Once again, President Obama focused prayerful meals on both Passover and Christian Holy Week. Here’s news from the White House …
PASSOVER SEDER: Obama uses Maxwell House Haggadah
Like millions of families across the U.S., the president and his family turned to the popular Maxwell House Haggadah for the informal seder the Obamas have been observing with Jewish colleagues and friends since 2008. That year, Passover fell during a busy period in the presidential campaign, so Obama and some Jewish friends decided to hold an impromptu seder in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. At the start of Passover, Obama has hosted a seder ever since in a kosher style, but not actually meeting kosher-for-Passover standards. Now, Michelle Obama and their daughters Malia and Sasha are part of the annual ritual meal. Like many Jewish families preparing seders, the Obamas organize readings from the Haggadah provided by the coffee company. (We just featured a link to the Maxwell House Haggadah page in one of our own Passover seder stories.)
Politics played a role, this year, as Obama also opened Passover with a call to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and the two men discussed the importance of a rocket-and-mortar defense system that is helping to protect Israeli communities from incoming missiles. The two also discussed ongoing mutual support of counterterrorism programs. The White House press briefing on Monday provided a summary of that telephone call to reporters.
But the real news was: food. The Wall Street Journal reported in detail that the menu featured “dishes prepared with family recipes supplied by seder guests—White House policy analyst Herbie Ziskend’s grandmother’s roasted chicken and Mr. Obama’s speechwriter Adam Frankel’s aunt’s beef brisket.”
According to White House staff and Jewish leaders interviewed in news stories, Obama is the first U.S. president to host an annual seder. The White House has hosted Passover dinners in the past, but not a seder involving active participation by the president.
EASTER PRAYER BREAKFAST: Obama talks about his faith
President Obama continued reshaping White House holiday traditions by declaring that his “Easter Prayer Breakfast,” now in its second year, is becoming an official annual event. He also sparked laughter by pointing out that Bishop Vashti McKenzie also is carving out new traditions—by reading her Easter prayer from her iPad. There were some politics here as well, of course, as Obama includes religious leaders who have been especially supportive of him. During the breakfast, he also praised Rajiv Shah, the Under Secretary of Agriculture for Research, Education and Economics, for Shah’s work with a wide range of religious leaders in combatting hunger. He also recognized U.S. Rep. Mike McIntyre from North Carolina whose district was struck by tornadoes for his work in aiding in recovery.
Obama transcript from White House Easter Prayer Breakfast
This transcript, marked with audience responses, was provided by the White House for pool reporting on the event. It includes only Obama’s remarks …
Well, it is absolutely wonderful to be here with all of you today. I see so many good friends all around the room. Before I begin, I want to acknowledge one particular member of my administration who I’m extraordinarily proud of and does not get much credit, and that is USAID Administrator, Dr. Raj Shah, who is doing great work with faith leaders. (Applause.) Raj is doing great work with faith leaders on our Feed the Future global hunger program, as well as on a host of other issues. We could not be prouder of the work that he’s doing. I also want to acknowledge Congressman Mike McIntyre and his wife, Dee. (Applause.) As some of you know, obviously—North Carolina was ravaged by storms this past weekend, and our thoughts and prayers are with all the families who have been affected down there. I know that Mike will be helping those communities rebuild after the devastation.
To all the faith leaders and the distinguished guests that are here today, welcome to our second annual—I’m going to make it annual, why not? (Laughter and applause.) Our second Easter Prayer Breakfast. The Easter Egg Roll, that’s well established. (Laughter.) The Prayer Breakfast we started last year, in part because it gave me a good excuse to bring together people who have been such extraordinary influences in my life and such great friends. And it gives me a chance to meet and make some new friends here in the White House.
I wanted to host this breakfast for a simple reason—because as busy as we are, as many tasks as pile up, during this season, we are reminded that there’s something about the resurrection—something about the resurrection of our savior, Jesus Christ, that puts everything else in perspective.
We all live in the hustle and bustle of our work. And everybody in this room has weighty responsibilities, from leading churches and denominations, to helping to administer important government programs, to shaping our culture in various ways. And I admit that my plate has been full as well. (Laughter.) The inbox keeps on accumulating. (Laughter.)
But then comes Holy Week. The triumph of Palm Sunday. The humility of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. His slow march up that hill, and the pain and the scorn and the shame of the cross. And we’re reminded that in that moment, he took on the sins of the world—past, present and future—and he extended to us that unfathomable gift of grace and salvation through his death and resurrection.
In the words of the book Isaiah: “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.”
This magnificent grace, this expansive grace, this “Amazing Grace” calls me to reflect. And it calls me to pray. It calls me to ask God for forgiveness for the times that I’ve not shown grace to others, those times that I’ve fallen short. It calls me to praise God for the gift of our son—his Son and our Savior.
And that’s why we have this breakfast. Because in the middle of critical national debates, in the middle of our busy lives, we must always make sure that we are keeping things in perspective. Children help do that. (Laughter.) A strong spouse helps do that. But nothing beats scripture and the reminder of the eternal.
So I’m honored that all of you have come here this Holy Week to join me in a spirit of prayer, and I pray that our time here this morning will strengthen us, both individually as believers and as Americans. And with that, let me introduce my good friend, Bishop Vashti McKenzie, for our opening prayer. (Applause.)
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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.