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Holidays and Holy Days

The LORD said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘These are my appointed festivals, the appointed festivals of the LORD, which you are to proclaim as sacred assemblies." (Leviticus 23:1-2 ESV)

I love a good holiday. Celebrating together with family, including a big Christmas or Thanksgiving dinner or an Independence Day cookout are times of warmth and love and bonding and remembering that I cherish. It's good to know that God understands this about us and has prescribed Holy Days for us to celebrate!

In Leviticus, chapter 23, Moses tells the people of Israel that God has set apart for them a series of festival Holy Days for them to celebrate. The chapter includes:

Sabbath - a day each week to celebrate worship and rest from work

The Passover - a festival to remember the great deliverance from slavery in Egypt

The Feast of Weeks (First Fruits) - celebrating the spring harvest and God's provision

The Feast of Trumpets - a day marking the Jewish New Year and preparation for the Day of Atonement

The Day of Atonement - a day of repentance and forgiveness of national and personal sin

The Feast of Booths - a time of living in booths or tents to remember that God was their shelter while they wandered in the wilderness before entering the promised land.

Many Christians have not heard of these prescribed festivals. And what would be their relevance for us? These Holy Days tell the story of Israel's redemption and reliance on God. And they are part of the roots of our faith as Christians. While faith in Jesus Christ fulfills the meaning of each of them and takes away the required practices, it is still a good thing to know them in order to know the fulness of our redemption story.

One thing that makes it easy to forget Leviticus 23's prescribed Holy Days is the fact that Christianity has our own set of Holy Days to celebrate and remember our redemption story.

Advent - the four weeks before Christmas, anticipating the coming of Christ our world

Christmas - the celebration of the Son of God becoming one of us to redeem us

Epiphany - remembering the coming of the Light of the World for all nations

Lent - 40 days of prayer and self-examination before Easter

Holy Week - the story of His passion poured out for us to the point of death

Palm Sunday - Jesus entering Jerusalem to go to the Cross

Maundy Thursday - remembering the Last Supper where He gave us Holy Communion

Good Friday - His death on the Cross for atonement of our sin

Eastertide - the celebration of Jesus' resurrection, conquering death for us

Eastertide includes Easter Sunday and the next 40 days, leading to His Ascension

Ascension Day - the day when Jesus ascended to heaven to rule as King of kings

Pentecost - remembering the gift of the Holy Spirit, come to indwell us

Some followers of Jesus seek to incorporate all these Holy Days - Jewish and Christian - into the sacred story of their redemption. Others only really know about and celebrate the biggest ones: Christmas and Easter. Many include celebration of the Sabbath by worshiping and having family time on Sundays, and the fulfilled meaning of Passover in celebrating Holy Communion regularly. The Holy Days are meant to be great celebrations of the redemption God has worked in us by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in fulfillment of all the other covenants and Holy Days He gave His people in history.

There is a danger of mashing up the meaning of these Holy Days and only celebrating them as holidays with the larger culture. Christmas has become buried in the symbols of Christmas trees, Santa Claus, the Grinch, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, gift-giving and more gift-giving to the point that for some in our culture, that is the meaning of Christmas - all without thought of the birth of our Savior.

Easter has the Bunny (not the Energizer one - the other one), egg hunts, baskets and baskets of candy, and big family meals - often without mention of Jesus' resurrection from the dead.

Many of the cultural symbols of the holidays have roots in pagan celebrations in history. There really was a Saint Nicholas who barely has any resemblance to Santa Claus. (Google him. His story is fascinating.) Christmas trees were used to decorate for winter in Roman households, and somewhat in celebration of Saturnalia, the Roman festival for their god, Saturn, from December 17-23. Eggs were used as symbols of life in many pagan celebrations in history.

So should Christians fully embrace all the cultural trappings making the Holy Days into holidays? Should we rail against them? Should be ignore them completely? Should we just accept them?

I believe each of us can be led by the Holy Spirit to the right place in celebrating the Holy Days without them being swallowed up by the holidays. Our first obligation, it seems to me, is to lift up the spiritual meaning of the Holy Days, whatever we do with the cultural practices. I don't believe we are forbidden to celebrate the Holy Days with a mixture of the "pagan" symbols (reinterpreted) and the richness of the Scripture's accounts of the history behind the Holy Day itself. If God leads you to replace the holiday symbols at your house with Holy Day symbols, then celebrate joyfully! If God leads you to incorporate gift-giving, a Christmas tree or a basket of Easter candy in your celebration, be sure to read the story of redemption from Scripture that day, too, and emphasize the spiritual meaning.

I think three principles are important:

1--Don't just blindly go along with secular, pagan celebrations and symbols. Celebrate our Redemption Story!

2--Be steadfast in teaching the children the religious meaning of Christmas and Easter.

3--Seek the Holy Spirit to guide how you respond to the secular symbols

We don't have to be anti-pagan. We can redeem the holidays as Holy Days, celebrating our redemption story all through the year, as I believe God would have us do. Give it some thought...


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