On Tuesday evening at St Hugh’s Church, Borrowash we were blessed to have with us Fr Mervyn Tower, who led our joint parish pilgrimage to the Holy Land last year. Fr Mervyn gave us a real insight into the Jewish celebration of the feast of the Passover, complete with the authentic readings, songs, customs, food and drink. We were not ‘pretending’ to be Jews but using it as an opportunity to embrace our cultural and religious links with our Jewish brothers and sisters.
Each table was carefully set with the necessary ‘ingredients’ for the celebration: a candle; parsley, salt water, maror (horse radish/the ‘bitter herbs’), matzah (unleavened bread), charoseth (a paste of nuts, raisins, cinnamon, apple and wine), a hardboiled egg and, of course, red wine. There was a shank of lamb and enough for all to share.
Fr Mervyn made it clear that though the evening follows a set ritual, it is a joyous family celebration, with every generation taking part, people are relaxed and encouraged to laugh and enjoy themselves. We certainly followed this advice, as we threw ourselves into sharing in the feast.
The father of the family leads the evening, Passover does not require a priest or Rabbi, this has made it possible for the history and traditions to be passed on during times of oppression, as the celebration happens behind closed doors in a family setting.
We began with the lighting of the candles, as every Sabbath does, and this is the role of the mother. After prayers of thanksgiving to God, the first cup of wine is drunk. The greens are dipped in salt water and eaten as a sign of renewal. The bread is broken, with a piece hidden for later, and shared. The bitter herbs remind the Jews of the times when they were slaves – “we follow the practice of Hillel, from the time when the Temple stood. He combined the matzah (unleavened bread) and maror (bitter herbs) and ate them together…they shall be the matzah of freedom and the maror of slavery. For in the time of freedom, there is knowledge of servitude. And in the time of bonadage the hope of redemption.” A ‘sandwich’ is made of the matzah, maror and charoset and eaten.
The youngest person present then asks the traditional question: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” (Our youngest person was Aoife, who read her part beautifully). The history of the Jewish people is then told. The catchy song “It would have been enough for us” celebrates all that God has done, and how just one of His signs of greatness would have been enough but He has blessed His people many times over.
The symbolic meaning behind the ingredients of the meal is then explained:
The pesah (lamb) reminds Jews that they ate the paschal lamb when the Temple was still standing. God ‘passed over’ the houses during the redemption from Egypt.
The matzah recalls that there was no time to bake leavened bread before the exodus from Egypt.
The maror reminds them of how the Egyptians embittered the lives of God’s people.
The charoset is reminiscent of the mortar that the Jews were forced to build Pharaoh’s kingdom with.
The saltwater stands for the Red Sea.
The egg is a symbol of new life and freedom.
Promises are made to treat others well, as Jews know what it feels like to be a stranger.
We sang Psalms 113 and 114 before drinking another cup of wine. This completes the first part of the celebration, the meal is then eaten. We shared in some lovely lamb.
The celebration continues with thanksgiving, Psalm 126 and a cup of wine. A cup of wine for Elijah mysteriously ‘disappears’ when the door is opened for the prophet and everyone turns to see him come. There is praise, an acceptance that tasks still await to be done for the service of God and a blessing of peace to everyone.
Fr Mervyn spoke of how the Passover is a “memorial day” that transcends time. God’s time is different to our chronological sense of time, for Jews the Passover is truly the people of today joined with their ancestors and living the events of the past. The parallels with the Christian celebration of the Eucharist are clear. We too stand out of time, and, indeed, go beyond time during the Mass and actually stand alongside Jesus and His disciples. Both celebrations give our communities a continuity and sense of belonging, authentically becoming part of one’s own history.
The evening was hugely enjoyable, as well as informative, our sincere thanks go to Fr Mervyn for bringing this Jewish celebration alive for us and making it relevant to our Christian identity. Many thanks also go to Ian and Mary and the rest of the team who prepared the food and laid it out so beautifully for us.
If anyone missed the evening or would like to experience another Passover, Fr Paul will be leading a Passover event at The Church on Oakwood on Tuesday 15th April at 7.30pm (please bring light finger food for a shared table afterwards).