On the Celebration of Passover: Some Liturgical and Calendrical Issues Addressed. Part One — General Observations

 

seasonal-calendar1

Jewish Calendar

In traditional Christianity the celebration of the passion, death and resurrection of Messiah Yeshua, although it is part of every celebration of our Lord’s Supper, finds its concentration in the yearly liturgical solemnities of the triduum paschale. “The term triduum paschale” as remarked by Wesley Scott Biddy, “refers to the three days — Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday — in which Christ instituted the Eucharist and underwent his passion and death, leading up to the resurrection of Easter Sunday”.[1]

In Messianic Judaism this traditional Christian scheme is generally not followed, although some leaders have no objection against it when Gentile Christians retain this Catholic liturgical pattern. Dr. David Stern writes in his Jewish New Testament Commentary:

During Holy Week, which memoralizes the last days of Yeshua’s life and his resurrection, Maundy Thursday commemorates the Last Supper, which was a Passover Seder; thus almost any Maundy Thursday ritual bears some relationship to that of Pesach. I have in my files about a dozen Christian Haggadahs (Passover liturgies); they display varying degrees of resemblance to the Jewish original. Whether their fidelity to the Jewish Haggadah is greater or less is of no religious significance. Whatever brings the Gentile Christian worshipper closer to God, or makes his behavior more godly, should be judged positively; the Jewishness of the ritual and ceremony is a matter of religious indifference.[2]

Many in the Messianic Jewish world, Jewish believers as well as Gentile Christians, who have rediscovered the lifestyle of the Torah,[3] would consider Sterns words as problematic. In particular those leaders and ministries who, with us, argue in favour of the “One Law” position will find that Stern’s words offer an excuse for “self-imposed worship” (Col 2:23, NIV). The “One Law” position states that G-d has to be worshipped according to the guidelines found in the Torah. This implies that Yeshua’s passion, death and resurrection should be celebrated by observing the calendrical season of Passover and the festival of the Unleavened Bread of Lev. 23 and the other commandments of the Torah that apply to this time of the liturgical year.

The Torah observant position thus causes huge changes in observance from the point of view of established Christian tradition. In messianic circles these changes are not always carefully studied in relation to the central position of the person of Yeshua. In their enthusiasm for the Torah many leaders of congregations have simply copied what they knew about the Jewish way of celebrating the Passover season, without duly considering both the halachic and spiritual consequences of such a change. This has led to peculiar and unequilibrious practices that don’t do justice to the great and impressive events we commemorate at this time.

To mention only a minor point, it is well known that in traditional Christianity the sobriety of the season of Lent is a preparation for the awe-inspiring solemnities of Holy Week leading up to the joy of the resurrection on Easter Sunday. Thus the great final events of Messiah’s life are made lively present within the framework of liturgical time. The question how this chain of events is exactly reflected in the Jewish calendar is often not addressed properly by Messianics. Instead, discussions about the calendar and the liturgical structure of the Passover season have helped to create an unnecessary atmosphere of confusion around the Passover celebrations that should be dealt with by a new effort to place all the aspects involved in their proper context. This study is intended to make a contribution to such a renewed effort of grasping the great riches that are given to us by HaShem in the celebration of this highly important season of the year that contains at its heart and centre the “night to be much observed” (Ex. 12:42, KJV).

In Messianic Judaism the debate about the celebration of Passover suffers a lot of confusion for a number of reasons. First, there is confusion about the biblical calendar in general, and a considerable number of Messianics seem to have the opinion that the biblical calendar is something very different from the current Jewish calendar, and that this current calendar lacks all scriptural legitimacy. Second, and more important, Messianics in general are not used to a lifestyle of liturgical observance. This is even true, it seems, for the majority of those Messianics who favour Torah observance. Due to the fact that many Messianics were raised in some form of evangelical Christianity they don’t have a developed “feeling” for proper liturgical observance, and are not used to think through questions of observance from a liturgical point of view.

The two divisive questions at present in the Messianic Community with regard to Passover season are mainly the following: 1) the question whether the Last Supper of Yeshua was a Passover Seder, and 2) the question from which day on the Omer should be counted. We have dealt with the second question in a series of articles on this blog. We hope to continue this series with some concluding articles on the historical developments in the Jewish calendar and the Omer count during and after the first century.

The present article opens a new series in which we’ll concentrate on the question whether the Last Supper was a Passover Seder. We intend to bring the solutions to the two questions together in a later stage of our examinations and introduce the liturgical viewpoint as an additional element of heuristic value. When our solutions to these questions results in a beautiful and sensible liturgical schedule of events and celebrations we’ll have gained confirmatory evidence that what we propose may be correct.

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[1] Wesley Scott Biddy, Towards an Ecumenical Understanding of the Eucharist: A Proposal for Pentecostals. A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Master of Theology degree, Duke Divinity School — Durham, North Carolina 2005, p. 30 (n. 50). Downloadable at: http://dukespace.lib.duke.edu/dspace/bitstream/10161/462/1/Wesley%20Scott%20Biddy,%20ThM%20thesis.pdf

 

[2] David Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary: A companion volume to the Jewish New Testament, Jewish New Testament Publications, Inc. — Clarksville, Maryland 1995 (1992), p. 558.

 

[3] Cf. Ariel and D’vorah Berkowitz, Torah Rediscovered: Challenging Centuries of Misinterpretation and Neglect, First Fruits of Zion — Littleton, Colorado 1996. This book contains a foreword by Dr. David Stern.

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