In recent years, one of the more popular Lenten practices of Catholics has become to participate in Seder Meals. Their popularity is driven mostly by a desire to express a solidarity with the Jewish people and to understand the Jewish roots of our Faith. While it may seem harmless to participate in them, there are some serious reasons why Catholics might want to avoid them all together.
In an age where the morality of a given act is mainly subject to our intention, it is important to begin any discussion on whether Catholics should participate in Seder Meals with a fundamental principle. St. Thomas puts the principle this way—“external worship should be in proportion to the internal worship” (ST I-II q.103, a.3). What the Angelic Doctor means by this is that our external acts of worship must always reflect our internal beliefs. If our act of worship does not reflect our internal beliefs then we are guilty of superstition, that is giving worship to God in, what St. Thomas calls, an “undue mode” or in giving worship to a false god.
Trapped in a dualistic mindset, many of us would think that our external acts are just that—external—and there is no harm done if you do not really mean them. But intuitively we all seem to think otherwise, especially when we reflect on the witness of the Martyrs. Many martyrs refused to offer a pinch of incense to the pagan gods because they knew this would be an act of worship, even if they may not have believed in what they were doing. Likewise there are those who have been tempted to desecrate an image of Christ in order to avoid martyrdom. All too often the tempters would simply say, “It’s just an image. All that matters to you is what you believe.” Those who desecrated the image were considered apostates regardless of what they may have believed. Not having our exterior acts reflecting our interior beliefs is a form of lying.
The Seder Meal and What it Means to Participate
Returning to the topic at hand, namely Seder Meals, it is without a doubt a religious act. Many of these are sponsored by different Jewish Synagogues or, when done “do it yourself” follow the existing Seder liturgy. A Seder Meal is one of the primary means by which the Jewish people hand on their faith. It also reflects an act in faith in the coming of the Messiah.
For a Christian, that is, one who has faith that the Messiah has come, to participate in a Seder Meal is a false declaration of faith. It is, as St. Thomas said, an act of worship of God in an “undue mode.” While our faith in the Christ with the Jewish people may be the same, that faith must be expressed in different ways. The Jews reflect the faith of Abraham, that is the Messiah to come, through circumcision. The Christian expresses his faith in the Messiah who has come when they share in His life and death in Baptism.
St. Thomas says that all of the legal ceremonies of the Old Law, including the Passover meal, have passed away because each found their fulfillment with the coming of Christ. Each of the ceremonies of the Old Law expressed the expectation of the coming Messiah, those of the New Law reflect His having already come. In the mind of Aquinas, to continue to participate in these ceremonies is a lie and constitutes, at least objectively speaking, a grave sin. Regardless of what one believes, by participating in a Seder Meal, the Christian is professing through his actions that Christ is yet to come.
The ceremonies of the Old Law were mere “shadows” (Col 2:17) of the Sacraments to come. The Seder is but a foreshadowing of the Mass. Why would one participate in shadow when the real thing is available? Catholics are already participating the True Seder Meal, the Mass.
What if I Just Want to Learn More About Our Roots?
What about those who only do so out of curiosity or as a learning exercise to help them better understand the Mass? Certainly their intentions do not change the fact that it is objectively wrong to participate, but still it may change their culpability. This approach is worth unpacking further for a different reason as well.
The problem with this approach is that it denies an important historical fact. Those who have studied the Passover meal that Our Lord celebrated with the Apostles are quick to point out that it differs from the first Passover as described in the Book of Exodus and not just because Our Lord added the elements of fulfillment. At the time of Our Lord only the Levitical priesthood existed and thus all sacrifices occurred within the Temple. What did not change however was that the Passover was not just a meal but also a sacrifice.
Once the Temple was destroyed, Judaism underwent a profound change. Prior to 70 AD, Judaism was much like Catholicism in that they had priests who lead the worship which was centered upon sacrifice. After 70 AD it became much like Protestantism in that the emphasis was placed on worship without sacrifice. Judaism today is not the same Judaism of Our Lord and the Apostles.
In short, the Seder Meal that Jesus participated in the first 32 years of His life is profoundly different from the Seder Meal as it is celebrated within Judaism today. The key element, the sacrifice of the Lamb, is missing. With the sacrificial character removed it now bears little resemblance to the Mass which retains its sacrificial meaning. A Seder Meal, as it is celebrated today, has little value for the Christian for learning the roots of the faith.
Certainly studying (without participating) the Seder Meal as it was during the time of Our Lord has value for us as Christians. Studying the type or the sign helps us to better understand the archetype or thing signified. Rather than spending your time organizing or attending a Seder Meal, you would be better off studying Dr. Brant Pitre’s Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist or listen to Scott Hahn’s Fourth Cup. Although there are more, I have found these two resources invaluable for deepening our understanding of the meaning of the Mass and its relation to the Jewish Passover Meal.