Also See Jesus and The Law...
Should Christians Celebrate the Jewish Feasts? Are Christians who do not observe the Sabbath and Festivals of the Old Covenant "lawless."? The Bible contains both Old and New Testaments each with seemingly different teachings and commands, which has led to more than a little confusion for those that have not grasped the seamless relationship between the Old and New Testaments, and struggle with the tension between the Old Testament emphasis on regulations and the New Testament emphasis on grace. Certainly many Christians are not clear what our relationship to the Old Testament should be, especially when it comes to the Old Testament Laws in general and the Ten Commandments in particular, also the keeping of the Sabbath and/or other Feasts of the Old Covenant.
A great reaction developed during the era of the Reformation against observing regular times and seasons of prayer and celebration. The reaction was particularly strong in the Reformed and Anabaptist wings of the movement. In extreme cases this reaction led to the total rejection of all Christian festivals and prayer customs not explicitly sanctioned in the Bible. Is such a position appropriate for Protestant Christians today? It is helpful first of all to consider what provoked such a severe reaction. I would isolate four tendencies in late medieval Catholicism which led some reformers to reject established pattern of worship and festival:
A notion of the intrinsic holiness of certain times and places, which the reformers found to be appropriate to the old covenant but not to the new.
A manner of legislating certain times and feasts, which treated the keeping of them as fundamental to being a Christian, an obligation as solemn and essential to the Christian life as the keeping of the Ten Commandments.
A popular understanding of merits which saw religious observances as means of mechanically accumulating points on the credits side of the divine accounting ledger.
A proliferation of feast days dedicated to saints and a corresponding loss of understanding, on the part of many people, of the centrality of Christ and his unique redeeming work.
While Catholics would views these issues differently, few modern Catholic scholars would deny that, at least on the popular level, abuses in all these areas existed in 15th and 16th century Europe and stood in need of reform.
But did the radical surgery of some of the reformers recapture the balance? Did they not sometimes go too far and clip away observances that were of great value? One could hold that their stand was justifiable in their day. But can the same stand be justified in our own day, when the enemy is launching his attacks from other directions?
Today, in general, Christians of all traditions have grown more sensitive to the ways in which the observance of religious times and seasons can go wrong. Nonetheless (contrary to Murphy's law), the fact that such patterns can go wrong does not mean that they must go wrong. The New Testament allows such practices and the earliest Christians adopted them. If freedom to liability to abuse and distortion were the criterion for determining Christian doctrine and practice, the Christian people would have no creed and no way of life.
The question that many Protestant Christians would request to have answered could be phrased as follows: "What is the fruit of observing patterns of prayer and celebration? Does it lead to a stifling institutionalism or a deeper knowledge of God in Christ? Does it lead to the love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith, which is the aim of our charge? (1 Timothy 1:5). How can observing times and seasons support the life of the Christian family and the life of the Christian community.
I will offer an answer by describing a particular observance which has become integral to the life of my own community, The Sword of the Spirit. The observance is a regular family celebration of the Lord's Day. The example will serve as a concrete illustration of how a wide variety of similar practices can build up the body of Christ.
We begin the celebration of the Lord's Day in our families on Saturday night, a time which both follows the biblical manner of reckoning days as beginning in the evening and also allows us, wide awake, to inaugurate the Lord's Day with a leisurely festive meal. Many of the customs we have adopted are modeled on traditional Jewish forms of celebration. The woman of the home begins the event by lighting a candle and reciting a blessing in which the themes of the burning candle, the creation of light on the first day, and the resurrection of Jesus are all joined. The man of the house then recites a short summons to all present which urges them to give thanks to God for the blessings of the week and to consecrate this day to him as a time of worship and refreshment in his presence. He proceeds to say a blessing over a cup of wine and a loaf of bread, and the family eats and drinks as the sign of their unity and their joy. In addition to a bountiful and tasty meal, the evening may include singing, sharing together from events of the week, teaching and discussion from the scripture, and informal entertainment or games. All dress well, eat well, and usually sleep well.
Saturday night is for the family, and no community events are scheduled during this time.
Sunday itself is mainly occupied with church services in the morning, a community gathering for worship and teaching in the afternoon, and occasionally a course in some aspect of Christian living. As much as possible, members of the community avoid workday affairs, set the day apart for the Lord and for spending time with his people. Some families conclude the day formally on Sunday night with a brief set of prayers over dinner and an extinguishing of the candle lit the previous day.
Order and stability
Lord's Day celebration presents an example of several ways in which such observances can strengthen the family and the community. Celebration of the Lord's Day gives every week an orientation that is God-centered. Saturday night and Sunday become the leg on which the whole week pivots. When observed well, the coming of the Lord's Day is an event to which everyone looks forward. Children like the candles, the familiar prayers, and the special atmosphere that pervades the home. The prospect of sweets and games also evokes enthusiasm. Saturday dinner and Sunday, kept clear of normal work, offer a regular opportunity for social contact with other community members, which ranges on Sunday from a special brunch to a sledding or swimming party. The regularity of the Lord's Day thus provides an order and stability that strengthens the family and the community in their life together with God.
We are all naturally creatures of routine. The man who shuns God-centered routines will inevitably fill his life with other ones. When I was growing up, Sunday was always a special day, but not for spiritual reasons. There was no school, I would sleep later, my father would go out and buy bagels and lox and cream cheese for brunch, I would read at leisure the Sunday funnies and the expanded sports section, and the men of the household would gather in the afternoon before the television to watch professional football or baseball. I waited eagerly each week for the appearance of Sunday. In a similar fashion, many Americans have a weekly and yearly routine which is governed largely by a pattern of sports events and television programs. Such routines develop inevitably -- so why should we not cultivate routines which center our attention on the Lord Jesus? If our year does not center on Easter Sunday and the celebration of the Lord's resurrection, then it may very well center on Super Bowl Sunday -- the secular liturgical extravaganza of modern America.
Of course, Christian routine has its dangers. It can easily become an end in itself, divorced form the purpose it is meant to serve. It can even become a substitute for a genuine relationship with God. It can become a bondage which prevents us from responding appropriately to exceptional circumstances and the daily initiatives of the Holy Spirit. However, Christian routine need not degenerate in any of these ways. It can be observed spiritually and flexibly, and such an observance will bring a peace and order that enables us to focus more constantly on the Lord.
Unity and identity
Often the things we remember most fondly in our family backgrounds are the simple customs -- the way we washed the dishes, did our chores, took our vacations, woke up in the morning, went to sleep at night. Good customs build positive memories, and positive memories strengthen unity and sense of identity. A weekly custom such as the celebration of the Lord's Day fosters this type of identification, not only within the family, but among the families of the community. Yearly customs can accomplish the same end. What person raised in a Christian home lacks warm memories of Christmas caroling, feasting, and gift-giving, and what Jewish man or woman raised in a traditional home cannot in the mind's eye still see father chanting the Passover hagaddah or lighting the Hanukkah menorah?
The greatest benefit of the Lord's Day celebration and similar customs, though, derives from their Christian significance. Family unity and identification are fortified, but this identity is rooted in the One from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named. When five-year old Billy asks, "Why do we keep the Lord's Day, Dad?" his father responds, "Because we are Christians, Billy, and this is the day of the week on which Jesus rose from the dead". The Lord's Day celebration builds our family identity on the bedrock of God's redeeming work in Jesus Christ.
If we do not observe such customs as the Lord's Day, then our children and we ourselves will likely identify more with the surrounding secular society than with the Christian people. Elimination of Christian customs will still leave an abundance of secular customs, and these will shape our identities.
From the very beginning the annual Passover festival served as an opportunity for teaching about the miraculous deliverance from Egypt and Israel's birth as a people: "You shall observe this rite as an ordinance for you and for your sons for ever. And when you come to the land which the Lord will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this service. And when your children say to you, "What do you mean by this service?" you shall say, "It is the sacrifice of the Lord's Passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he slew the Egyptians but spared our houses'" (Exodus 12;24-27). The several repetitions of this exhortation to teach the sons about the Passover underlie the traditional Jewish Passover story of the four sons and, perhaps the famous four questions of the Seder.
The Passover Seder has functioned successfully for generations as an annual family classroom. Experience proves that a custom observed scrupulously each year in the home, utilizing special symbolic foods and its won collection of songs and prayers, inevitably evokes a set of questions which the father of the family must be prepared to answer.
In an analogous fashion the celebration of the Lord's Day provides a perfect opportunity for teaching about the resurrection of Jesus and his fulfillment of the Sabbath. At Christmas we remember the incarnation, at Easter the redemption, at Pentecost the outpouring of the Spirit, and at Advent the Lord's second coming. The Lord's Day, Easter, and Pentecost are specifically effective teaching occasions, since they are anniversaries of the key historical events of our salvation. Of course, these are not the only days of the year when we speak about and celebrate these events. Still, these days allow vivid recollection of the details of these events and their significance. See The Birth of Jesus Hype or History? and Section on The Resurrection
Too often this element of instruction is left out of Christian seasonal celebrations such as Christmas. But Christian observances are not ends in themselves; they are supposed to point beyond themselves to a greater reality. Instruction in Christian truth gives meaning and content to the celebrations and fulfills an important part of their original purpose. See section on Christmas
In essence, observance of the Lord's Day is a celebration. It is a joyful commemoration of Christ's victory over sin and death. Thus, it involves those elements that are usually found in human celebrations: singing, feasting, entertainment, with a touch of formality (but hopefully no stiffness). Other Christian celebrations also involve gift-giving, either among ourselves or to the needy. Christ has conquered, and his people should rejoice.
Human beings have a natural desire to celebrate important events and turning points in life. We celebrate victories in war, victories in athletics, birthdays, wedding anniversaries, and anniversaries of all sorts. The degree to which we celebrate an event is the degree to which we honor the person, relationship, or institution which the event signifies. If we value those events that effected our salvation, then we should honor them with appropriate festivity. If we celebrate our own or our spouse's birthday more than the birthday of Jesus (even though the date is merely a convention), or a World Series victory more than the victory of the cross, we betray a distorted sense of values.
As human beings we are going to celebrate, even as we are going to establish routines and customs. Given that this is the case, let us celebrate with the greatest jubilation those realities which form the basis of our Christian life.
A distorted observance of patterns of worship and festival is an obstacle to the true Christian life. However, the absence of patterns of prayer and celebration can be just as great an obstacle. When instituted and overseen with pastoral wisdom, such patterns prove, in fact, to be a great asset to the Christian community. Let us diligently seek God's wisdom so that our families and communities might be conformed to heaven and not to the world, and our common life might redound more to the glory of God through Jesus Christ.
This article originally appeared in (c) Pastoral Renewal Magazine, May, 1984.