A Lookback at Passover

From my earliest encounter with Tom Hamill in 1986, he emphasised the importance of ritual at  group workshops and gatherings. Every workshop had a ritual aspect and each one was prepared by the group – ritual was participatory, not merely an entertainment exercise for onlookers. Rituals marked important milestones in every culture and the Passover, or Pesach in Hebrew, was the ritual par excellence of the Jewish tradition, commemorating the biblical story of Exodus, in which God freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. 

Tom always made a point of reminding us that in celebrating a Passover Seder (feast) as Christians, we have borrowed the ritual from the Jewish tradition and it must be honoured as such – not least because Passover is in fact the foundation of our own Christian Eucharist. And so for more than 40 years, Tom Hamill presided over Passover Seders held originally in Mount Oliver Institute and in later years in the Diocesan Adult Education centre in Dundalk.

A Passover Seder is in effect a feast and feasts are about food; in this case food for body and for soul. The richness of the Haggadah, or text of the Passover, without doubt provides excellent soul food, incorporating themes of springtime, family, remembrance of Jewish history by retelling the Exodus story, social justice and freedom. Woven throughout the text is the eating of various symbolic foods and the drinking of four cups of wine. 

For a Passover feast, food preparation was very important. I was privileged to coordinate the preparations for Passover for several years, up to the last one Tom was able to preside over, in 2018. Once Lá Fhéile Bríde was over, it was time for thinking about Passover, which would be held on the evening of Spy Wednesday (Holy Wednesday). Tom would mention it at the Chokmah meeting, or in more recent years I might get a phone call from him: “Do you have any feel for a Passover, Ann?” 

I always had a feel for a Passover. Each year the Passover represented a focal point for me: the start of the Easter celebrations, my favourite time in the Christian calendar. Each of the symbolic foods has rich meaning. The Seder plate consisted of a shank bone to represent the Pesach sacrifice of the lamb, hard-boiled egg to represent spring and the circle of life, bitter herbs to represent the bitterness of slavery, haroset (a mixture of grated apple with nuts and red wine), which stood for the mortar used by Jewish slaves in the building of the pyramids in Egypt, and finally  parsley to represent spring. Also on the table is the matzah, the unleavened bread that represents the bread the Israelites took with them when they fled Egypt, and salt water, which represents the tears shed by the slaves. All of these foods are consumed at particular parts of the ritual, with at least four ritual cups of wine.

Preparations for our feast began a few weeks before holy week with a meeting, in my house, of the organising committee that included at various times Mairead Heaney, Yvonne Donnelly, Muireann Maguire, Claire O’Malley, Claire Ryan, Ray Manley, Eileen Curran, Helen Kane, Noreen Townshend, Dorothy O’Connor, Fiona O’Connor. Mary Corr, Mary Lavery, myself as coordinator and – as long as he was able – Tom, as presider. 

The agenda at these meetings was concise but comprehensive. Each member would generously agree to take responsibility for different aspects of food preparation and presentation. As coordinator, my own responsibilities were to ensure the buying and preparing of enough legs of lamb to feed the 80-100 participants, the management of bookings for attendance, the making of the matzah, the organising of various other symbolic foods and the general running order for the ritual. Because of the importance of the lamb in the ritual, it was a great relief to me when Ray took on responsibility for the cooking of up to 10 legs of lamb in his kitchen, leaving me the easier tasks of ensuring the other symbolic foods were present and correct.

Those who attended Passovers over the years will remember them with pleasure. The richness of the ritual with plenty of good food and wine, and Tom’s joy in presiding at it, resulted in an occasion full of celebration and an opportunity to meet and chat with old friends from previous passovers. This year, leading up to the first anniversary of Tom’s death, I feel a sadness at his absence and a great gratitude for all the opportunities he gave us to deepen our thinking about our Christian heritage and his encouragement that we be what he termed “adult Christians” in what might appear to be a post-Christian climate. 

Finally, I hope that there might be an opportunity in the future to hold another Passover. Tom would have been the first to say that Passover does not require a priest to preside; in fact not even a man. He would be happy to think that a woman would preside at a passover and I hope,  post-pandemic, that that might happen.

Ann Flynn 

March 5th 2021