Bring Theology to the Table
One of my children’s favorite meals of the year is also their most in-depth lesson in Christian theology. Years ago I discovered this beautiful Christian Seder meal adaptation by the husband and wife team of Directors of Family Life in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Fred and Lisa Everett. They masterfully intertwined readings from the Old and New Testament to give children and adults alike a clear understanding of the sacred mystery of the Eucharist and its fulfillment of the promise of the Old Covenant. Their script lays out a user friendly guide to making the Jewish Passover meal accessible to those interested in celebrating its significance to Holy Thursday. All senses are engaged throughout the celebration, inviting partakers young and old a role in the ceremonial supper. From the candle lighting, reading, listening, tasting, feet washing, and even a game at the end for small children, this is a meal families will remember and look forward to year after year. But most importantly, the sacred readings and prayers set the stage for the somber reality of Good Friday, as well as the joy of Easter. If you have never celebrated Holy Thursday as a family, here is a beautifully meaningful beginning.
Everett’s Christian Seder
For a number of years now, our family has enjoyed the tradition of celebrating a Christian
seder meal on Holy Thursday. A seder meal, of course, is a Jewish tradition that was set out in the book of Exodus as a means of remembering the original Passover when the Hebrews were finally freed from the clutches of Pharaoh.
A Christian seder takes the same basic preparation and elements of this Jewish meal and
ritual and modifies some of the parts in order to affirm how Jesus has fulfilled many of the
prayers, customs and symbols within the ritual. For example, the Jewish seder leaves an open seat at the table for the Prophet Elijah, the precursor of the Messiah, should he, in fact, return that very evening. Our Christian seder, on the other hand, affirms that John the Baptist has already played the role of Elijah in signaling the coming of the Messiah — Jesus of Nazareth. In our seder, a seat is left open for Jesus, should he, in fact, return that very evening.
The reason that a Christian seder is most appropriately celebrated on Holy Thursday is
that the Last Supper celebrated by Jesus and his disciples was almost certainly a seder meal. In our own family, we have found that this tradition has not only deepened our appreciation and understanding of the Last Supper, but has also strengthened our identity as a people closely related to our spiritual elder brothers — the Jews.
Preparation for the meal
According to Jewish tradition, the entire house including storage areas and other non-
living spaces should be meticulously cleaned to ensure that not even a crumb of leavened bread remains before the seder meal. In our Christian version, we basically sweep and clean the kitchen and eating area and leave the Roman Meal bread in the pantry. We set and decorate the table as for a formal occasion, including two candles.
The preparation of the Jewish seder meal is based on the directives given in Exodus 12
and involves eating roasted lamb, unleavened bread called matzo and bitter herbs — usually horseradish. Over the centuries, other items have been added such as parsley, a roasted egg, a mixture of apples, nuts and wine (or grape juice) called charoseth that symbolizes the mortar and bricks used during slavery in Egypt, dishes of salt water and a cup of wine (or grape juice) for each person.
Charoseth Recipe – makes about 3 cups
5 apples, peeled and finely chopped
2/3 cup almonds or walnuts, finely chopped
3 tablespoons sugar or to taste
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Grated rind of 1 lemon
Mix together and add a quarter cup of sweet red wine or grape juice
At each place setting, there should be two sprigs of parsley, a tablespoon of charoseth, a
cup for wine or juice, a dish of saltwater (which may be shared by a few), half a teaspoon of
horseradish and a quarter square of matzo (matzo crackers are available in most grocery stores in the section with Jewish food items). There is also an extra place setting left open for Jesus as a reminder of both his absence and his eventual return.
Near the father’s place setting, there should also be set the following each on a separate
plate: three whole squares of matzo are specially placed on top of each other, each separated by a napkin; an egg that has been boiled and then broiled until browned; and a lamb bone roasted with or without meat.
Finally, a pitcher of water and a basin are prepared. These are used by the father to both
wash his hands in a symbolic ritual of purification (as the priest does in Mass) and, in our
Christian seder, to wash the feet of all of the other family members as Jesus did. This symbolizes that the father’s authority in the family is one of service for the good of all its members.
The meal and the ritual
The seder meal consists of two parts. First come the ceremonial foods of matzo,
horseradish, charoseth and other items with a series of ritual questions and answers. This is followed by a favorite family meal of ordinary foods. A final ritual closes the evening.
The cleaning of leaven. The ceremony begins when a few crumbs of leavened bread are
dropped on the floor and the father sweeps them up as a symbol that the house is ready.
The lighting of the candles. The mother then lights the candles and recites the following
prayer: “Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who sanctifies us
by your Word and your Spirit. In your name we light these candles on the night
when we recall the passover supper which your Son, Our Lord Jesus, celebrated
with his disciples.”
The first cup — the cup of sanctification. The father then lifts his cup and explains that
sanctification means to be set apart and recalls how the Hebrews were physically freed by God to be his people and how Jesus fulfilled this covenant, freed us from sin and sanctified us with the gift of the Holy Spirit. Everyone drinks from his or her cup.
The washing of the feet and the hands. The father explains how Jesus washed the feet
of his disciples at the Last Supper. In Jesus’ time, this job would have been left to the lowest servant in the household. He goes on to wash the feet of those gathered around the table in imitation of Jesus. Bishops and pastors throughout the world perform this ancient ritual on this same evening at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. He then finishes by washing his hands.
The dipping of the parsley. The father invites everyone to dip a sprig of parsley into a
dish of saltwater and to eat a bite of it in order to remember the bitterness and tears of slavery and the water of the Red Sea in which Pharoah’s army was drowned.
The breaking of the middle matzo. The father takes the middle square of the matzos on
the plate breaks it in half, puts one half back and hides the other half anywhere he wants in the house while everyone keeps their eyes closed. The children will look for it later.
The four questions. At this point the youngest child who can read has a conversation
around four questions which the child poses to the father.
Child: “Why is this night different from all other nights?”
Father: “Once are elder brothers were slaves in Egypt, but now they are free.
On this night, our brother Jesus gave us his body and blood as a gift so that we
would be free from our sins and be able to live as sons and daughters of God.
Child: On other nights we eat regular bread. On this night why do we
eat only matzo?
Father: Matzo reminds us that when the Hebrews left Egypt, they were in
such a hurry that they didn’t have time to let their dough rise. Instead, they baked it
Child: On other nights we eat all kinds of vegetables. On this night why
do we eat only bitter ones?
Father: The bitterness of the parsley reminds us of the bitterness of both
physical and spiritual slavery.
Child: On all other nights we don’t dip our vegetables even once. On
this night why do we dip them?
Father: The saltwater reminds us of the tears of slavery and of our
The story of Passover.
The father explains that the story of Passover is a story of
miracles, a story of redemption, a story of the mighty power of God to overcome evil. Readers may be used.
READER 1: The Lord had promised the land of Israel to Abraham, Isaac,
and Jacob. Yet here were their children in Egypt. The Pharaoh who had come to
power feared them. These foreigners in our midst are prospering and have grown
numerous, he thought. Suppose they join with our enemies and turn against us!
Pharaoh decided to exert greater control over this people, imposing harsh and bitter
slavery upon the Israelites. Still, God blessed His people in strength and number.
READER 2: Pharaoh grew more frightened and ordered every baby boy
among the Israelites to be drowned in the Nile River. One Israelite couple hid their
little boy for three months. Finally, entrusting his future to God, they set him in a
basket and placed him upon the river. His sister, Miriam, watched as he floated
downstream. Coming upon the basket, Pharaoh’s daughter took pity on the child
and chose to raise him as her own son. She called him Moses, meaning “drawn
from the water.”
READER 3: Moses grew and became aware of the sufferings of his people.
One day, in a rage, he lost control of himself and killed an Egyptian who was
beating a Hebrew slave. Fleeing the palace and the eye of Pharaoh, Moses became
a shepherd in the land of Midian, far from the cries of his suffering brothers.
READER 4: The Lord, however, saw the affliction of the children of Israel
and heard their groaning. He would raise up a deliverer to lead them out of
bondage. It was then that He appeared to Moses in the midst of a bush that burned
with ?re, yet was not consumed. Moses drew close and listened as God
commissioned him to go to Pharaoh. Fearful and reluctant, still Moses agreed to
bring God’s message to the king of Egypt, “Let my people go!”
Eating the bitter herbs and the charoseth. Each person places horseradish on a matzo
and eats it, symbolizing the bitterness of slavery. Then, each person places charoseth on a matzo and eats it, symbolizing the mortar that was used with the bricks during the time of slavery.
The second cup — the cup of plagues — and the lamb bone.
FATHER: Moses went to Pharaoh with God’s command, “Let my people
go!” But God warned Moses that Pharaoh wouldn’t easily agree. The Lord sent
plagues — blood in their water, frogs everywhere, lice, wild animals, diseases in
their cattle, boils, hail, locusts everywhere, and darkness throughout the land —
but with each plague, Pharaoh refused and made his heart harder against God. With
the tenth and most awful plague — the death of all the firstborn of Egypt — God
broke through Pharaoh’s hard heart.
We fill our cups a second time now. A full cup is a sign of joy and we’re
certainly filled with joy that God has set us free — but we should also remember
how much that freedom cost. Many lives were lost to save our people from slavery
in Egypt — but an even greater price was paid to save us from slavery to sin: the
death of Jesus, God’s only Son.
This lamb bone stands for the lamb whose blood on the Israelite houses was
a sign to God. God told Moses, “The lamb must be perfect” and when it is killed,
“the people are to mark their door frames with some of the blood… They are to eat
the meat that night, along with bitter herbs and unleavened bread. Eat quickly, with
your coat ready, your shoes on your feet, and your walking stick in your hand. It is
the Lord’s Passover. The blood will show your obedience; when I see the blood, I
will pass over you and no plague will touch you when I punish Egypt.” (Ex.
12:3-13) We are reminded by Moses that it is the Lord Himself who redeemed our
elder brothers from slavery. “So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty
hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with miraculous signs and
Eating the egg. The father explains that the egg is a reminder of the destruction of the
Temple in Jerusalem in AD 70. For Jews, especially, this is a bitter reality and a cause for
mourning. For Christians, however, we see this as a sign that Jesus is a fulfillment of the
covenant and that Holy of Holies present in the original temple that contained the sacred bread has been replaced by the tabernacles of the world where the sacred bread from Heaven — Jesus himself — resides as our spiritual food. The egg is then dipped in the saltwater and eaten.
Eating the regular meal. At this point, the ceremony pauses so that a favorite family
meal of ordinary foods may be eaten.
Eating of the Afikomen. This Greek word loosely translated means, “after dinner.” At the
end of the regular meal, the children then search for the missing piece of matzo. Whoever finds it gets a small reward, like a coin or a piece of candy. The father then divides the matzo — called here the Afikomen — into pieces and distributes it.
FATHER: It was likely here that Jesus added the words: “This is my Body
given for you; do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). Jesus changed the
significance of the matzo forever, and gives us his body at every Mass. This
Afikomen, like the Eucharist, is broken in small pieces and everyone must eat their
own piece, just as each of us must accept Jesus’ grace for ourselves. No other
person can do it for us. Think about Jesus, the Lamb of God, whose body we are
privileged to truly receive in the Eucharist, our once, now and forever Passover
sacrifice. (All eat.)
The third cup — the cup of redemption. The father then takes the cup.
FATHER: It was likely here that Jesus added the words: “This cup that is
poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). Jesus changed the
significance of this cup forever and gives us his blood at every Mass. This third cup
is called the cup of redemption because we were bought out of slavery at a great
price — the blood of Our Lord and Savior, who will one day return in power and
glory. (All drink.)
Looking out for Jesus and the final cup — the cup of praise. Finally, the children look
out the door to see if there is any sign of Jesus’ return. The father asks if he is here. The children respond that there is no sign of it. The father responds, “Maybe next year.” A final cup is raised and a prayer said praising God, thanking him for his goodness and asking that Jesus may soon return. Everyone responds, “Come, Lord Jesus.” This Christian seder is now complete.