March 23, 2021 // Diocese

A Christian family Seder meal: Bring theology to the table

FORT WAYNE — For a number of years now, the Deacon Frederick and Lisa Everett 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.

The meal is an in-depth lesson in Christian theology: Readings from the Old and New Testament give participants a clear understanding of the sacred mystery of the Eucharist and its fulfillment of the promise of the old Covenant, and the meal sets the stage for the reality of Good Friday and the joy of Easter. 

A Christian Seder requires the same basic preparation and elements of the 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. The Everett’s 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 their family 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 their family, the Everetts have found that this tradition has not only deepened their appreciation and understanding of the Last Supper but has also strengthened their identity as a people closely related to Christians’ spiritual elder brothers — the Jews.

Preparation for the meal

According to Jewish tradition, the entire house including storage areas and other nonliving spaces should be meticulously cleaned to ensure that not even a crumb of leavened bread remains before the Seder meal. In the Everett’s Christian version, they basically sweep and clean the kitchen and eating area and leave the Roman Meal bread in the pantry. They 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.


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 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 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 ceremony of the cleaning of leaven 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 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 father then lifts his cup, the cup of sanctification, and explains that sanctification means to be set apart. He recalls how the Hebrews were physically freed by God to be His people and how Jesus fulfilled this covenant, freed all from sin and sanctifies with the gift of the Holy Spirit. Everyone drinks from his or her cup.

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 finishes by washing his hands.

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 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.

At this point, the youngest child who can read has a conversation around four questions that the child poses to the father.

Child: “Why is this night different from all other nights?”

Father: “Once our 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 flat.”

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 deliverance.”

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 fire 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!’”

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.

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 10th 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. The second cup is the cup of plagues.

“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 wonders.’”

The father explains that the egg is a reminder of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70. For Jews, especially, this is a bitter reality and a cause for mourning. Christians, however, 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 spiritual food. The egg is then dipped in the saltwater and eaten.

At this point, the ceremony pauses so that a favorite family meal of ordinary foods may be eaten.

The Greek word “afikomen,” 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 is the cup of redemption. The father 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 takes place during 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 Him. 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.

Information provided by Lisa Everett, deputy director of the Secretariat for Evangelization and Discipleship.

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