Celebration of the Passover meal (Seder) is becoming increasingly common in Christian communities. Yet the practice is not without its detractors—within Christianity and Judaism alike.
What prompts this trend in some Christian circles? And is it Biblical—and culturally wise—for Christians to celebrate Passover?
For Christians, observance of Passover is neither required nor prohibited. Christians may celebrate Passover, but ought to weigh their reasons and the implications of doing so.
What is Passover
What we call Passover today is a combination of two separate but related feasts that were established after the Exodus:
The first feast on the Jewish calendar, Passover is observed on the 14th day of the month Nisan, and falls between late March and early April on the Gregorian calendar:
The Lord’s Passover begins at twilight on the fourteenth day of the first month.Leviticus 23:5
Passover commemorates the deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and the tenth plague, which brought death to all of the firstborn sons throughout Egypt. The angel of death passed over any house whose doorframe was covered by the blood of an unblemished lamb.
Unleavened Bread (Hag HaMatzot)
This weeklong feast immediately follows Passover and is observed from 15-21 Nisan:
On the fifteenth day of that month the Lord’s Festival of Unleavened Bread begins; for seven days you must eat bread made without yeast. On the first day hold a sacred assembly and do no regular work. For seven days present a food offering to the Lord. And on the seventh day hold a sacred assembly and do no regular work.Leviticus 23:6-8
During the festival week, the Israelites were instructed to eat bread made without yeast in remembrance of their hasty flight from Egypt during the Exodus.
Our focus today centers primarily on the Passover festival, which incorporates the Seder meal that is growing in popularity among Christians.
In the Old Testament, the Lord instituted seven feasts for the people of Israel to observe (Leviticus 23). Two other observances (Purim and Hanukkah) were added to the Hebrew calendar prior to the arrival of Jesus. So why has Passover alone gained so much Christian attention?
The simple answer is that Passover is inextricably related to Easter and to the observance of the Lord’s Supper.
The Christian Connection
The Feast of Unleavened Bread is one of three pilgrimage feasts when all Jewish men were required to appear before the Lord (Deuteronomy 16:16). During the first century, Jews traveled to the temple in Jerusalem to observe this feast (so they were also present in Jerusalem in time for Passover).
The influx of people into Jerusalem set the scene for Jesus’ triumphal entry a week prior to his crucifixion (Mark 11:1-10) and contributed to the already politically tense atmosphere between Judea and Rome.
Jesus and his disciples observed the Passover feast according to Jewish law and custom:
Then came the day of Unleavened Bread on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and make preparations for us to eat the Passover.”Luke 22:7-8
During the meal, Jesus instituted the sacrament of communion (the Lord’s Supper):
And he said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.”
After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, “Take this and divide it among you. For I tell you I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”
And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”
In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.Luke 22:15-20
That same night he would be arrested, and on the following day, he would be crucified.
The connection to Easter and the parallels between Jesus and the lambs sacrificed in Egypt are the reasons that Christians choose to celebrate Passover. Such celebrations serve to remind Christians of the Jewish roots of Christianity, the significance of the Old Testament to our faith, and the context of Jesus’ life, ministry, and death.
Why the Controversy?
The celebration of Passover by Christians is not universally embraced. Though most Christians recognize that the Bible permits such observances (Romans 14:5-6), some perceive it as a return to Mosaic Law that ought to be rejected (Galatians 4:8-11).
The New Testament seems to settle this controversy by acknowledging that festivals are permitted to Christians, but are not required:
Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.Colossians 2:16
So Christian observance of Passover today is done only out of celebration and never out of obligation. But the question of permissibility is not the only source of controversy in the Passover debate.
The Jewish Response
Just as some Christians reject the return to Old Testament laws and festivals, not all Jews are keen on Christians celebrating the uniquely Jewish Passover festival.
The first criticism is that Christians interpret the symbols of Passover through the lens of Jesus’ death, which compromises the celebration. Indeed, publications are readily available that incorporate New Testament teachings and facts about Jesus directly into the traditional Passover liturgy.
Of course, Jews who celebrate Passover are remembering the Exodus and not Jesus. Christians, by contrast, read the Old Testament as a book that looks ahead to the life and work of Jesus, and as a matter of faith will see Jesus in the Exodus story (and in other narratives throughout the Old Testament).
The second criticism is that Christians are appropriating and thus diminishing a celebration that is uniquely Jewish. This criticism is augmented by the centuries of mistreatment that Jews have suffered, particularly the atrocities of mid-twentieth-century Europe.
So to many Jews, particularly those who have experienced or been near persecution and suffering, the Christian celebration of Passover is perceived as an attempt to take something away from the Jews.
Can Christians Celebrate Passover with a Clear Conscience?
The painful history between Jews and Christians cannot—and should not—be ignored. As Christians, we ought to be mindful of these wounds and seek to build peace with our Jewish neighbors.
How this relates to Passover is a matter of conviction and conscience. So, our reasons for celebrating Passover matter. If our objective is to simply follow the latest church trend, without understanding history—both ancient and recent—we will ultimately trivialize our celebration and damage our relationships with our Jewish neighbors.
But if our objective is to more fully understand the Jewish roots of Christianity and the magnitude of both the Exodus and Jesus’ sacrifice, then celebrating the Passover can be a beneficial and enriching experience for Christians.