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ARTICLES AND STUDIES
The Israelite Festivals and the Christian Calendar
This study discusses the biblical festival calendar, and explores how the annual feasts of Israel might shed light on the Christian year. In addition, it advocates the restoration of aspects of the biblical calendar in the worship of evangelical churches. Topics covered are these:
Many evangelical Christian churches originated in movements stemming from the great revivals of the nineteenth century on the North American frontier, revivals that sought to address the often dismal state of personal and community life resulting from isolation from the settled coastal regions with their established institutions of culture, including the churches. As it developed in the frontier environment, worship was preaching-oriented, focused on the individual hearer's decision to accept the salvation Christ offers and to reorder his life in commitment to the Lord.
In such a setting, the historic liturgies of the church, as they had evolved in the Old World, were devalued or unknown, except by congregations whose identity remained tied to ethnic origins in Great Britain or the European continent. Frontier worship retained congregational singing, especially as a prelude to the "main event" of the sermon. But many other features of traditional worship were lost, such as corporate dialogue and response, formal prayer, frequent observance of Holy Communion, a lectionary of Scripture readings and the cycle of annual festivals. Observance of holidays ("holy days") and seasons in the church year was, in fact, one of the practices shunned by the Congregational churches of New England as being without Scriptural warrant, and the influence of this Calvinist stricture was pervasive amongst groups newly forming on the expanding Western frontier. It was therefore left to those churches that retained their Old World identities — Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox — to preserve the traditional church year, beginning with Advent and Christmas and continuing through Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter and Pentecost.
With increasing urbanization and improved travel and communication, however, North American culture grew more sophisticated, turning away from the rustic frontier heritage and back toward European models. This trend affected the revival-spawned churches along with all other institutions. The major festivals of the historic Christian year began to find their way back into Protestant worship together with organs, Gothic-influenced architecture, choirs and other features associated with Old World Christendom. Thus, the celebration of Christ's birth, his crucifixion, and his resurrection emerged as the liturgical core of a cycle of annual events in Protestant worship that also came to include, in the United States, popular and civil events such as Thanksgiving, Mother's Day and Independence Day.
The frontier preaching-service model still pervades the worship style of most Protestant congregations, despite the widespread transition to a praise-and-worship musical style that tends to promote more congregational involvement. But in both "main line" Protestant churches and, more recently, self-consciously "evangelical" denominations, a revival of concern for the fuller content of the Christian year has led to the more widespread observance of Advent, Lent, Palm Sunday Holy Week, Pentecost, All Saints Day and other traditional observances. [ Return to index of topics ]
The restoration of the Christian cycle of annual festivals in evangelical worship is a response to a deeply felt human need. The desire for festivity and ceremony seems to be bound into the makeup of human personality and culture (see the Laudemont Press publication Processions of God: The Significance of Ceremony ). All societies develop ceremonies or the equivalent of "holy days" to mark important events and significant passages of life. Only in the modern West have holidays chiefly come to signify, for many people, a "vacation" from work. In earlier cultures, holidays or annual festivals fulfilled a significant role in the life of a community. Carmine di Sante, in Jewish Prayer,1 outlines several functions that festivals perform in community life. Reviewing di Sante's outline, we add some observations:
Adding to di Sante's analysis, we note that the Bible itself, especially the Old Testament, provides ample evidence that the marking of special times and seasons is an activity that enjoys the blessing of the Creator. The New Testament records that both Jesus and the apostle Paul took part in certain events of the Jewish religious calendar. The distinctiveness of "sacred time" is part of a Christian identity in a culture increasingly hostile or indifferent to the faith. And no thoughtful observer can deny the value of observing the annual cycle of events in the life of Christ as a way to participate in that history through which God has worked out his plan for the redemption of his lost creation. All of these reasons support the thrust for the restoration of the historic Christian calendar in the worship of evangelical churches. [ Return to index of topics ]
But for evangelical Christians, who believe that the life and faith of the church needs to be ordered primarily through biblical norms and directives, the reviving emphasis on the traditional liturgical year can be problematic. The Puritan theologians correctly understood that the many "saints' days" that had proliferated in the Medieval church had no foundation in Scripture. They also realized that even the most popular events of the traditional church calendar — Christmas and Easter — were not based upon biblical models. While they are founded on events in the life of Jesus, there is no New Testament directive to celebrate them as annual festivals. Their restoration in Protestant evangelical worship came not as the result of theological reflection on biblical teaching or the human need for rites and ceremonies, but "by popular demand" in imitation of practices retained by seemingly more sophisticated Old World communities. By extension, the same can be said for most of the elements in the annual cycle of the Christian year.
An additional issue, for those who believe that Scripture should serve as the basis for worship practices in the church, is the well-documented postbiblical and largely pagan origin of some of the major Christian festivals. There are several ways in which evangelicals might respond to this finding. First, we could abandon the observance of annual festivals and special days, as did the Puritans and as do today's Jehovah's Witnesses and others. The result might be an austere, colorless religion without festivity and times of high celebration. Would some worship leaders and church musicians lose their jobs without Christmas programs or Easter pageants to prepare? Second, we might attempt to restore and focus on the Christian significance of these holidays — the "put Christ back into Christmas" approach. This is probably the answer of most churches, but does it sufficiently reestablish the Scriptures as the foundation for Christian worship?3
There is another answer, which is to allow the worship practices of Israel to inform our Christian celebration. For the Bible itself provides a cycle of annual observances that are commended to the people of God: the festal calendar of ancient Israel. Through these festivals, the people are reminded of the saving acts of the Lord that brought forth the community of faith. And through these festivals, the worshiper becomes a participant in those events, as the story is retold and celebrated in acts of worship, symbolic actions, sacred meals and community gatherings.
It is a strange phenomenon that, in the desire to restore a liturgical calendar to evangelical worship, more consideration is not given to the of Bible's own mandate for such a calendar. This study is written to stimulate such consideration. It should be possible to observe the events of the Christian calendar in a way that takes into account the spiritual or theological significance of the corresponding Israelite feasts — and to restore in Christian practice those biblical celebrations that have been neglected. [ Return to index of topics ]
But why should the church pay attention to festivals that are mandated in the Torah, the Law of Moses? The apostle Paul states that "Christ is the end of the law, that every one who has faith may be justified" (Rom. 10:4). Many Christians would agree that, although the moral law of the Old Testament Scripture has not been set aside, the "ceremonial law" with its regulations for ritual and sacrifice no longer applies. It is understood to be a "type" or prophetic pointer to Christ's sacrifice on the cross, and that sacrifice "once for all" has rendered the old rites unnecessary.
Further, if we hold the "dispensationalist" view that the church is an interruption or parenthesis in God's plan for his people Israel — a plan to be resumed after the church is taken up in a last-days "rapture" — then the Hebrew Scriptures with their ceremonial regulations will be understood to have a reduced relevance for the church, since it is not identical with the Israel of the old covenant.
Let us take up these questions in reverse order. The dispensational understanding of the church, which separates it from Israel as belonging to a different administration or dispensation of God's grace, is a relatively recent innovation in Christian theology. The historic view sees the church as the continuation of Israel, the inheritor of the covenant and promises made to the people of God in the Old Testament. This view is fully consistent with the New Testament, for the apostles certainly understood that those who acknowledged Messiah Jesus were the truly faithful to God's covenant, whereas those who rejected him were the unfaithful. It is the Christian or Messianic community which is, as Paul says, "the Israel of God" (Gal. 6:16). This understanding renders the Hebrew Scriptures highly relevant to Christian worship.
As to the first question, to say that "Christ is the end of the law" does not mean that he ends the law, but rather that he fulfills it. All the promises to Israel are completed or summed up in Christ (2 Cor. 1:20; Heb. 6:12) and in his church. Faithfulness to Christ requires that we pay attention to the Scriptures which, in their totality, speak of him and which he, the risen Lord, commends to his followers (Luke 24:27).
With this in mind, we turn to a discussion of the Israelite festivals and their significance for the faith and worship of the Christian community. [ Return to index of topics ]
Three Annual Feasts. The cycle of festivals celebrated by Israel is laid out in several passages in the Pentateuch in which the Lord gives to Moses the instructions for their observance (Exod. 23:14-17, Exod. 34:18-23, Lev. 23, Num. 28—29, and Deut. 16:1-17.) These passages mandate three annual feasts on which all Israelite males are to appear "before the Lord," at the central sanctuary:
For the texts that give the directives for these annual festivals, see the chart The Festivals of Israel: Biblical Sources in Parallel on this web site.
The feasts of Israel were not one-day events, but extended times of sacred remembrance, pilgrimage and celebration. Passover begins with the observance of the pesach meal, in commemoration of the haste of Israel's departure from Egypt. But this is followed on the next day by the seven-day period of Unleavened Bread, ending with the observance of First Fruits when the beginning of the harvest and the firstborn of the flocks were offered to the Lord. The convocation of the Feast of Weeks came at the end of the spring harvest. The fall festival begins, according to Leviticus, with the Feast of Trumpets summoning to people to holy convocation on the first day of the month. The tenth day is the Day of Atonement (Yom Qippur), with the Feast of Booths beginning on the fifteenth day and lasting for a week. This festival is also called the Feast of Ingathering, a time of rejoicing in the bounty of harvest. Leviticus and Numbers further describe various offerings and sacrifices that are to be presented during the three festivals.
The Sabbath, a day of rest from work, was not the focal point of Israelite worship. It was a weekly observance (the name means "seventh") that became more important in the Judaism of the period after the Babylonian Exile, as the day on which the community assembled for the study of the Torah and for prayer.
The "Day of the Lord." The Pentateuch makes it clear that observance of the festival calendar was commanded for Israel by the Lord, as a means by which the community was to maintain its obligation to the Sovereign who had graciously granted the people his covenant. Nevertheless, the prophets of Israel voiced the Lord's displeasure with a shallow and casual observance of the festivals that failed to reveal any deep attachment to Yahweh's covenant, and ignored widespread injustice within the community of his people. The words of Amos are especially forceful:
I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings, I will not accept them, and the peace offerings of your fatted beasts I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Did you bring to me sacrifices and offerings the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel? (Amos 5:21-25)
What is remarkable about this passage is that Amos does not refer, in this context, to any of the feasts of Israel as listed in the liturgical calendars. Instead, he refers to an event known as the "Day of the Lord":
Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord! Why would you have the day of the Lord? It is darkness, and not light; as if a man fled from a lion, and a bear met him; or went into the house and leaned with his hand against the wall, and a serpent bit him. Is not the day of the Lord darkness, and not light, and gloom with no brightness in it? (Amos 5:18-20)
At first glance the expression "Day of the Lord" might seem to refer to the final judgment when Yahweh's justice will be enacted. However, some scholars have proposed that the Day of the Lord is actually the name of an annual festival. The Norwegian scholar Sigmund Mowinckel suggested it was Israel's new year's festival, a celebration of the enthronement of Yahweh as the great King of his covenant community. Other authorities, such as Artur Weiser, have followed his lead, with variations. Mowinckel based his monumental discussion of the Book of Psalms5 on the concept of Yahweh's enthronement, and related many of the Psalms to aspects of this hypothetical rite.6 [ Return to index of topics ]
The festivals of Israel share these common traits of feasts, as described above, but also reveal some features that apply especially to the religion of Israel. These are some characteristics of the biblical feasts, taken as a whole.
An Agricultural Base. The Israelite feasts are memorials of the saving events through which the Lord delivered and established his people, but they are also tied into the rhythm of agriculture. In the ancient cycle of the eastern Mediterranean climate, there is a spring planting accompanied by the birth of new flocks, and then a spring harvest prior to the hot and dry summer. With the return of rain in the fall, there is a second planting and harvest. The festal cycle corresponds to the agricultural cycle.
Historicization. At the same time, the Israelite festivals have been historicized. They are linked to the events of salvation history, Israel's deliverance from bondage and the establishment of Yahweh's covenanted community. They re-present these saving events through reenactment in later generations (eating the Passover hastily, ready to depart immediately; living in shelters or "booths" in the open fields). They are occasions in which the worshiper in every generation is made a part of the original saving events through which the Lord has made himself known. Their purpose is expressed by Moses in his words to Israel before the entrance into Canaan: "Not with our fathers did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive this day" (Deut. 5:3). The historicization of the agricultural festivals was Israel's answer to the Canaanite cults, which while celebrating the same agricultural festivals related them instead to the cycles of fertility and death, with corresponding debauched rituals that included cultic prostitution and human sacrifice.
God's Ownership of Time. The festivals qualify time as belonging to the Lord. His commandments govern the rhythm of the year, and the festivals are a recurring reminder of his dominion over not only the worshiping community but also of his land, his creation. In biblical perspective, time is not only elapsed time (chronos) but qualitative time (kairos), the "right" time or the "fullness" of time. Time is defined not only by its duration but by its content, and the festivals proclaim that the Lord is the author of that content.
Yahweh's Dominion. Therefore the festivals are reminders of the dominion of the Lord over his creation and of the covenant relationship he, as the great King, has granted his servants in calling them forth to be a people. Ruling with Yahweh and mediating his dominion over the earth (Gen. 1:27-28; Rev. 20:6) was the vocation of God's people.
You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own possession among all peoples; for all the earth is mine, and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel" (Exod. 19:4-6).
Celebrating the kingship of Yahweh was therefore an important component of the festivals, as reflected in several of the Psalms:
Clap your hands, all peoples! Shout to God with loud songs of joy!
The festivals, especially the Day of the Lord or perhaps the Feast of Tabernacles, may have included a procession of the ark of the covenant into the sanctuary. The ark was the symbol of Yahweh's rule as King or leader in battle. It was called his "footstool" and he was said to be invisibly enthroned "above the cherubim," the guardians of his throne (Psa. 80:1; Isa. 37:16). As Psalm 47 suggests, on the festival day God "went up with a shout," ascending the holy mountain to take his throne. Several other psalms suggest a procession of the ark to the sanctuary on Mount Zion.
Remember, O Lord, in David's favor, all the hardships he endured;
The festivals commemorate the deliverance that Yahweh, the King, has accomplished for his people:
Sing aloud to God our strength; shout for joy to the God of Jacob!
In the Jerusalem temple, the official sanctuary of which faithful Judean kings were zealous guardians, the celebration of Yahweh's kingship and deliverance were often combined with the commemoration of his covenant with the Davidic ruler:
Righteousness and justice are the foundation of thy throne; steadfast love and faithfulness go before thee.
The "festal shout" here is the teru'ah, not a vocal shout but the blast of the trumpet calling the people to the festivals. The term also refers to a battle-cry or war-cry that accompanies the attack of his victorious army or "host" (the significance of the term "Lord of hosts" or "Yahweh of armies"). We hear of the war-cry, for example, in Psalm 100:
Make a joyful noise [i.e., "raise a shout"] to the Lord, all the lands!
Pilgrimages. The festivals were pilgrimages. They called the people to assemble at the sanctuary where, as a gathered community, they could reaffirm their corporate commitment to the Lord. The Psalms of Ascents provide a picture of the people going up to Zion in pilgrimage.
I was glad when they said to me, "Let us go to the house of the Lord!"
Suspension of the Normal. The festivals were times for "suspension of the rules." In a sense, they stood outside of "ordinary time" (to use the Christian phrase) so that they could be occasions for abandon and excess. People might behave during festivals in ways they would not normally behave. While this could have its immoral aspects in Israel, as with today's Mardi Gras (Judges 21:19-22), it also pointed to the numinous aspect of the experience of the presence of the Lord. The normal, rational act is not adequate to express one's sense of being touched by the life of the Holy. An atmosphere of joy or abandon is created that manifests itself in music, dance, procession, or other artistic activity as well as in the sharing of special food and drink. One of the Hebrew expressions for "celebrate a festival" is la'asot simchah (Nehemiah 8:12; 2 Chronicles 30:23), literally, "make joy." Psalm 68 offers a picture of a festival celebration:
Thy solemn processions are seen, O God, the processions of my God, my King, into the sanctuary—
In their application to the cycle of Christian worship, the festivals of Israel carry several levels of significance:
The biblical feasts have, in the first instance, an historical significance. They are memorials or re-presentations of events that occurred in salvation history, as the Lord formed his covenant people through the deliverance from Egyptian slavery, the giving of the Law, and the wandering in the wilderness toward the land of promise. Through Christ we have entered into that history: it was his story, and if we are in him it is our story as well.
Passover. The festival of the first month commemorates the sacrifice of the lamb by whose blood the children of Israel were spared the plagues that fell upon Egypt, especially the death of the firstborn: "The blood shall be a sign for you, upon the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall fall upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt" (Exod. 12:13). The feast of unleavened bread commemorates the haste with which the Israelites were to depart Egypt, with no time for their bread to rise. The Feast of First Fruits was commanded in association with the deliverance of the Exodus, but it looks forward to the first crop to be harvested in the promised land. The biblical chronology indicates that Passover was not consistently observed between the period of the Judges and the reform of Josiah (2 Kings 23:21-23).
Pentecost. The Feast of Weeks or Harvest (called Pentecost, from the Greek word for "fifty days" because it occurs seven weeks after Passover) was also a remembrance of the deliverance from Egypt. It carried a special emphasis on compassion for those who have a lesser position in the social order, such as foreigners, slaves, widows, orphans, the poor, and the Levites who had no tribal territory of their own but lived among the other tribes. It was a festival emphasizing justice, because "you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt" (Deut. 16:12). Perhaps because of the Torah's concern justice for the oppressed, Pentecost became in Judaism a festival that commemorated the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai.
The Feast of Tabernacles. Like the other biblical feasts, Tabernacles, at the end of the cycle, was a remembrance of the formative events of Israel's history. Living in booths or shelters made from branches (not tents) was emblematic of the conditions of life in the wilderness, as Israel journeyed between deliverance and promise. In this sense Tabernacles is the least specific, most "open-ended" of the festivals, for it seems to be tied to hope for what is to come as much as to remembrance of things past.
The first part of the fall festival was the Feast of Trumpets, when the people were summoned into a holy convocation. Ten days later comes the Day of Atonement, when the high priest was to make atonement ("covering") for the people through the ceremony of the two goats. One goat was offered in sacrifice, while the other was driven out into the desert as the "scapegoat" bearing away the sins of the people (Lev. 16). Only on this day did the high priest enter the Most Holy Place, or inner sanctuary containing the Ark of the Covenant with its guardian cherubim. Here the priest brought the blood of the sacrifice, to make atonement for the sanctuary itself, set amidst a sinful people. Following the Day of Atonement came the Feast of Ingathering, when the people were to live in shelters in the fields during the fall harvest. In the renewal of the covenant under Ezra, the Feast of Tabernacles was revived as a time for the reading of the Torah (Neh. 8:14-18). [ Return to index of topics ]
The biblical festivals have a prophetic significance, or a significance of correspondence. That is, the three feasts of Israel, in retrospect, have a correspondence to the ministry of Jesus Christ, the emergence of the new community of faith in Christ, and to a degree the worship calendar of the Christian church.
Passover. Taken as a whole, Passover is the re-presentation of the Exodus event. Therefore, its components correspond to the events of our deliverance in the passion and resurrection of Christ. The lamb of the Passover meal, an "unblemished male," points to the sacrifice of "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29). A sacrifice is costly; in a sacrifice the perfect takes the place of the imperfect. "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor. 5:21).
The Feast of Unleavened bread starts immediately after Passover. Prophetically, the bread speaks of Christ's body broken for us on the cross. Breaking the loaf at the last supper, Jesus declares, "This is my body given for you" (Luke 22:19). However, it does not seem that the unleavened bread of the Passover had a specific relation to the New Testament understanding of the Lord's Supper, but rather to the broader question of the Christian life (1 Cor. 5:7-8, see footnote 7 below).
The festival of First Fruits included the offering of the sheaf of grain from the first of the harvest (Lev. 23:9-11), an offering that would be accepted in behalf of the entire harvest. The connection of First Fruits with Passover is a reminder that the ultimate goal of the deliverance of the Exodus was not to wander about in the wilderness but to possess the land of promise. Indeed, the period of wandering came because of unbelief, as an interruption in what the Lord had in mind for his people (Num. 14:1-35). The first fruits are offered to the Lord specifically to acknowledge his gift of the land (Deut. 26:1-ll).
In the New Testament, the life of the resurrection — the life that comes through the gift of the Spirit of Christ (Rom. 8:23) — is compared with the land that was promised to Israel (Gal. 3:14; Eph. 3:6). By correspondence, the festival of First Fruits speaks of the resurrection of Christ, an association that Paul makes explicit: "But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep" (1 Cor. 15:20). In addition, First Fruits speaks of the resurrection life of all those who belong to Christ: "For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ" (1 Cor. 15:22-23). In a more exact sense, the "first fruits" of the resurrection were the first generation of Christian believers, whose entry into the life of the resurrection heralded what was to be multiplied as the gospel of Christ reaped its harvest across the earth (Jas.1:18; Rev. 14:4).
In the thinking of many Christians it seems that Passover is equated with the Lord's Supper, and therefore especially with the Christian observance of Maundy Thursday, because it was on the occasion of the Passover that Jesus instituted the ordinance (Luke 22:7-22).7 However, in the thought of the ancient church it is not the Last Supper that corresponds to Passover, but Christ's triumph over death in his cross and resurrection. This is evident in the name Pascha (derived from the Hebrew name for Passover) or some variant thereof that is applied to the celebration of the resurrection in many languages.8 Christ's victory over death in our behalf is viewed as the liberating event that corresponds to the Exodus from Egypt. This is made explicit on some of the Easter hymnody of earlier centuries:
Come, ye faithful, raise the strain of triumphant gladness;
Pentecost. This festival of the biblical calendar is the one observance that has been taken over by name from Judaism into Christianity, though with a different meaning. Easter (Pascha) and Pentecost were the first two major holidays of the Christian calendar, before the appearance of Christmas or Nativity. In Judaism, Pentecost commemorated the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai, but it became the occasion of the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles (Acts 2). Pentecost, as a festival of the Law, could be the background for Paul's words, "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death" (Rom. 8:1-2).
The Feast of Tabernacles. This biblical feast has, unaccountably, no corresponding Christian festival. However, the various themes of the feast of the seventh month do correspond to some types of Christian observances. The trumpets call the people into holy convocation, a day of rest. In the rites of the Day of Atonement, the high priest "shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins; and he shall put them upon the head of the goat, and send him away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness" (Lev. 16:20-21). The act of laying the hand over the "scapegoat" to convey the sins of the people points to the cross of Christ, "the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world." The gesture is perpetuated in the consecration of the Eucharist when the priest lays his hands over the bread and the cup.
The Feast of Ingathering is the time when the harvest is brought in; prophetically it points to the gathering of the nations into a kingdom of priests to the Lord, as portrayed in the vision of John: "And they sang a new song, saying, 'Worthy art thou to take the scroll and to open its seals, for thou wast slain and by thy blood didst ransom men for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and hast made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on earth'" (Rev. 5:9-10).
There is therefore an eschatological dimension to the Feast of Tabernacles, because it looks forward to the fulfillment of the kingdom of God: "And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, as a testimony to all nations; and then the end will come" (Jesus, in Matt. 24:14). The gathering of the harvest logically points to a fall festival (in the northern hemisphere) celebrating the ingathering of the fruits of the earth; our closest equivalent is the civil holiday of Thanksgiving. But because there is no historic Christian festival that corresponds to the Feast of Tabernacles, there is room for some liturgical creativity in the renewal of Christian worship. [ Return to index of topics ]
In addition to their historical associations and their prefiguring correspondence to themes of Christian faith and worship, the feasts of Israel have an experiential significance. They anticipate and signify various aspects of the spiritual experience of the Christian community.
Passover. The Passover celebration signifies our deliverance from judgment. Like the slain lamb of the Exodus meal, Christ on the cross is experienced as the sign that the Lord sees when he passes over the land for judgment — ''When I see the blood, I will pass over you." Those who are baptized into Christ understand that they are "delivered from the wrath to come" (1 Thess. 1:10), protected from the judgment about to fall upon the unfaithful, however we may understand this judgment.9 In this vein, Jesus taught his disciples to pray that they would not be subject to the testing of judgment (the true import of the petition in the Lord's Prayer, "Lead us not into temptation [peirasmos, testing]."
The Feast of Unleavened Bread speaks, experientially, of the cleansing or purification that comes with entrance into the life of Christ and separation from "the world." For the earliest Christians, this "world" was the symbol and value structure of ancient Judaism, the cultural environment out of which the Christian movement emerged. For Christians of twenty-first century Western civilization, "the world" will be the prevailing cultural environment that imposes its non-biblical perspective upon its victims.
"Leaven is a symbol for unseen influence, especially the influence of evil; fermentation was emblematic of a process of corruption. The leaven was capable of debasing and corrupting the mass of dough."10 Several types of corruption, symbolized by leaven, can be identified in the New Testament:
Leaven stands for whatever twists, dilutes and destroys our walk with God. The Israelites in their escape from Egypt had no time for their bread to rise, and their haste speaks to us of the urgency of separation from the patterns of the old life that corrupt our Christian commitment. It is not only necessary to get ourselves out of Egypt, but also to "get the Egypt out of us" — to "escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature" (2 Pet. 1:3-4).
The Feast of First Fruits, the last segment of the Passover sequence, looks forward to the entrance of the land of promise. Experientially it corresponds to our new birth in the kingdom of God through baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus (Rom. 6:3-11). First Fruits speaks of the now of the resurrection life of the believer. Like Christ, those who are members of his body are also spoken of as "first fruits" (Jas 1:18; Rev. 14:4). For those who are "in Christ," there is already a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17), and in worship we acknowledge the Lord God who declares, "Behold, I make all things new" (Rev. 21:5). Charles Wesley captured the experiential component of First Fruits in this hymn:
Made like Him, like Him we rise;
Pentecost. Experientially, the feast of Pentecost signifies our being filled with the Holy Spirit in all that this entails:
In focusing on the virtuous Christian life, Pentecost can call us back to the emphasis of the Jewish festival on the giving of the law. In this instance the focus would be on the "law of Christ" (Gal. 6:2) the mutual burden-bearing and koinonia, or deeply sensed common life, within the community of the new covenant.
Pentecost also directs us to the unity of the church, for the apostles were "all together in one place" (Acts 2:1) when the Spirit came upon them. Experientially, we celebrate our oneness with brothers and sisters in Christ in other traditions. This unity prefigures the oneness of all peoples in the kingdom of God. Typologically, the event of Pentecost is the reversal of Babel, when people groups lost the ability to communicate with one another because of man's attempt to reach into the heavens, make a name for himself and usurp the position of God (Gen. 11:1). On the Day of Pentecost, speakers of diverse languages each heard the apostles "telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God" (Acts 2:11).
The Feast of Tabernacles. In its experiential significance, Tabernacles overlaps some of the themes of the other festivals, with their focus upon the Lord's deliverance of his people. At the Feast of Trumpets, the congregation is summoned into solemn convocation, just as the gospel summons people to reflect with sober assessment upon the state of their lives and their standing with the Lord. The rites of the Day of Atonement (Yom Qippur) resonate with our experience of the atonement of Christ, whose death on the cross provides a "covering" Hebrew qippur) over that sin which separates us from our Father.
The rubric for the feast is given in Leviticus 23:42-43: "You shall dwell in booths for seven days; all that are native in Israel shall dwell in booths, that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God." The booth, or sukkah, is a temporary dwelling made of branches cut from the trees and bushes at hand. The custom of dwelling in sukkot was reminiscent of the temporary shelters of the wilderness, a reminder that Israel was a pilgrim people on the way between deliverance and destiny, between promise and fulfillment. Experientially this is the situation of the Christian worshiper and his community. While knowing the redemption of Christ, believers still await the consummation of the purpose of God in their lives, and the greater fulfillment of God's purpose in the ingathering of many peoples into his presence.
Jesus gave further significance to the Feast of Tabernacles when he attended the feast himself, as recorded in the Gospel of John. As practiced in Judaism, the festival included a rite in which the high priest drew water from the Pool of Siloam and poured it out in the temple courtyard. This rite is the background for Jesus' words on this occasion:
On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and proclaimed, "If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, 'Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.'" Now this he said about the Spirit, which those who believed in him were to receive; for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified (John 7:37-39).
The Feast of Tabernacles therefore speaks of the experience of being filled with the Holy Spirit, and of the outflow of life from the believer, and from the entire Christian community, that is the work of the glorified Christ in our midst.
An Experiential Progression. It is worth noting that, taken in sequence, the feasts of Israel outline a spiritual progression in the Christian life. The theme of progression is a scriptural motif; Jesus speaks, for example, of the Word going forth with a fruit of thirtyfold, sixtyfold and a hundredfold (Mark 4:20); the kingdom appears like the produce of the earth, "first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear" (Mark 4:28). In the same way our Christian life moves through the cycle of the feasts to a greater maturity. We escape the bondage of a sinful culture through response to Christ's Passover sacrifice in our behalf. We repent of our sin and seek the cleansing of "the old leaven." We are baptized into Christ, the "first fruits" together with him of the resurrection life. We experience the Pentecostal infilling for Spirit-led witness and maturity in the Christian walk. Continuing on the pilgrim way of our Feast of Tabernacles, we anticipate "the great day of the feast," the ingathering of the Lord's harvest in his proper time for us and for all peoples. [ Return to index of topics ]
The traditional seasons and festivals are grounded in the gospel proclamation or kerygma of Jesus' advent, passion, resurrection and sending of the Spirit - the "salvation history" of the Christian community. Ideally, the traditional calendar is a vehicle through which worshipers today may enter into those redemptive events and absorb them in their own experience.
An Issue for Evangelicals. At the beginning of this study, however, we suggested that the practice of the historic Christian calendar creates certain issues for evangelical churches and their worship leaders. For Christians who believe that the scope of Holy Scripture should set the framework for the church's worship life, as well as every other aspect of Christian life and perspective, there is a certain disconnect in the focus upon a calendar of special events and observances not fully based on biblical directives or precedents. This is especially the case when the Bible itself offers an alternative festival calendar, only partly coincident with the traditional Christian year, with holy days that were kept by Jesus Christ and his apostles as the community of the new covenant was taking shape within the matrix of the ancient Jewish world.
Observance of a particular sequence of holy days certainly does not determine a worshiper's standing before the Lord, as the apostle Paul makes clear:
One man esteems one day as better than another, while another man esteems all days alike. Let every one be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. He also who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God; while he who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God (Rom. 14:5-6).
The fundamental issue is whether, in observing or not observing a festival or special day, our purpose is the "give thanks" to the Lord — which, in the biblical sense, means to acknowledge him as our Sovereign and pledge our commitment to him. Nevertheless, festivity and celebration are activities common to all human cultures, part of the "cement" that holds a community together. It would be ironic if a segment of the Christian community were to refuse the benefit of this bonding agent within its own corporate life while its members continued to accept its benefit in their other associations: family, employment, the nation, the world of sport or other personal interest group. And, if special days are going to be observed anyway, it would be ironic if evangelical Christians continued to ignore the very ones mandated in Scripture in favor of a sequence of festivals originating elsewhere.
Non-Biblical Festivals. This study is not suggesting the abandonment of well-established Christian observances. Any proposal to abandon these festivals is not likely to gain much acceptance. Christmas has become so embedded in the commercial and social life of North America, and so identified with secondary themes such as entertaining children or promoting international peace, that it is difficult to renew it for any role in the celebration of salvation history. Originating in a Roman winter solstice festival on December 25, the Natalis Solis Invicti, it began to be adapted by Christians to celebrate the nativity of Christ in the fourth century, although theologians objected that it led to confusion of Christ with the sun god. Despite its pagan background and cultural bondage, most churches will have no choice but to continue to celebrate Christmas, attempting to focus on its incarnational theology and perhaps highlighting the themes of preparation and penitence during the preceding Advent season. But the effort to recapture Christmas for the Christian perspective is hindered by the fact that there is no biblical directive or precedent for a celebration of the birth of Jesus.
On a lesser scale, the same is true for Halloween, the eve of All Saints Day, a season also lacking a scriptural precedent and which has been co-opted by symbolism of witchcraft and the occult. A common response of evangelical churches has been to provide alternative events, especially for children, that eliminate the anti-Christian elements. Protestant churches also have the opportunity to make the season a remembrance of the gains of the Reformation, for it was on October 31, 1517, that Martin Luther launched his program for the renewal of the church.
But our focus is on the value of the biblical cycle of festivals in the renewal of Christian worship. Where the events of the Christian calendar correspond to the biblical feasts, these feasts can inform and shape the Christian observance, according to their historical, prophetic and experiential significance as discussed above.
Passover/Pascha. As we have seen, the correspondence between Passover and Pascha (Easter) is well established in the history of Christian worship. Drawing from this correspondence, the Christian celebration of the Lord's resurrection would focus on themes that harmonize with the elements of the Passover cycle: God's creation of a new people who have passed through the judgment by the blood of the Lamb, his victory over evil and the insidious leaven of a death-dealing culture, the new life in Christ that constitutes the first fruits of a greater reality now appearing.
Pentecost. Anciently established in Christian tradition, Pentecost has been neglected in many circles. It could be revived, in evangelical worship, in witness not only to the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the church, but also to the torah of Christ, the mandate for maturity in the walk with God, and also to the unity of the body of Christ worldwide.
The Feast of Tabernacles. For most Christians, Tabernacles or Booths is the missing link in the chain of biblical festivals, for it has no equivalent in the traditional calendar. Worship leaders could give serious thought to developing an annual fall or harvest festival marked by the spirited celebration of the glory and dominion of the Lord, both now and to come. Congregations individually or in local groups could revive this biblical festival as a means of outreach to the larger culture, especially through the fine arts, in celebrating the biblical vision for the world mission of the gospel of Jesus Christ. A model along these lines has been established by the International Christian Embassy with its annual celebration of the Christian Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem, a festival marked by music, dance and pageantry. Since 1980 it has become a pilgrimage feast for Christians from many nations around the globe who assemble each year in Zion.
The Day of the Lord. "Yahweh's Day" may have been a festival celebrating the enthronement of Yahweh as King and Sovereign over his covenant people. If so, the concept of "the Day of the Lord" transfers readily to the Christian observance of the Lord's Day, the day of Christ's resurrection, in token that "God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified" (Acts 2:36). In this sense, every Sunday worship time celebrates the presence and dominion of "the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb" (Rev. 21:22).
A specific feast of "Christ the King" was proclaimed by Pope Pius XI in 1925, and assigned to the last Sunday of October. Subsequently it was adopted in the liturgical year of some North American Protestant denominations, where at one time it was observed on the last Sunday of August to introduce a new season called Kingdomtide. In the United States this was an appropriate time for a festival proclaiming the dominion of Christ over all areas of life, for the succeeding months include national holidays such as Labor Day, Veterans Day and Thanksgiving, as well as presidential and congressional elections. The move back toward the traditional Christian year resulted in the disappearance of Kingdomtide and a de-emphasis on the festival of Christ the King, which was moved by some denominations to the last Sunday of the liturgical year, before the season of Advent. If the Day of the Lord was also a new year's festival, as some biblical scholars have theorized, then it could appropriately precede the beginning of the Christian year. But (when observed in the fall) the new year for ancient Israel began earlier, in our September or October. Such a time is a more significant "new year" time for North American congregations, as church activities resume or intensify after the summer lull. In short, Kingdomtide and its inaugurating festival of Christ the King were a good and biblically grounded idea that was quashed by liturgical traditionalism.
Models for Celebration. The biblical festivals, as a whole, have a celebratory significance as models for the Christian observance of events in the church calendar. This significance is tied to their association with the agricultural cycle and the common life of the people of God. The understanding of what a biblical festival is, as suggested in the analyses in the earlier part of this study, might help evangelical congregations to appreciate and augment the "joyful" aspects of a Christian worship calendar. It might also help worshipers to experience the festivals as events that especially lift up the Lord's ownership of the earth's resources and of our time.
For Christians it is not really a question of reverting to the original forms of the feasts of Israel: a roasted lamb with bitter herbs, unleavened bread, a shock of grain, a goat driven into the desert, shelters in the fields — although some appropriate reenactments might have educational and re-presentational value. But when the feasts of Israel are allowed to inform a distinctively Christian shaping of the liturgical year, Christian worship will achieve greater conformity with what our covenant God has mandated in his Word, and Christian worshipers will enjoy an experience of heart and life that reflects the spiritual significance of these feasts.
"Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us; therefore let us keep the feast."
3 Churches in the Reformed tradition hold to the "regulative principle" of worship, in which New Testament is taken as the norm for Christian practice. Our view is that the "regulative principle" should be understood more broadly, according to what John Wesley called "the whole scope and tenor of Scripture." The New Testament church was a persecuted community that had to assemble furtively, without attracting the attention of hostile authorities. Under such conditions, Christians were not able to carry on the type of public worship that would have made greater use of precedents from the Old Testament. That the early church possessed a grander vision for the worship of "the Lord God and the Lamb" is evident from the descriptions of worship in the Revelation to John.
4 Apparently at certain times the new year was considered to begin in the spring, and at other times in the fall as with today's Jewish Rosh Hashanah or "head of the year" which occurs in September or October. The biblical sources reflect the variation. Passover (Unleavened Bread) occurs in Abib, which Leviticus calls "the first month." The rites associated with the Feast of Booths or Ingathering occur in what Lev. calls "the seventh month," whereas Exodus refers to this time as "the end of the year."
6 The Book of Psalms does not explicitly mention the "Day of the Lord." It is possible that the "Day of the Lord" was another name for the fall festival, the Feast of Tabernacles, as celebrated in Jerusalem. This could have been the case during those periods when the new year was observed in the fall, rather than the spring.
7 Some evangelical churches have introduced a Passover Seder into the observance of Holy Week, complete with Jewish customs that come from later than New Testament times. In the practice of some churches, symbolism is attached to the matzah or unleavened bread; the striped appearance of the cracker is taken as emblematic of healing in the Lord's Supper, in accordance with Isaiah's words, "with his stripes we are healed" (Isa.. 53:5). But this is not a biblical correspondence, since it is based only on the modern appearance of the matzah. And although the phrase "Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us; therefore let us keep the feast" occurs in some liturgies of the Eucharist, Paul's saying really applies not to the Lord's Supper but to the entirety of the Christian life, a life of separation from the sinful condition of the old order out of which the church has emerged. This is clear from the context of Paul's remarks: "Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us, therefore, celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth" (1 Cor. 5:7-8). The rite of the Eucharist, as it developed from Jesus' words at the Last Supper, owes more to the Jewish ceremony of blessing after a family meal than to the context of the Passover in which Jesus instituted the ordinance, and it is a misunderstanding to link it to the symbolism of the Passover meal.
9 This judgment may be taken as inherent in a person's rejection of the truth of Jesus Christ (John 3:19; Rom. 1:18, 2:5), as a final judgment upon one's death (Heb. 9:7), as a judgment upon a community that has rejected God's Messiah (Acts 17:31; Rev. 18:10), or as a future judgment upon a sinful and ungodly world, whether historical or cosmic (2 Pet. 3:7). Actually, in the New Testament these themes all overlap and refer to both the immediate and ultimate destiny of a culture, and its individual members, determined to turn away from the covenant offered by God in Jesus Christ.