WARNING: THIS POST IS LONG.
The fact that I’d have to huff and puff up a steep incline to get to the church didn’t deter me at all. I was – and in many ways still am – on a journey to have a deeper understanding of my faith. Every opportunity I get to listen to a talk or watch a video about Catholicism is like gold to me. So, of course, I had to pounce at the opportunity to attend The Paschal Meal at St Margaret Mary’s Parish.
The name of the event does give you an idea of what it is all about, but I’ll explain it anyway. The purpose of the whole event was to provide an experience of the celebration of the traditional Jewish Pesach meal. As you may know (if you’re Christian) Jesus and his band of twelve were Jewish, practising all the Jewish customs. This means that the Christian religion has very deep roots in Judaism (shocker!). Thus, to understand Jesus’ actions and teachings, I find it important to study Jewish practices in relation to what Jesus taught. Seeing as I don’t have any Jewish friends (if you’re Jewish and you’re reading this, please be my friend?) this event was just about as close as I was ever going to get to a real Jewish experience.
We had a narrator/commentator guiding us through each step. We also had pamphlets to help us follow along and participate, and throughout this post, I will take some excerpts from it as well as highlight the Biblical references.
In the introduction, they explained the symbolism of the Passover. It’s essentially informal and must be eaten in a manner resembling that of people about to go on a very long journey. Our first reading came from Exodus 12: 1-8, where God gives Moses and his brother Aaron the very specific instructions on how they would prepare and eat the Passover. The pamphlet described this Passover meal as “a joyous but reverent…family affair”. The Last Supper that Jesus celebrated with the disciples was in many ways a Passover meal, and we would later come to understand the new dimension that He added to it.
For the devout Jewish family, the Passover…celebrates their passing from slavery into freedom through the waters of the Red Sea. For us Christians, the promise of salvation to come through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is clearly symbolised.
I noticed that on each table, there was a plate of herbs dipped in water, some boiled eggs, a brownish mesh of what I later found out to be a mixture of grated apples and nuts (known as haroses) and what looked like giant crackers (it was actually the unleavened bread, called Matzah). One lady – her name is Margo – at my table explained that each element was a symbol for something, which only added to my excitement. (I love symbolism, and there’s tons of it in my church. I didn’t understand most of it; I still don’t. But Judaism is awash with symbols and it only makes sense that Jesus would use it with the new church He was establishing.)
The feast starts on the evening of the 13th day of the month of Nisan (which falls around March-April in the Gregorian calendar) when the father of the house hunts down all the leavened bread in the house and burns it. Our second Bible reading of the night came from 1 Corinthians 5: 6 – 8 where St Paul warns about how a small amount of yeast leavens the dough, and so we should purge ourselves of the “yeast” of the world and make ourselves “unleavened”. We also read from the gospel according to Mark (8: 14-15) where Jesus warns against the “yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod”.
After this introductory rite came the lighting of the festive candles, a task carried out by the matriarch of the family. The candles were placed on a menorah, a kind of Jewish candle stand that holds seven or nine candles depending on the occasion and setting. Our menorah had nine candles – I later found out that the usage of a seven-lamp menorah outside a temple is prohibited (not sure how serious this law is though). This action is accompanied by a blessing said by the mother, “Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who sanctified us by your Commandments and commanded us to kindle the Festival Lights…” to which the rest of the congregation responds “Amen”.
The Blessing of the Feast
The next segment of the feast is called the Kiddush and is the blessing of the Feast done by the father of the house. He blesses the feast whilst holding a jug of wine. At the particular event I attended, we had several people playing these roles. After the father said the blessing, the wine was poured. Once everyone had a glass full, the father said another blessing: “Blessed are You, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who created the fruit of the vine.” And bottoms up! I’ll admit, this was my first full glass of wine. I had to sip through it as I was still getting accustomed to the taste. Margo, who I assumed was some kind of wine connoisseur, was thrilled at the choices we had for this event, exclaiming “My word! They got some really fancy wine for this.” Fortunately, I’d done some work that needed me to do some extensive wine research a few months prior to this, so I knew enough about wine to carry me through a decent conversation. (All the wines were red wines, we had Cabernet Sauvignon and a Merlot at our table).
According to Jewish customs, it is at this part the father then washes his hands to “recall the ceremonial washing that the priest undergoes before entering the temple”. This was probably the point in the meal where Jesus illustrated the true meaning of leadership by washing his disciples’ feet. We read from the gospel according to John (13:3 – 5, 14-15) where Jesus explains his actions to His disciples. The commentator then explained the symbolism of each element at our tables. The eggs symbolise new life, the “bitter” herbs dipped in salt water are a sign of slavery (the salt water is a sign of tears). The apple mixture is a symbol of mortar for building. The head table also had a lamb bone. This whole plate is known as the Seder plate. We were instructed to take the green herbs and dip them twice in the salt water, then wait for the “father” to say the blessing before we ate them. Once we were done with the herbs – some had to wash down the taste with gulps of wine – the commentator explained that the three pieces of unleavened bread represent the three divisions of Israel: the priest, the Levites and the people. In the case of Christianity, the bread interestingly symbolises the Trinity. The father took the middle piece, broke it, wrapped it in cloth and buried it. I found this gesture to somewhat resemble how Jesus was sacrificed at the cross and buried in cloth. The father said a few words about the bread, then we ate it. As expected, it had a very bland taste; I salted mine to add some flavour. (Don’t look at me like that, everybody added some salt to it. Others even put pepper.)
The Cup of Instruction
The second glass of wine, known as the Cup of Instruction (part of the Haggadah or Telling) is poured. I was nowhere near finishing my first cup so I needed no refill. This is the part when the child asks the father why they are doing all this. The child asks questions such as, “What is the meaning of Matzah?”, “What is the haroses?” and “What is Pesach?” The father patiently answers all these questions, then everyone eats the eggs, haroses and more matzah. We read the story of how Pharaoh, being irritated by the constant request from Moses and Aaron to free the Jews so they could worship their God, increased the workload of the slaves (Exodus 5: 1-9). The child also asks the father why the herbs had to be dipped twice, and the father explains that it symbolises the parting of the Red Sea which saved the children of Israel and then its coming together again which drowned the Egyptians. The father says a few more words while everyone drinks from the second cup of wine, then we all say a prayer of thanksgiving.
Then comes the solemn blessing of the meal, and the third cup of wine is poured. I was just finishing up my first. (I can tell you’re rolling your eyes at me and muttering, “Amateur”. To which I’ll respond with an eye-roll of my own and a “Whatever” to boot.) The lamb was brought in, and the father said a few words about it. At this point, people would then be allowed to talk freely. However, our congregation had been talking freely the whole time (maybe it was all those glasses of wine?). We had sweetcorn and peas, roast potatoes with rosemary and garlic, and copious amounts of lamb in gravy. I was finally ready for my second glass, which I drank at a leisurely pace just like the first. This part of the meal went on for about an hour, with people filling and refilling their glasses. I inwardly marvelled at how the Jews kept a straight head during this meal with all that booze flowing in their system. I later found out that the wine they poured was a sweet red known as Kiddush wine, and they would only pour a sip or so for each section of the ritual, not a full glass. (Ha! Not so amateurish now, eh?) When I finally finished my second glass, I tasted the Kiddush wine. I must say I much preferred this one (it wasn’t as bold and tannic as the other two).
The Cup of Praise
The final part of the meal comprises of a final blessing, the fourth and final cup of wine known as the Cup of Melchisedech, the Cup of Praise. Everyone stands and raises their cups for Psalms 115 (in my research I read that they sang Psalms 113-118). When all the praise is over, the father takes the hidden piece of unleavened bread, breaks it and passes it to the left and the right. In the Jewish tradition, each person would break a small piece of this bread and pass the remainder on. As they ate it they would say, “The bread of strength”. Once everyone had eaten, they would lift their cups and say together, “the wine of gladness” and drink.
For the Christian, this is the most important part. Instead of saying “the bread of strength”, Jesus broke the bread and gave it to His disciples saying, “This is my body” and after blessing the wine He said, “This is my blood.” It’s a very pivotal moment because this is where He gave new meaning to Passover. The disciples at the table with Him must have found these sayings very odd, just as they did when He explained earlier on that those who ate His flesh and drank His blood would have eternal life (see John 6). For Catholics, this part is known as the Institution of the Eucharist, and we believe that Jesus when He says “my body” and “my blood”, means it LITERALLY (this post is already very long, so I’ll have to explain this concept another time). This is probably why, during Communion in Mass, the priest (or whoever is administering the Eucharist) says, “The Body of Christ”. The whole Mass is actually a Passover celebration as fulfilled by Jesus on that fateful day. But like I said, that’s a whole other post.
Jesus never finished the Passover meal as it was traditionally done. When He had blessed the bread and wine and gave it to the disciples, the Bible tells us that He slipped away to the Mount of Olives, and the disciples followed Him. He drank the fourth cup at the cross; when a soldier lifted a cup filled with vinegar, Jesus drank from it and said, “It is finished” marking the fulfilment of the new Passover. There are many scholarly texts that explain this whole issue, and I’ve skimmed through some of them (just one actually). If you’re interested in learning more about the events of the Last Supper and how they tie into Christianity, this article is a great place to start.
I’m glad I went for this Paschal Meal. Not only was it a great excuse to drink my first full glass of wine (oops, I’ve said too much) but I learnt so much about the Person I believe in. I encourage you, dear reader, to at least dig deep into your beliefs. Understand why you believe in what you believe in, and ask questions (seeking professional counsel from your leaders where you need it). One last thing: I came across a saying by this priest I follow on social media, and another priest here in Cape Town said the same thing (maybe it’s a thing with priests?). “God gave us brains, and He expects us to use them.” Religion is as much an intellectual undertaking as it is a faith-based one. God’s ways may be high above our own, but we can still try to understand that which we’re meant to understand about our Creator. After all, that’s what relationships are all about, right?