Christians finding roots of their faith in Passover

April 08, 1993|By Angela Winter Ney | Angela Winter Ney,Staff Writer

Episcopalians struggled with the unfamiliar syllables of "Lashanah Haba'ah bi Yerushalayim" ("Next Year in Jerusalem"). Presbyterians cautiously swallowed parsley dipped in salt water.

As Jewish people sat down to a Passover Seder meal earlier this week, so did a surprising number of Christians. In Annapolis, more than 100 attended a Seder at Eastport United Methodist Church.

Non-Jews celebrated the Jewish holiday, which recalls Israel's exodus from Egypt, as part of a growing movement within Christianity to re-examine the faith's Jewish roots.

They were aided by a Haggada -- the book containing the Seder ritual -- that had been expanded with commentary drawing parallels to Christian theology. And Christians like Carmela McClain were discovering matzo, and a wealth of meaningful symbolism.

"Jews wrote the Bible, and they're the roots of my faith," said the young African-American woman, as she ate a roasted egg Tuesday night during the Eastport service.

"The Seder is so rich, you learn so many things that deepen your faith," said Lee Bush, a member of a Full Gospel Assembly of God church in Calvert County.

As Mr. Bush sat down for the Annapolis Seder, he explained: "The prayers Jesus said at the Last Supper were the same prayers we'll say tonight. It was actually Jesus' last Seder. I don't think many Christians realize that."

In the past decade, churches have been spurred to awareness of their Jewish heritage in part by Jewish people who have converted to Christianity but retained their cultural traditions, says Barry Rubin, a self-described "Messianic Jew" who is director of a Baltimore organization that produces and rTC distributes Jewish materials to churches.

In Annapolis, such Messianic Jews helped prepare the Seder with a half-dozen participating churches.

"The truth is, you cannot understand the New Testament fully unless you understand it through Jewish eyes," says Mr. Rubin. "Christians need to realize that Christianity is Jewish at its core. It was written by Jews in Israel, not in Italy."

Certain Protestant groups historically have expressed particular interest in Israel, including some 17th-century sects that spoke Hebrew and embraced Jewish customs.

But the recent fascination is something new, with dozens of publications aimed at teaching Christians about Judaism. Christian bookstores now carry books such as "Christianity is Jewish" and "Restoring the Jewishness of the Gospel." Topics churches typically avoided, such as the church's treatment of Jewish people through the centuries, are now addressed bluntly in Christian books such as "Our Hands Are Stained with Blood."

Of course, the exploration of Judaism isn't all seriousness for Gentile novices. A group of Baptists this week had the help of "Passover Preparation Guides," filled with humorous admonitions for those who did not grow up Jewish.

Warned the pamphlet: "Matzah: This is a must; there is no substitute at Passover. Wonder bread will not do; Ritz Crackers will not do; for Passover, you must have matzah."

Explaining the brisket, or roasted beef, the guide notes: "If you're even thinking about a pork roast, forget it -- you've got the wrong holiday."

No pork or leaven was in sight. But from a Jewish perspective, the Christians in Annapolis didn't have the holiday quite right anyway, since they were celebrating it within the context of the Christian faith.

A key theme of the Seder is the paschal lamb, the blood sacrifice. Passover refers to the night Jews applied lamb's blood to their door posts and the Angel of Death "passed over" their homes, exempting their first-born sons from death. Christians interpret this symbol as having been fulfilled in Jesus, the "Lamb of God" offered for the sins of the world.

The traditional Haggada contains no references to the Messiah; however, the Messianic Haggada explains the symbols of the Seder from a Christian perspective.

For example, one Seder tradition involves a bag containing three pieces of matzo. One piece of matzo is broken, wrapped in a cloth and hidden, then brought back later during the Seder.

At this point in the meal, the Christianized Haggada quotes the Gospel of Luke: ". . . taking a piece of matzah, Yeshua [Jesus] made a b'rakha [blessing], broke it, gave it to his disciples and said, 'This is my body, which is being given for you.' "

Said the Rev. Margaret Wright, pastor of Woodland Beach Community Church in Edgewater: "This is one of the clearest pictures of Jesus, who was broken, wrapped in linen, buried and brought back to life."

The minister said her "heart's desire is to share with my church the Jewish roots and a fuller understanding of the Bible."

For Ms. Wright and other Christians, the ceremonial meal was emotionally moving. Some wept as they sang the traditional song of Eliyahu HaNavi (Elijah the Prophet), noting the empty chair ready for the prophet. In Jewish tradition Elijah is expected to accompany the Messiah. Christians believe the Messiah has already come -- but they also await a second coming.

Said Episcopalian Lee Witcher, attending with her husband Charles: "Of all the things we do during Holy Week, this means the most. Christians tend to remember [events] from the cross on. This goes back to the beginning of the story."

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