An Eastertide row over the similarity of a Christian service to the Passover Seder practiced by Jews had me scratching my head wondering what all the fuss was about.
The Church of England had prepared a guide for use at home (with pandemic restrictions in mind) on how to celebrate Maundy Thursday, which marks the beginning of the three-day Easter festival.
But, according to The Telegraph, they subsequently withdrew the guidance following criticism that it bore “striking similarities” to the Jewish order of service and apologised for the offence caused in having “appropriated” Jewish tradition.
All of which exposes the dreadful confusion that exists in Christendom as a whole, and in British churches in particular, over the link between Christianity and Judaism, which is why I have been writing much on the subject in recent weeks.
In the words of distinguished author and theologian Edith Schaeffer, ‘Christianity is Jewish’, which is the title of one of her books. The link is not partial, but total. The gospel we preach is entirely Jewish. And scholars are generally agreed that the Last Supper which Jesus celebrated with his disciples on the eve of his crucifixion was a Passover Seder.
Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, who died for the sins of all who put their trust in his redeeming blood, was crucified – appropriately and in perfect fulfilment of the Old Testament (i.e. Jewish) scriptures – during the Passover feast.
Whereas the Israelites in Egypt were freed from slavery through the blood of a sacrificed lamb marked on the lintels and doorframes of their homes, the cross of Christ became the door to eternal life for all who appropriated the blood that spilled from his nail-pierced hands and feet for their own salvation.
The confusion over all this dates back to the early Church Fathers who, for all their helpful insight, made the tragic decision to break away from the Hebraic roots of the faith and re-invent or ‘Christianise’ the Passover, divorcing it from the feast still marked by Jews today.
It was a blatant act of antisemitism and has inflicted untold damage to Jewish-Christian relations ever since.
Messianic Jews – those, like the first disciples, who do believe in Jesus – still celebrate Passover as their ancestors have done, only it’s extra-special because they are not only rejoicing over their freedom from slavery in Egypt at the time of the Pharaohs, but also recognising that Jesus has rescued them from sin and darkness and brought them into the kingdom of light.
Of course there are “striking similarities” to the Jewish Seder. That is because Christianity has benefited entirely from its Jewish heritage. It’s time church leaders stopped apologising for this and relished the rich connection with our Hebraic roots.
The Apostle Paul berated the Gentile believers in Rome: “You do not support the root; the root supports you!” (Rom 11:18) And he warned that breaking away from these roots would rob them of the life-giving sap on which they depended for healthy growth. It was, after all, only by grace that they had been grafted into God’s family tree.
The original document which sparked this row admitted that it echoed motifs from the Jewish Seder, so I fail to understand why the Church of England backed off.
Rev Nick Nawrockyi, Rural Dean of Grimsby and Cleethorpes, said it was inappropriate because it was borrowing a ritual rite “from another faith”. But Christianity is the fulfilment of Judaism, as I’ve pointed out.
Jesus himself summed it up by saying: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.” (Matt 5:17)
Nick added, however, that the Prayer at Home guide tapped into “centuries of antisemitism on the part of Christians”. And I would not for a minute contest the fact that the institutional church has been responsible for persecuting Jews down the centuries.
But borrowing (or ‘stealing’ in the words of another priest quoted by The Telegraph) Jewish liturgy would surely amount to a compliment, not a jibe.
Part of the Church’s antisemitism over the years has been in expecting Jewish ‘converts’ to relinquish their Hebraic traditions and behave as Gentiles. But there is nothing in the New Testament to suggest that Jewish believers in Jesus should forsake their traditional feasts and culture.
On the contrary, the feasts are more appropriate than ever since they explain so much about what Jesus came to do. He is the fulfilment of Passover, as we’ve already seen, of the festival of first fruits through his resurrection from the dead, of Pentecost in pouring out his Spirit and writing his law on our hearts (Jer 31:33), and of Tabernacles by coming to live amongst us and providing us with everything we need for life.
It was in recognising this that the Church’s Ministry among Jewish people (ironically an Anglican body) launched its outreach to the Jews over 200 years ago. And the Messianic movement has since spread around the world, with Jews encouraged to remain Jewish while at the same time enjoying fellowship with Gentiles as part of the “one new man” spoken of by Paul (Eph 2:15).
Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, I’m heartened to see, did not find the prayer guidance offensive, and seems to have more of an understanding of our faith than most Christians. And I quote: “If they wanted to take Jewish liturgy out of Christianity, it is like taking the soul of Christianity. Easter is completely linked to Passover, which is why it changes date every year, and to deny the Jewishness of Jesus and of Christianity may indicate a discomfort with Judaism and not with Christianity.”
It was Jews who first brought us the gospel. And a Gideon’s Army of them have taken to the streets of modern Israel to complete the circle. They aren’t, as many of their critics suggest, following a new religion. They have merely re-discovered Jesus, their Messiah.
Charles Gardner is author of Israel the Chosen, available from Amazon; Peace in Jerusalem, available from olivepresspublisher.com; A Nation Reborn, available from Christian Publications International; and King of the Jews, also available from Christian Publications International.