Celebrating Easter: Local tradition also includes Seder feast

DAILY LEADER / JUSTIN VICORY / The Rev. Ann Matthews of the Church of the Redeemer Episcopal Church, prepares Saturday for the Easter Sunday service.

DAILY LEADER / JUSTIN VICORY / The Rev. Ann Matthews of the Church of the Redeemer Episcopal Church, prepares Saturday for the Easter Sunday service.

Every conclusion of Holy Week on a spring Sunday, the community springs into life; it’s a renewal and affirmation of life, a resurrection; Easter is holiday that sets the table for a belief in everlasting life and the final victory over sin.

The city of Brookhaven, Lincoln County and the surrounding area are filled with churches, their sanctuaries and traditions a source of comfort and safe haven over the years. Today, each will celebrate Easter, the annual celebration of Christ’s resurrection and the renewal of life.

Saturday morning at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in downtown Brookhaven, the Rev. Anne Matthews was attending to the preparation for the Easter service.

Two days earlier on Thursday night, as is the church’s tradition, the congregation celebrated a Seder feast, an observance that harkens back to the Jewish tradition preceding Christianity.

The Seder feast is a Jewish ritual celebrated by Jews and marks the beginning of the Jewish holiday of Passover. Non-Jews are welcome to attend and participate.

“The original Seder was an occasion to mark being set free from slavery. It has come to mark the Christian celebration of being set free from sin with the advent of Jesus,” Matthews explained.

According to the New Testament, Jesus gave the Passover meal a new meaning as he prepared himself and his disciples during the Last Supper for his sacrificial death.

Christians celebrate Seder as a way to connect with Christianity’s ancient heritage and to simultaneously affirm the Judaism of Jesus.

The Church of the Redeemer has been holding this tradition for years now. The previous rector, the Rev. Gene Bennett continues to conduct the Seder each year even though he retired in 2009.

The most important element of the Seder is the retelling of the story of the Exodus, a tradition church members savor, especially given the oratory ability of Bennett, whose “big, booming voice and great delivery,” recreate the ambiance of suffering, and eventual release from suffering, that occurred in those times, Matthews said.

The story, deep in context and meaning, comes from the Jewish Haggadah, a book that also contains special blessings, rituals, commentaries from the Talmud and special Passover songs.

Part of the custom involves partaking of symbolic foods placed on the Passover Seder plate. The concepts of freedom and slavery are also vital to the ceremonial theme of the holiday.

Included are six symbolic foods. Each item has significance to the retelling of the story of the Exodus from Egypt.

Seder participants recall the slavery of the Israelites in Egypt during the first half of the night. “Maror,” herbs that symbolize the bitterness of slavery, are eaten. Dipping vegetables into salt water symbolizes the tears the Jews shed during their servitude.

Recalling the freedom of the second half of the night, participants then partake of “matzah,” known as the bread of freedom or bread of affliction. Matzah is bread made without yeast. When the Israelites had to flee Egypt quickly they did not have time to let bread dough rise.

Custom also dictates the consumption of four cups of wine.

According to tradition, the four cups represent the four expressions of deliverance promised by God: “I will bring out,” “I will deliver,” “I will redeem,” and “I will take.”

Often, it is customary for the youngest child present to recite four questions at the Seder. These include:

Why is it that on all other nights during the year we eat either leavened bread or matza, but on this night we eat only matzah?

The prescribed answers to the questions are the following:

• We eat only matzah because our ancestors endured while in Egypt.

Why is it that on all other nights we eat all kinds of vegetables, but on this night we eat bitter herbs?

• The first dip, green vegetables in salt water, symbolizes the replacing of our tears with gratitude, and the second dip, Maror in Charoses (a mixture of fruit and wine), symbolizes the sweetening of the burden of bitterness and suffering.

Why is it that on all other nights we dine either sitting uptight or reclining, but on this night we all recline?

• We recline at the Seder table because in ancient times, a person who reclined at a meal was a free person, while slaves and servants stood.

This year – as in years past, Bennett delivered the story to an audience of roughly 30 persons spanning generations.

A central precept of the Seder feast tradition is to include a multi-generational audience that is required to participate in the ceremony. This inter-generational affair is a reminder to Matthews of the why she loves serving this church.

“The strong connections between us in this church community, from very young to very old, the importance of family, is one of the reasons I answered the call to come here,” she said. “The Seder affirms us as a Christian family that values our Jewish roots and traditions.”