A Past Passover in the Present
“They are to eat the lamb, together with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.”
Numbers ch 9 vs 11
A couple of weeks ago I set up a tableau of a 1st century Seder. I wanted it to look as if Jesus had just shared the last supper – a celebration of the Passover – with his disciples and then gone out. Any authenticity about the table was undermined by the various labels and speech bubbles littering the props, but my intention was to give a sense of the meal that had taken place in terms of the food and the conversation.
As admitted before, I am not sure how much of the Seder as the internet describes it was current in the tradition of Jerusalem during the life of Jesus. Also, I have not been to a Seder since I was about fifteen, and on a school trip with my R.E class, and I am sketchy on how the food would actually look today. This is just my best guess, so please bear with me.
The first picture here is supposed to be a representation of charoses – a mixture of nuts, apples, cinnamon and wine. This dish is supposed to remind the participants of the mortar used in slavery in Egypt in their building work.
The leaf is Romaine lettuce and in the dish is some horseradish. These are bitter herbs which are a reminer of the bitterness of slavery.
Here is a picture of parsley and salted water. My understanding is that these herbs would be dipped in the water and the resulting drops would remind the participants of the tears of the slaves.
The dipping in the bowl is mentioned at the Last Supper:
And while they were eating, he said, I tell you the truth, one of you will betray me.
22 They were very sad and began to say to him one after the other, Surely not I, Lord?
23 Jesus replied, The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me.
24 The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.
25 Then Judas, the one who would betray him, said, Surely not I, Rabbi? Jesus answered, Yes, it is you.
On this Seder plate I put the egg, and my representation of the lamb shank. Now, the egg shouldn’t be here! From my internet reading, the roasted egg is supposed to symbolise or replace a temple offering. This was brought in after the destruction of the temple in CE73. Although, I don’t know, maybe it was done in exile? However, I am having to live with my anachronisms! So, the egg is in mourning for the loss of the temple and apparently is not a formal part of the Seder.
Even so, from a Christian perspective, the image of the destruction of the temple was used by Jesus in his discussion in the temple when he caused a stir there just before a Passover:
When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market! His disciples remembered that it is written: Zeal for your house will consume me. Then the Jews demanded of him, What miraculous sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this? Jesus answered them, Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days. The Jews replied, It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days? But the temple he had spoken of was his body.
John Chapter 2 vs 13-21
Speaking of which, this is where the Passover, for the disciples, took a turn. If the disciples had been following the Seder as carried out today, during the meal, the middle Matzoh would have been taken away from the table, wrapped and hidden, to be brought back to the table for dessert. This was the afikomen – unleavened bread to be shared out.
It would make sense to me if this was the broken piece that Jesus picked up and broke when he instituted communion with the words “This is my body”. You can see, with hindsight, how this would have perhaps given the early Christians a double layer of significance – once the death and resurrection occurred. His body was broken, wrapped, hidden and returned.
The second item left at the end of the Seder is the Cup of Elijah. Elijah is associated with the covenant of circumscision. I am not quite sure why, but that appears to be the case. Elijah’s other role was to do with heralding the Messiah, which is why people asked John the Baptist if he was Elijah. During the seder, the door is opened, to welcome Elijah, to see if he will come and drink his cup of wine at the table and therefore announce the messiah. I imagine that the opening of the door is a bit of an exciting moment for children at a Seder, wondering if anything will happen.
What a surprise for the disciples, then, when Jesus lifts the cup and announces the “new covenant” in his blood, and claims the wine in the cup as his own blood. Again, when the disciples would have hindsight, they would see more layers of meaning in Jesus’s re-interpretation of the end of the Seder.
So, that was the end of my 1st century Seder, turned Last Supper. It is not often that I think of Communion in terms of the Passover, but it certainly makes me think when I do. The whole idea of the Passover meal was to commemorate the Exodus – where the blood of a lamb was used to mark the doorposts of the homes where no one was to die. They were going from slavery to freedom. In the Easter story, the same thing happens. A lamb, in this case Jesus, is sacrificed.
Jesus’ treatment of the afikomen and the Cup of Elijah became “The Lord’s Supper” for people who thought that Jesus was indeed the Messiah. Both the Passover meal and the Lord’s supper still happen today so that people can remember how they found freedom.