Thursday, three nights after Jewish families began celebrating Passover, some Christians in the Washington area will be observing their own Passover meals to coincide with Holy Thursday.
The Christians will read the Haggadah, the book telling the story of the ancient liberation of the Hebrews from bondage in Egypt, during their seders, or Passover meals. They will use the traditional Passover foods symbolizing the exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt.
But they will be thinking of Passover in another way as well: Christianity's special links to it.
The new Christian look at the Jewish Passover is part of an increased Christian-Jewish dialogue in recent years, part of that focusing on the Jewishness of Jesus and Christianity's roots in Judaism. The dialogue also has worked to combat anti-Semitism.
Jesus' last meal with his Apostles, commemorated during Holy Thursday observances, is believed to have been a Passover meal. It was then, as described in the Gospels, that he began what is now called Holy Communion, or the Eucharist, the central focus of many Christian services.
"He took the matzo unleavened bread and said, 'This is my body, broken for you,' and he took the cup of wine, and said, 'This is my blood, shed for you.' It's important that the Christian community understand the roots of Holy Communion," said the Rev. Darlene Tittle, director of religious education at All Saints Episcopal Church in Chevy Chase. All Saints is one of several area churches that will hold a Passover seder Thursday night.
The symbolism of Passover and Christianity also is related. As described in the book of Exodus, God told the Hebrews to slay a lamb and place its blood over their doors to keep them safe from the angel of death. Death "passed over" these households as it killed the first born of the Egyptians in the last of the plagues sent by God to force the Pharoah to free the Hebrews.
The Christian reference to Jesus as the "paschal lamb" is a related image. "Paschal" is a Hebrew reference to Passover. Calling Jesus paschal lamb relates Jesus to the lamb slaughtered to free the ancient Jews, said Tittle. For Christians, "Christ is the fulfillment of God's deliverance, the deliverance from sin and death," she said.
"What happened was that the early Christians, who were of course Jewish, interpreted the Christ event in terms of Jewish liturgy, so they would see Jesus as the paschal lamb, the Passover lamb," said Dr. Eugene Fisher, executive secretary of Catholic--Jewish relations with the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.
"There is an interest in knowing what a seder is," the Rev. James Snight, associate pastor of Blessed Sacrament Roman Catholic Church in Northwest Washington, said of his congregation, which held a Passover seder last Thursday.
The Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith (ADL) is sponsoring an interfaith seder Thursday for area Protestant and Catholic religious leaders, immediately after a Holy Thursday service at St. Matthew's Cathedral.
"In years gone by, many of the anti-Semitic activities in Europe went on during Holy Week," said Edward Leavy, executive director of the Washington area ADL. "It's very important that we show the Jewishness of Jesus."