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Worship Service Creation
J. M. Metzler

The Passover Seder: A New Worship Experience

Introduction

In January, my wife and I began working with The Table, “an emerging Mennonite church” that meets at EMU’s Discipleship Center. While we both have had experience in church leadership, involvement with such a young church has allowed us to participate in new areas of ministry because there are no paid leaders. The project assigned for this class gave me the opportunity to produce a service that The Table could utilize during the richness of Holy Week. I chose to plan a Passover Seder in conjunction with a footwashing service for the dual purpose of fulfilling this assignment and gathering God’s people to remember the faithfulness of God revealed in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the life of Jesus Christ.

Research & Preparation

I anticipated that the Seder meal would draw a group that closely resembled the congregation that gathers for worship on Sunday mornings at The Table. If this was true, the fellowship would vary in age and consist of approximately 25-40 people. Most of these people have grown up within the church and are connected with EMU in some way. However, from my own experience and through talking with others, I knew that church attendance did not guarantee that persons would be familiar with the Passover Seder, or even footwashing, rituals that I was planning to coordinate and lead.

The Mennonite church where I grew up practiced communion and footwashing twice per year, but I do not remember ever experiencing the Passover Seder. Because of this, my first step of preparation involved researching the purpose and significance of the meal and its intricate components. I learned much from this process. One of the basics I gathered that guided the rest of my planning is that Seder means “order.” In other words, the meal itself has a specific way of telling the story of the Israelites, a way that hopefully allows participants to experience the Exodus and events surrounding it personally and as a community.

From my research, I also learned that the order of the meal included specific materials that helped to retell, and allow people to enter into, the story of the Passover and Exodus. I must admit feeling overwhelmed by the sheer number of these details. From the candles and table cloths used to set the mood, to the specific food items that each told a piece of the story, to the many elements of the service itself, the Passover Seder is full of symbolism and multiple layers of meaning. As someone who was also experiencing the meal for the first time, planning these and explaining them during the service itself required my full attention. Yet to my relief, I also learned from looking at multiple books describing the ritual that there is no one “right” way to lead a Passover Seder. This allowed the learning process to regain much of its original joy and excitement as I pulled together the pieces.

Although the leaders of The Table took a back seat in the actual planning of the Passover Seder, their willingness to help me in the implementation of the event allowed it to be a success. After putting together an order of worship, I met with Carmen Schrock-Hurst who had volunteered to lead the time of footwashing for the purpose of discussing the details of her part in the service. Her experience in church leadership, particularly in leading both Seder meals and footwashing rituals, helped me to relax and trust that she would guide this element well.

Indeed, using the gifts and experiences of others at The Table in order to put together all of the details was one of the biggest things that I learned from this planning experience. After talking with Carmen, I communicated with the two cooks who had volunteered to prepare the food. Between them, all of the food items, including those unique to the Seder meal, would be provided with beauty and ease. I called on Sara Wenger Shenk to read the story of Moses and the Exodus to the children knowing from my experience in her class that she is a wonderful storyteller. In conversations leading up to the event, I also decided to ask five families to each bring the tableware needed for eight people. This allowed the work of both preparation and clean-up to be distributed nicely among those participating in the event.

Several weeks before the meal, The Table announced the upcoming ritual at the end of its weekly times of worship. As a leadership team, we tried to make sure that persons provided their phone numbers and email addresses so that we could contact them about the details and see if they were planning to attend. This we did during the week leading up to the event. Judging from the number of those invited and those who had responded, we were able to accurately plan how many people would be attending the meal.

The Worship Service

On the Wednesday before Maundy Thursday, I emailed the detailed order of worship that I put together for the Seder meal to the leadership team. We discussed it, as seen below, as a group that evening at our weekly worship planning meeting. Note that all elements without a particular name after them assume that I, the host of the meal, would facilitate. Also, the (*) indicates that the opening prayer is my original piece of worship material.

  Order of Service
5:30-Time for gathering/mingling
5:40-Call to come to the tables
5:42-Welcome/Introduction of the Seder Meal
5:45-Lighting of two candles at each table (oldest woman at each table)
5:47-*Opening prayer/drinking of 1st cup (of grape juice)
5:49-Eating of herbs 5:52-Hiding unleavened bread for children to later find
5:55-Time of Remembering: we too were once slaves, immigrants, foreigners
5:58-Discuss at tables: Who are "aliens" among us today? How can we treat them as who they truly are: children of God?
6:03-Talk about the elements on the platter at each tables by first inviting a child to ask questions about each item followed by a short explanation of each and a time for tasting them.
6:12-Asking: which of 4 types of 'children' will each of us be tonight?
6:15-Story time: Moses, Exodus, God's faithfulness for Israelites (Sara)
6:25-Celebrate with song/tambourines/circle dance around the tables "King of Kings & Lord of Lords..." (Angie, Risha)
6:35-Settle back to tables/Review elements' meaning with children and larger group
6:38-Prayer/Drinking of 2nd cup 6:40-Eating of unleavened bread at table with explanation of the unleavened bread beforehand
6:43-Transition to "Real Meal”; Invite each table to serve themselves at buffet lines and enjoy the sweet taste of the freedom we now enjoy! Also invite people to relax during this time as free people.
6:50-Eating of meal
7:20-After meal and dessert (fruit), the children will be invited to search for the hidden unleavened bread with encouragement (hot/cold) from adults.
7:25-Break bread and eat it together remembering again who we once were.
7:30-Prayer/3rd cup
7:33-Explain significance of empty chair: that the Jews waited for the return of Elijah (Why?) and that we continue, as Christians, to wait for the return of Jesus. Introduce how Jesus introduced the 'new covenant' at a Passover meal quite similar to the one we participate in tonight.
7:37-Prayer/4th cup
7:40-Time of footwashing (Carmen) accompanied by the following songs (Jim/Angie): -"Jesus took a towel" -"Will You Let Me Be Your Servant" -HWB: 452 "Ubi caritas" 7:55-Closure & looking ahead to Good Friday (Carmen & Mike)
8:00-Begin clean-up  

The Discipleship Center provided a fitting space for the meal and footwashing. Its pentagonal shape and small size gave an intimate feel to the service. The six tables were each decorated nicely with tablecloths, two candles, serving bowls containing the “edible symbols,” and a large central platter showing the various symbols of the meal to each table group. The tables were placed in two columns in the middle of the room to allow space for participants to dance around them. Each was surrounded by eight chairs, with the seat in the center aisle left open for Elijah/Jesus. Appropriate place settings were provided for participants at each chair. Two tables on opposite sides of the room contained the hot and cold buffet lines. Four footwashing stations were set up at the room’s corners: each contained a large basin of water, two white towels and two chairs. These reminded people throughout the meal of the second part of our time together.

Those bringing the many elements of the service arrived later than we had planned and the resulting set up seemed a bit rushed. I tried to stay calm while directing people on how they could help with the room and table preparation. Within a half hour and with much cooperation, the tables were ready as participants began to arrive.

Details of the Passover Seder

After giving people time to mingle and enter the space, I invited them to find a seat at one of the tables with the exclusion of the seats in the center aisles (which I told them would be explained later). I then welcomed them and introduced the Seder meal based on the following planned words.

Welcome friends! We gather tonight at this Passover Seder meal to remember together God’s faithfulness. This time will be one rich in story, dance and drama. As we center on God and enter into the story of the people of Israel, we remember that we also were once slaves. May God allow us tonight to both celebrate our freedom and challenge us to love the “outsiders” among us.

As we begin this meal, I invite the oldest woman at each table to light the two candles. On the Sabbath, it is a tradition for the oldest woman to light the candles at the beginning of the meal. We follow in this tradition tonight. The candles represent that this is a sacred time together; they serve as a reminder of God’s presence among us as we gather.

Once all of the candles were lit, I offered the following opening prayer which is also my piece of original worship material.

We thank you, O God, for the gift of life. Thank you for bringing each of us here and meeting with us as we gather together. Bless this time of remembering the story of your faithfulness with the people of Israel and with us today. May you allow us, in our hearts and minds, to enter into the Exodus story tonight. Remind each of us of our journey from slavery to freedom, from death to life by the power of your almighty hand. We give you praise. AMEN.

At this point, I invited everyone through both my own example and words to take the small glass in front of them (filled with homemade grape juice) and pray a blessing together for the “wine” (juice) with me. I asked them to repeat after me each line of the following prayer and then to drink the juice together.

Blessed are you, Eternal God,// Creator of the universe,// who creates the fruit of the vine.

Before moving on to the next portion of the service, explaining the purpose of the fresh greens on the table, I quietly reminded Kirk to fill up the glasses with more grape juice as we would be drinking together again later in the service. As he made his way around to each participant, I held up the bowl of karpas (kar-PAS) and explained that they remind us of the coming of spring and how God brings new life each year. I also taught the congregation that we dip them in salt water tonight to symbolize the tears of the Israelites who were in slavery and those still in slavery today.

Following this tasting of the fresh greens on the table, I led the group in another ritual that often accompanies a Passover Seder. I took a basket from my table that contained the matzah, or unleavened bread (crackers) and explained to the group the significance of this type of bread at this particular meal. Then I told the children, in particular, that the adults would hide a special piece of matzah, called the Afikoman, for them to search for later in the meal. I instructed them to cover their eyes as one of the adults took the cracker and hid it. This ritual, to me, allows the congregation to focus on this bread of affliction both before and at the conclusion of the gathered meal.

After this introduction to one of the evening’s themes, remembering the former and current sufferings of people in the Jewish faith tradition and in the broader world, I asked the group to enter into a time of remembering that each of our familial and/or religious roots contained a time when we too were once slaves and/or foreigners. With this in mind, I invited them to discuss at their tables who the “aliens” are among us today and how we should treat them according to their true identity as children of God. The purpose of this time was for people to enter together into the “other side” of the story, the side of oppression that many continue to face in contemporary society. The gospel accounts portray Jesus doing a similar thing with his disciples. He challenged me to relate to the “little people,” those “on the outside” of the religious and societal constructed boundaries of their time.

Following this discussion, I invited Alex (a 12-yr. old) to join me in front of the group in order to ask questions about the various items on the table platters. Each contained zeroa (roasted chicken bone), maror (dandelion as the bitter herb), haroset (sweet mixture of apples, spices, and nuts), and baytzah (hard-boiled egg). He accomplished this task easily, and after each inquiry, I explained to the congregation how to pronounce each food item and its significance in the Passover story. We then tasted the items at our tables together.

Before Sara began retelling the Exodus story to the children and the larger group, I asked each person to consider what type of ‘child’ they would be during the evening’s events. A wise child, I explained, asks questions about what the story has to do with “us” as a group while a foolish child fails to see the meaning and only considers how the story relates to “you.” The simple child, on the other hand, simply tries to understand what’s going on, and perhaps some among us, I explained, are unable to even articulate questions. Yet the story is read to all so that each of us will remember or learn for the first time of its significance.

Sara told the story wonderfully. She began with the life of Moses and traced God’s call on his life to liberate his people from slavery. During this time, I watched the children who sat mesmerized by the ebb and flow of the story. Even without many pictures, Sara brought the children into the story. Her involvement of the congregation in the reading also helped us to stay engaged during the reading. The story ended with the Israelites victoriously crossing the Red Sea, and an invitation for us to celebrate with them.

This ending allowed us to easily transition easily a circle dance. Risha and Angie taught the congregation the simple song and the steps to the dance. We sang the following words as we danced together and increased the tempo as we repeated the song several times.

King of kings and Lord of lords glory, hallelujah! (2X)
Jesus, Prince of Peace glory, hallelujah! (2X)

As we settled back to our tables, I reviewed the names and significance of each of the items on the platters with the congregation. Then I invited the group to take their small cups of grape juice and pray with me in the way that I explained above. We drank the 2 nd cup together.

After reviewing the significance of the matzah bread, I invited them to eat it along with any remaining food items on the table as appetizers to the main meal. During this time, the group was instructed to dismiss themselves by tables to the buffet lines to enjoy the feast prepared for them. I instructed them to relax during this time at the table, remembering that only those who are free are able to recline at the table, as they awaited their eating of the “real meal.”

Following the meal, I gathered the children at the front of the room and then sent them to find the Afikoman (special piece of matzah). After some searching, one child found it and gleefully brought it to me. I broke the small cracker into pieces for each person to eat together and remember again the suffering of the Israelites and many in the world today. This time was followed by the corporate prayer and drinking of the 3 rd cup.

I then explained the significance of the empty chair. For the Jewish people, it represented their hope for the return of Elijah who, as we reviewed, was taken up to heaven without dying. We talked briefly about how we, as Christians, continue to wait today for the return of Jesus. Then, after a final corporate prayer, we drank the fourth and final cup of juice together.

Footwashing Ritual

Carmen transitioned the group into the footwashing ritual smoothly. She explained how Scripture records that Jesus introduced this act at a Jewish Passover meal probably quite similar to the one we enjoyed together. In an attempt to help us understand this act of service in the time of Jesus, Carmen told a story from her family’s experience as missionaries. She recalled her hot and dusty feet that needed to be washed on a daily basis and explained that washing them would be a menial task of only a servant. Because footwashing has lost its relevance in our context, she challenged each of us to consider ways in which we could serve those around us in our daily lives. Carmen provided the example of washing another’s dishes or taking out a neighbor’s trash to convey the love of Jesus to them. Following these introductory words, she read John 13:1-17 and invited us to find a partner and come to wash each other’s feet as a symbol of our mutual submission to each other.

During the time of footwashing, Jim and Angie led the group in singing several songs from Hymnal: A Worship Book. They began with #449-“Jesus took a towel.” The particular focus of this hymn is obviously on footwashing. Its language is interesting in that the words of the refrain are about Jesus washing “my feet.” Like the Passover Seder, participants are invited by the words to actual put themselves in the story. The second verse offers a poignant request: “O Lord, let me see, let me understand why you stooped and washed my feet.”

The second song selection is from the same book, #307-“Will you let me be your servant.” The first verse seems to pick up where the preceding song left off in saying, “Will you let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you?” In this hymn, we become Christ to one another in the act of footwashing. The next line of the first verse emphasizes that this ritual is perhaps as much as receiving graciously as serving others. “Pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too.” We sang all verses of the this song, and I believe that each is important in helping us recognize, as Christ’s followers, that the ritual of footwashing serves as a symbol of the kind of life that we want to live. It is a life that walks with people in their joy and sorrow as verse five indicates so well. “When we sing to God in heaven, we shall find such harmony, born of all we’ve known together of Christ’s love and agony.”

Our last song during the time of footwashing was #452-“Ubi caritas et amor.” Translated to English, it simply states, “Where charity and love are found, God is there.” I found that this served as a poignant reminder of God’s presence among us as we washed each other’s feet. Perhaps in following Jesus command to wash each other’s feet, we revealed the God of love and compassion to each other.

Following footwashing, I reviewed the events of the Passover Seder and reminded the congregation how we moved from this rich story from the Hebrew Scriptures to Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. I explained that Jesus grew up a Jew and how the gospel accounts describe him as attending the Jewish festivities and annual events, including the Passover. Although John leaves out Jesus’ transformation of this Jewish tradition, I reminded the group that it was here, at the Passover meal, that Jesus revealed a “new covenant” to his disciples. The other gospel writers show Jesus saying that this covenant would be established through his blood. Today, we understand and celebrate this truth when we worship around the communion table and celebrate the Risen Lord Jesus. I went on to explain that it was also here, at the Passover, where Jesus introduced the footwashing ritual and that is why tonight we enter into that ritual as well.

Carmen concluded the evening by reminding us of the events of Good Friday. We sat in silence together as we pondered the betrayal, suffering and humiliation of our Lord. After several minutes, Carmen dismissed us by inviting us to go in the peace of Christ while remembering the events of this week in the church year.

Reflections

Looking back at the service itself and the planning that went into its development, I am so thankful for all of the people who helped to make it work. The countless details were taken care of by many eyes and helping hands. I could and would not venture into a project of this magnitude of my own strength and foresight. Its success resulted from a team effort that included God at its center, the Faithful One and Author of all that we cherish and celebrate as a corporate body of believers.

As I observed people during the service and reflected on my own experience in the planning and participating, I am confident that many encountered God in one way or another. A few memories stick in my mind, most of which involve the children. The first is watching the faces of the children as they listened to Sara read the story of Moses and the Exodus to them. They were awestruck by the drama. Their transparent curiosity over the items on the table platters also caught my attention. It was not difficult to get them to ask what each represented and why it was included. I found that I too enjoyed learning about this complex ritual and its many symbols.

Another memory of the evening was how easily participants entered into conversation around the table. On one occasion I asked Risha if I should wait for people to stop talking before continuing with the Seder, and she replied by saying, “We could be here all night if you let them keep talking.” To me, the ease of conversation said that people felt comfortable and were entering into the experience. I also valued feedback that I received from participants. One man hugged me on Easter Sunday saying that he appreciated the time that I put into the planning of the Seder meal and learned much about the richness of our Jewish roots from the experience. This I was excited to hear.

Of course, there were surprises along the way. Perhaps the biggest of these was how upset one of the children became that she did not find the Afikoman and win the prize. Her tears left me questioning the validity of having a “winner.” And yet in the midst of this difficult time, I had the opportunity to talk with her about many things such as why she was upset and the many gifts that we all received (food, hugs, etc..) during our time together. We were surprised and disappointed that there was no hot water at the Discipleship Center. The footwashing experience was not as pleasant as I had anticipated. I was also somewhat surprised by the number of people who decided to attend the meal. The group numbered close to 40 which at least equaled the average size of the group that gathers for worship on Sunday mornings.

The size of the congregation and delayed arrival of those who had volunteered to help with the set up resulted in a bit of a scramble to create the correct space for the Passover and footwashing rituals. In retrospect, I would have asked the volunteers to arrive earlier in order to ensure that we had ample time to prepare. Another change that I would make is to put tinfoil under the pots of soup, because the stain on the white table cloths was difficult to remove. Also, while I would keep the search for the Afikoman, I would leave out the prize for the child who found this special piece of matzah. Finally, the time of the meal would be later, definitely after sunset, to keep the event more true to its tradition and to create more mystery and drama in the ritual.

Overall, both the meal and footwashing went well and were meaningful rituals in the corporate life of The Table. I observed people entering into the Passover story as they listened to me explain the various symbols of the meal and then ate and easily talked together. The children, in particular, showed high enthusiasm and curiosity throughout the meal. Their questions and participation allow me to conclude that they were interested in what was happening and learned much from this time. This hopefully allowed their parents and the larger congregation to engage more deeply in the rituals of the evening.

Annotated Bibliography

Before I list the books that served as sources for the preparation of the Passover Seder and footwashing rituals, I want to give credit to the leadership team at The Table for helping me immensely as I coordinated this service. Sara Wenger Shenk and Carmen Schrock-Hurst were particularly helpful as resources through various conversations about their past experience leading this type of service within a church context. Thanks also to all who volunteered. Your acts of service and love made this worship experience possible.

 

Fredman, Ruth Gruber. The Passover Seder. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981.

This academic book offers considerable detail surrounding the Seder of Passover. Its introduction explores its Jewish roots including how the tradition was recorded in the Mishnah. The information helped me to frame the importance of the Passover within the Jewish culture, yet the intellectual approach to interpreting this event allowed for little practical application.

Rosen, Ceil and Moishe. Christ in the Passover: Why is this Night Different? Moody Press: Chicago, 1978.

Chapter 6, “The Ancient Seder and the Last Supper,” helped me to imagine how Jesus, as a Jew, gave the Jewish Passover tradition a new meaning. This chapter contains information concerning the history of the Passover celebration as recorded in the Mishnah. Like The Family Haggadah, it offers an outline of the Passover ritual, though specifically focused on how Jesus and others of his time may have participated in it. I found it interesting to compare this rendition with the child-friendly version found in Haggadah.

Schecter, Ellen. The Family Haggadah. Penguin Group: New York, 1999.

Written specifically for families, this compact book provides many opportunities for involving children in the events of the Haggadah or “telling” of the Passover story. It gives an overview of a Passover Seder service including simple explanations of each element as well as what groups can do to prepare for this special time. I relied heavily on this book to help me grasp the basics of the Passover Seder ritual. It helped to guide the order of the service that I created.

Shenk, Sara Wenger. Why Not Celebrate! Good Books: Intercourse, 1987.

Pages 100-108 succinctly summarize the importance of the Passover in the Jewish tradition. They also explain how to set the Seder table, describing each item is and what each represents. Also particularly focused on children, the example of an order for a Passover service in Why Not Celebrate! gave me good ideas for planning the layout of the meal itself. For example, the tradition of the mother (oldest woman) lighting the candles and the question/answer time with the children during which the significance of each item is explained.

Schecter, Ellen. The Family Haggadah. Penguin Group: New York, 1999, 18.