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Jesus as Jew is unifier for both faiths


As Christians re-enacted the Way of the Cross yesterday -- commemorating the Crucifixion -- and Jews began the celebration of Passover, people of both faiths were placing new emphasis on the Jewish heritage of Jesus.

It is a trend aimed at increasing tolerance and the sharing of values, but scholars warn it can lead to hurtful misunderstandings. Religious distinctions need to be understood as well as the historical links, they say.

One who feels this strongly is Rabbi Shira Lander, a chaplain on several Baltimore-area campuses, who last night presided at a Seder, the ritualistic meal of Passover, for Jewish students at the Johns Hopkins University.

"The advantage in the trend, and something I appreciate, is that Christians are reclaiming the significance of Jesus' Jewishness," Rabbi Lander said in an interview. "It's only in the 20th century that Christians have begun to come to terms with this."

But she also believes that religious and historical naivete is a danger. "It is a Christian pastor's responsibility to educate the congregation," she said. "Christians should not try to present a Passover Seder as an example of how Judaism should be fulfilled in Christianity." Rather, "an appreciation of Judaism" -- on its own terms -- can reinvigorate Christianity, she said.

St. John's Episcopal Church in Kingsville is an example of Christians seeking a deeper understanding of the Jewish faith.

Rabbi Lander was one of two Jewish speakers who took part in a recent lecture series at the church exploring non-Christian religions.

"It helped our people see what mainline people of other faiths are about, and how we can relate to them, love and understand them," said the Rev. David S. Remington, St. John's rector.

Last night, St. John's congregation observed an old Holy Week tradition by presenting an outdoor Passion Play, with a man costumed as Jesus carrying the cross, in the church parking lot on a wooded Belair Road hilltop overlooking Kingsville. It was a distinctly Christian observance.

But Thursday night, the Jewishness of Jesus was emphasized as more than 100 of St. John's members re-enacted the Last Supper -- what Father Remington called "the Christian Passover" -- at a meal served in a candle-lighted Parish Hall.

While the meal began with the lighting of a menorah -- "according to the ancient Jewish custom," in the words of a participant -- Father Remington made clear that this was not a Jewish Seder despite certain similarities, despite the messages of the Hebrew Bible and Jewish teachings shared by Christians.

As at last night's ritual meal in Jewish homes, "horseradish and bitter herbs" were "a reminder of the bitterness of slavery in Egypt" at the Christian church.

A St. John's parishioner, one of the service narrators, explained, "The chopped relish, or salad of apples and nuts, reminds us of the mortar the Israelite slaves made in Egypt. The roasted shank bone is a reminder of the Passover Lamb, whose blood sprinkled on the houses of the Israelites was a sign for the Angel of Death to pass over them when he afflicted the Egyptians."

The Jewish Seder, whether at home on the eve of Passover or as a community event in a Christian church with a synagogue's participation, also marks the emancipation of the Jews from Egyptian slavery thousands of years ago.

"Freedom Seders," such as one scheduled at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Brown's Memorial Baptist Church in Northwest Baltimore with the participation of the rabbi and members of Chevrei Tzedek Congregation, dramatize the universal Passover message of hospitality.

More and more, such meals emphasize the shared Jewish and African-American traditions of freedom from slavery.

But Rabbi Lander pointed to difficulties in calling the Last Supper a Passover Seder.

For one thing, biblical scholars are not sure what day of the week Jesus' last meal with his disciples occurred, she said.

And the ceremony of the washing of the feet, such as that which followed Thursday's supper and Eucharistic service at St. John's, while historically accurate as a practice in Jesus' time, is a distinctly Christian observance, Rabbi Lander noted.

St. John's members engaged in an old-fashioned hymn-sing as Father Remington removed his vestments and went to the center of the Parish Hall, where he washed a church member's feet. That person then washed another's feet, until many had taken part.

Men, women and children called out the hymnal numbers of their favorite hymns, and the organist provided accompaniment as they sang.

It was a multi-cultural experience. "God has spoken to his people, Hallelujah!" -- to a Middle Eastern tune, "Torah Song," and hand-clapping -- was followed by "Glorious things of thee are spoken, Zion, City of our God" -- to the music by Franz Joseph Haydn that is also the tune of the German national anthem.

After the hymn-sing and foot-washing, there was an explanatory reading from scripture, "The Lord Jesus, after he had supped with his disciples and had washed their feet, said to them, 'Do you know what I, your Lord and Master, have done to you? I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done.' "

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