Thursday, April 4, 2013

A Protestant Unintentionally Explains the Mass

Who I am, spiritually, is just droplets of the great faith and love for God that I've always seen and admired in both my parents.

The whole Catholic bomb could have really shaken up our family unity, but much credit's due to my parents' ability to hear me out, know my heart, and support whatever road leads me to Jesus.

Typical Catholic altar proclaiming Christ crucified, celebrating Christ resurrected [Picture Source]
So during Holy Week (the week before Easter for our non-liturgical Protestant friends among us), my mom offered to watch my kids while I joined my dad at a Seder meal, hosted by the Presbyterian church they're attending. Always fascinated by our Jewish roots, and loving the opportunity to share common ground with my dad, in our common faith, I was in.

Steven Ger, Director of Sojourner Ministries, hosts Seder meals to help Christians experience the Jewish Passover meal as Jesus would have observed it at The Last Supper on the evening before his crucifixion and death.

I knew attending this pop-Christian experience of the traditional Jewish Seder meal would be fascinating, but given that it was hosted by a "fundamentalist" theologian at a Presbyterian church, I wasn't expecting something so, well, Catholic.

Tell me if I'm crazy here (nicely, in the combox), but the whole time Steven was leading us through this Last Supper experience, I kept nearly falling out of my chair at one reference after another to the Mass, and I just can't get over how a Protestant can explain the Mass so beautifully and unintentionally. 

At this point, Catholics are probably shaking their heads asking, "Come on, Charlene. Surely you've heard the Mass culminates in Communion, instituted at the Last Supper?" 

Well, yeah, of course. But this was a PROTESTANT describing the MASS and not even realizing it! I couldn't take it. I wanted to jump up and down and shout, "THIS is a Seder Meal? We do this every week! We do this every DAY! Come with me, and you can see it!!"

Nonetheless, I'm seated right by the podium, and Steven is on a roll with a captive audience, so I briskly scrawl notes from his wealth of knowledge and keep my "Amen's" to a polite Southern Baptist murmur.
[Picture Source]
The Seder begins with a matriarch of the church lighting two candles on a small table set beside the podium. We see in this the symbolism that the Light of the World came into our world through a woman. 


Seder literally means "order" in Hebrew. It's a Jewish ritual of prayer, readings, and eating the Passover lamb. Let me do a quick break-down of the Mass for anyone that's not familiar with it: prayer, scripture readings, and eating the Passover Lamb.

As he introduces the Passover, a 3500-year-old Jewish tradition, Steven laments how Christians have lost their sense of ritual, only celebrating Christmas, Easter, and Mother's Day. I laugh, remembering the much ado over Mother's Day at the First Baptist Church of my childhood, a monopoly of winners each year and an undercurrent of fierce maternal competition. 

In his dismissal of Christians' ability to celebrate religious holidays, however, Steven overlooks a 2000-year history of our liturgical calendar. It's only in the last few hundred years that many Christians stopped celebrating solemnities and feast days and the many seasons of a year that call us to remember our God and our salvation, culminating not in Christmas, Easter, or Mother's Day, but in the Feast of Christ the King, looking to our hope of a New Jerusalem when every tear will be wiped away and death will be no more.


Steven Ger, speaking at the podium, with the Seder meal set up beside him.
Just as I dismiss the similarities between the altar at Mass and the little table with white linen table cloth and lit tapered candles that Steven has set up, he begins with the opening prayer of the Seder meal: "Blessed are you O God, King of the Universe..." And I nearly fall out of my chair. 

We pray that prayer! All the freakin' time! (Can I say that -- "freakin'" -- in reference to the Mass?) Seriously though, that traditional Jewish prayer from the Passover, it's in every Mass, several times. 

Moving on, Steven explains that the Seder meal includes four glasses of wine (though in reverent Protestant fashion, we stuck to Welch's finest), based on the promises of God in Exodus 6, verses 6-8. He lifts a chalice of wine and begins, "Blessed are you, O Lord, creator of the fruit of the vine..." 

I can't help myself. At this point I'm going nuts. Our priest says that! At every Mass! We pray these same prayers!

I get over it, sip the wine, jot down more notes, and keep listening. 

At every Seder, there's a bag of 3 compartments, and a piece of matzah bread is placed into each pocket. The matzah in the first and third compartments are bypassed, but the bread in the middle is broken in two, half is placed back in the pocket, and the other half is hidden in a linen napkin, to be found later during the meal and eaten as a symbolic dessert, the last morsel of food tasted. To Steven, this is a foreshadowing of the revelation of God as a Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Second Person of the Trinity, Jesus, is broken, buried (hidden), and then resurrected (found).

Matzah Bread
After hiding the matzah, Steven emphasizes the meal cannot begin without retelling the Passover story, and he begins the Genesis account. As I hear the familiar story, my mind drifts to the scriptures read at Mass, traditionally beginning with the Old Testament, then the Psalms, the New Testament, and culminating in the Gospel, each day.

Steven shares with us that every Jewish person at Seder believes they were personally redeemed from slavery at the first Passover 3500 years ago. He draws us to ponder, do we as Christians, truly believe we were personally redeemed at Christ's death and resurrection? When we participate in Communion today, are we present to Christ's sacrifice, once and for all, 2000 years ago?

As the Seder explanation continues, Steven picks up a bone from the table, and explains that animal sacrifices ceased in 70 AD, when the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. Without the temple, there can't be a sacrifice, and so, on each Seder table is placed the shank bone of a lamb as a memorial of the whole lamb. He leads us to reflect on John the Baptist's words at Jesus' baptism: "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world."

And my mind drifts back to the liturgy of the Mass, where "Lamb of God" is proclaimed over and over and over:"Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us," echoing the heavenly worship described in the book of Revelation, which refers to Jesus as the Lamb of God 28 times.

It's important to Steven that we understand how Jesus' words in scripture are part of the Seder meal: "When supper had ended, Jesus took the bread." Steven explains that this would be the second piece of matzah that had been broken and hidden at the beginning of the meal. We begin to see its fulfillment as a pre-figuring of Christ. 

Before Steven begins to repeat the blessing that Jesus would have offered, I anticipate his words, recognizing now that the familiar prayers of Mass are an echo of this ancient rite: "Blessed are you O Lord who brings forth bread of the earth," into the familiar words of the consecration. "Take this all of you, and eat. This is my Body, which will be given up for you."

An expert storyteller, Steven calls us to remember Jesus' humble birthplace in Bethlehem, and reveals the Hebrew translation as bĂȘth lehem, "House of Bread." We see our Savior is the Bread of Life. 

Steven lifts the third chalice of wine, "This is my blood of the new covenant, poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins." And it's all so familiar, but so new. 

Father Kyle preparing Communion at our wedding
We end the Seder meal with a toast, both the traditional toast for the hope of a restored temple, and a new toast for the hope of an eternal restoration in God's presence: "Next year in Jerusalem!" and "Next year in New Jerusalem!"

1 comment:

  1. How interesting! David played cello for a local mega-church this Easter. I asked him about the services and he said that the Pastor would make a great Deacon. His sermon was almost "Catholic" and he even quoted St. Augustine. Are we witnessing a Protestant push to include more "Tradition"?

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