Monday, March 30, 2015

Are holidays and religious festivals suitable for Christians?

For this week's newspapers, I answered a question about whether it is appropriate for Christians to set aside certain days to commemorate people or events of a religious or civic nature:

Q:  I’ve heard accusations recently that it is unbiblical for Christians to celebrate certain days or seasons as an observance of people or events from church or national history.  When, if ever, is it acceptable for Christians to do this?

We can find evidence that humans have set aside certain days of the year as commemorations throughout history, even when their only tool to do so was the angles of the sunlight shining down on the earth.  In Bible history, we see the same pattern, as the Lord forbids Israel from joining in the religious festivals of their unbelieving neighbors, but also gives them a calendar for their own commemoration of His deeds in history. 

They remembered God’s act of creation on the New Year, the forgiveness of sins on the Day of Atonement, and the giving of the Law on Pentecost.  The Passover was not only instituted to save the people of Israel from the tenth plague upon Egypt, but also given as a yearly commemoration of God’s deliverance from death and from Egyptian slavery.  After the Israelites settled in the Promised Land, they celebrated the Feast of Booths as a commemoration of their ancestors’ 40 years of wandering the wilderness on their way from Egypt, and later, the festivals of Purim and Hanukkah marked other events of God’s deliverance. 

In similar fashion, the Christian Church also holds a yearly cycle of festivals remembering the life of Jesus and His provision for the Church.  Nearly all Christians celebrate Christmas and Resurrection as a minimum.  The most historic churches spend the first half of their liturgical year remembering the major events in our Lord’s earthly life, and the remainder focusing on His teachings as they have been handed down to the Church which preserves and proclaims them.   

While the date and number of these festivals is not given in the New Testament, we do know that the Church began to read Scripture in a predictable pattern from very early on.  Historical documents from outside of Scripture also indicate that the Resurrection was celebrated at the same time as Passover within the lifetime of the Apostles, that Lent became a time of preparation for this festival by the end of the First Century A.D. and that Christmas was a common festival by the first half of the Second Century, giving a strong indication that this tradition of the Church in commemorating feasts and festivals was approved by the Apostles themselves and is an ancient part of the Church’s life. 

We also see today that the Church commemorates other events in the lives of Biblical saints such as the Annunciation, when our Lord’s conception was proclaimed to Mary by the Angel Gabriel, and the Confession of St. Peter, who boldly proclaimed Jesus as the promised Savior.  In addition, other Biblical saints and their roles in the Scriptures are remembered on the dates of their deaths, and other important figures in Christian history are commemorated for their exemplary contributions to the life of the Church. 

The types of feasts, festivals, and commemorations listed above would all be an ancient and acceptable part of Christian tradition, along with other events such as the anniversary of a congregation, when Christians might gather to thank God for providing in a particular way.  The only caution regarding these festivals would be to ensure that they are held in thanksgiving for what God has done, rather than being transformed into worship of the human persons involved in God’s works. 

National and civic commemorations are also appropriate for Christians to engage in outside of their congregations, provided that they do not involve idolatrous worship or a compromise to their confession of Christ to the world.  However, in most cases it is inadvisable to make these commemorations a part of the church’s worship life, but rather to let the nation’s festivals be celebrated by the nation and the Church’s be celebrated by the Church, and allow the members to participate in both according to their vocation. 

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