people talking to me about it. Thought it through out loud with people. How uncomfortable with it made me, because the friends and relatives I have that are Jewish are uncomfortable with it."
But not every one of Cynamon-Murphy's Jewish friends are, apparently, "uncomfortable" with the concept. Rabbi Evan Moffic of Congregation Solel in Highland Park, Ill., officiated at Cynamon-Murphy's 2009 wedding and responded to her with his own Religion Dispatches blog, favoring the idea of a "Christian Passover."
Speaking with the Deseret News, Moffic said, "I'm more grateful for the fact that many Christians find meaning in a Jewish ritual. That's something to be thankful for. Most Christians approach it as an opportunity to experience a ritual that Jesus experienced in one form or another. It's experiential learning at its best."
Moffic even allowed for the practices of so-called "Messianic Jews," or Jewish believers in Jesus, who use the Seder to evangelize: "That is a perfectly legitimate point of view for people of a different religion, and they're welcome to engage in a Seder from their point of view. I'm not interested in regulating their beliefs. We live in a pluralistic world."
However, Moffic said, "I really think the best kind of Christian Seders are (held by) those who consult with a rabbi or knowledgeable Jewish person." He's even written a book for Abingdon Press, "What Every Christian Should Know About Passover," due out in early 2015.
'Foretaste of redemption'
Susan Perlman is Jews for Jesus' director of communications, and for her, April is a busy month. She spoke with a reporter by phone from a stop in Washington state on a 14-day trip involving 20 "Christ in the Passover" presentations along with radio interviews about the topic. Perlman, born and raised in a Jewish family, believes her faith in Jesus adds depth to her Passover observance.
"As a Jew, I celebrated Passover in the traditional way for the first 20 years of my life," Perlman explained. "When I came to faith in Jesus, I was able to recognize that the Passover events that we as Jewish people commemorate, were a foretaste of a greater redemption that God has for all humanity, Jew and Gentile."
A typical "Christ in the Passover" presentation, she explained, links elements of the Jewish Seder with teachings about the life and work of Jesus, beginning with a cloth bag of three chambers holding separate pieces of unleavened bread, known as .
The bag, she explained, is called a "Matzo tosh, a three-compartment pouch the Rabbis call a unity. Each compartment containing a wafer of unleavened bread (they say represents the) priest, Levites, and congregation of Israel, or the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, Jacob," Perlman said. "We point out it represents the trinity, Father, Son, Holy Spirit. Middle (matzo) wafer is removed, broken, wrapped in white linen and brought back later in the service — middle wafer representing middle person of trinity, Jesus, who was broken (in death) and was buried and resurrected."
She said the wine Jesus shared also had a link to Passover traditions, where four cups of wine are sipped: "From the way it is written in Luke 22, the third of four cups (which Jesus offered the disciples is the) cup of redemption, the 'new covenant written in my blood.' We see those elements pointing to Jesus."
When reminded that during two millennia of anti-Semitism, Jews were often tarred with the "blood libel" — the untrue accusation that gentile children's blood had to be used to make unleavened bread — Perlman said, "I think that it really is quite astounding" that so many Christians today want to celebrate the Passover, and find a salvation message in its elements.
But Cynamon-Murphy eschews even a need for non-gentiles to find faith in Jesus: "I don't believe in the substitutional atonement; it's not part of my definition of a Savior," she said. "Presbyterians are comfortable that the Jewish people are right with God," she added, noting, "In our marriage, each of us is comfortable that the other is right with God. We don't worry about the other's salvation."