What holy day has more impact upon the Judeo-Christian World than Passover? It is a holy day that expresses the journey from slavery to redemption. The Jewish people observe Passover to remember what it was like to be enslaved and then freed by God, which led them to Sinai to receive the Torah. The holiday actually lasts eight days with the first, second and eighth days as official holy days, when we are asked to rejoice and refrain from work as if it were the Sabbath.
What everyone prepares for in this holiday is the Seder meal. That is the center point. Let us remember that the dietary laws of Judaism also come into play here because anything with yeast or any substance that causes food to rise like yeast is forbidden for the eight days. That is why Jews eat matzo or unleavened bread. The matzo reminds us that the ancient Israelites had to rush out of Egypt before they had the time to let the bread rise. That custom became law and formed the basis of the biblical feast of Unleavened Bread.
In biblical times, when the Holy Temple in Jerusalem existed, the law was for priests to conduct the sacrifices and the Pascal offering was eaten. It was the sacrificing and the eating of the Passover lamb that became the center point of the Seder (Order) experience. Only by examining the texts of the rabbinical literature can we ascertain what the Israelites practiced as their ritual before the Romans destroyed the temple in 70 C.E. Scholars debate the theories behind whether the biblical Jewish individual observed anything similar to the ritual or practice that Jews observed after the Roman destruction of the Holy Temple.
Most scholars are clear that the ritual called the Seder meal that we practice today developed and became canonized by the third century of the Common Era. By that time, the rabbis were the religious leaders of the Jewish communities. Their holy texts set in stone the future observance of Passover through the ages. They taught that Passover and Judaism itself would continue after the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. The rabbis eventually would transform the Passover practice from a biblical ritual from the Temple sacrificial altar into a home-based religious experience and ritual in order to preserve the key ideas of Passover. The creativity of the rabbis would be to find different ways to represent the exodus and its meaning for future generations who would no longer be able to depend upon the institution of the temple.
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Scholars to this day debate what the Passover Seder meal looked like in the first century of the Common Era, and they also debate the question of whether Jesus' last supper was, in fact, a Passover Seder, too. Obviously, many church groups observe this ritual and see one kind of redemption in the rite of the Seder that underlies the Christian Scriptures from the crucifixion to the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
The Seder is a re-enactment of Jewish history and an affirmation of Jewish theology at the same time. The redemption here is about freedom from Egyptian slavery. The binding force of this ritual and all the food (matzo, bitter herbs, etc.), customs, songs and stories told at the Seder meal, which extends back into history, forms a strong sense of community. That has sustained the Jewish people all over the world for almost 2,000 years. The food replaces the sacrificial offering and is used to narrate the story and teach the values of remembering that all Jewish people were once enslaved in Egypt. Embracing that history informs how we live our faith today.
At the end of the service, the Seder ritual welcomes the prophet Elijah into our homes. Jewish theology teaches that when Elijah comes, he will be the harbinger of the coming of the messiah. Every Seder table has a special wine cup for Elijah, and the children go to open the door and welcome Elijah into the house. Eventually, at the conclusion of the service, we sing a song that has been sung for thousands of years. The words "Next Year in Jerusalem," gave hope for many generations who would dream of returning to the land of Israel. Now, it is a dream come true with the advent of the state of Israel. But this famous phrase can be extended and symbolize for the Jewish people a hope that hatred will end and that people will learn to live together in peace. It is the redemption that embraces all of us in the here and now to fulfill the prophetic vision of Micah, which says, "Every man shall sit under his fig tree and none shall make him afraid." (4:4).