In Old Testament times God was very keen that his people should meet together as a community on a regular basis. They were to worship him, and encourage and build one another up. So he commanded people to meet weekly. In addition, he commanded people to celebrate certain festivals. And the purpose of those festivals was to remind the people of some of the great things that he had done for them. To remind them of the things he had promised. And to give them an opportunity to respond to him.
The festivals were to be held in a central location, to which everyone was expected to travel. Consequently people would have to travel great distances, and sometimes in very dangerous conditions, to participate. But they did (or those who were faithful did). And as the years went on, and the number of things that God did for his people increased, the number of festivals celebrated grew.
Now of course we don’t live in Old Testament times. Despite that, God still wants us to meet together on a regular basis – to worship him and to encourage and build up one another. We also have festivals reminding us of the things that God has done, and the things he has promised his people. Now, they may not be same festivals as in Old Testament times, and these days we may not need to go on a pilgrimage to a central location to celebrate them, but these festivals remain important nonetheless.
So what I would like to do, is to briefly revisit the major festivals that we celebrate; to examine the significance and importance of celebrating them.
Now Christmas, despite the way that many people celebrate it today, is about the birth of a baby. A baby who is the link between ourselves and our creator. Christmas is about a creator who loves his creation very much; and it is about us, who have a nasty habit of caring more about ourselves than either him or others.
As a result, like all good parents, God needed to deal with that problem. He didn’t want his people excluded from heaven because they weren’t good enough. Consequently he provided the means by which our mistakes and failures could be blotted out; treated as though they never happened. Thus making us worthy to enter heaven and be with him.
Of course that means a baby needed to be born in the world. A baby who would grow up, live a perfect life, and take on all the punishment that we deserve. And that baby was his son, Jesus. As a consequence that is what the first Christmas was all about – the birth of a very special baby.
Now, for those who think that Christmas is one of the most important festivals in the Christian calendar, then I’m sorry to say you are quite wrong. Christmas may be considered important in popular culture (and the church may well have got on the bandwagon too), but in reality the way we celebrate Christmas today only really began in the nineteenth century. Indeed, the church never intended the birth of Jesus to be a major festival at all. Rather the introduction of Christmas was a means to stamp out the pagan worship of the sun god, which was very popular in Roman times.
Of far more importance in church history was the celebration of Epiphany. Originally it celebrated the baptism of Jesus, and the commencement of Jesus’s manifestation to the world; the beginning of his adult ministry. But these days it gets confused with the arrival of the Magi. Epiphany, then, should still be an important day, traditionally celebrated on 6th January. Unfortunately with the popularity of Christmas, these days it gets largely forgotten.
Next we move to Lent… to which some funny things have been attached over the years. It’s a time when people have given up all sorts of food and drink, as though they feel they have to abstain from particular things. Traditions have built up, like not having flowers in church. And all sorts of ideas have surfaced about what you should and shouldn’t do during Lent.
Now originally Lent lasted only two or three days. It was intended to be a time of preparation for Easter. A time to reflect on the historical events of the first Easter, and a time to reflect on the meaning and appropriate response to that event. But those two days of preparation soon became a week, to include what we now know as Holy Week. And a time of fasting became a feature of the spiritual preparation.
In very short time however that week became forty days (excluding Sundays), and a whole new purpose for Lent emerged. And the purpose of Lent? Well, it was a time of preparation for adults wanting to be baptised. Why forty days? Well, there are two reasons. Firstly, in a church open to persecution, it was important that baptismal candidates proved themselves to be genuine. And consequently 40 days of rigorous examination was considered to be a pretty good test. However, secondly, in those days the church took seriously the fact that baptism should be a response to faith. Therefore 40 days of teaching was necessary to make sure of a good solid grounding in the faith. Those who passed scrutiny would then be baptised on Easter Day in the evening.
Of course the theory was that those forty days were also expected to be a period of fasting for the congregation too. After all it was their responsibility to accept and nurture all new church members. However, that idea didn’t prove very popular, and in reality was only observed by those who were very keen in the faith.
Despite some very strange modern practices, then, the importance of Lent, as a festival, should be one where we examine our integrity and the depth of our commitment to our Lord. Particularly in response to the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Now, Jesus (and his family) took seriously the importance of celebrating the major Old Testament festivals. During Jesus’ childhood, Mary and Joseph took him to Jerusalem for Passover each year (and we have the story of one such occasion in the bible, when Jesus was aged twelve). About twenty years later Jesus was still going to the festival sin Jerusalem. And it was there that he was arrested, put on trial, found not guilty, but crucified anyway.
Now Easter is the oldest of all the Christian festivals. Originally it was celebrated with Good Friday and Easter Day being treated as the one festival. But by the fourth century Good Friday was split off to make it a separate day.
Easter is the most important festival in the church’s calendar. And the reason is, that unless someone who had lived a perfect life voluntarily gave up their life for others, there would be no solution to the problem of sin. As a consequence the birth of Jesus may have been an essential step in the carrying out of God’s solution. But without the willing death of a perfect life, the solution and even Jesus’ birth would have been for nothing.
And the proof that that God’s plan had worked, we see in the fact of Jesus’ resurrection. In God bringing Jesus to new life, having completed the task that God had given him to do, and having completed it to God’s total satisfaction.
Easter, then, is a celebration at the (excuse the pun) crux of the Christian faith. It is also a challenge. Because Easter, is also about whether we want to accept God’s solution to our sins, or not. God’s solution is not automatic, it needs a response. If we respond positively, and put our faith in Jesus, then all well and good. But if we don’t respond positively, or if we simply sit on the fence and make no decision one way or another, then we are effectively tell God that we want nothing to do with his solution at all, and that we are happy to be left to our own devices.
6. ASCENSION DAY
Now forty days after Easter is Ascension Day. After Jesus’ rose from the dead, he appeared before his disciples many times. But forty days after the resurrection Jesus’s disciples saw him being taken up into heaven, as he disappeared from their sight in a cloud. Yes, from then on he would occasionally make appearances to them and other people. But nothing like with the regularity, or in the way, that they had got used to.
Now, Ascension Day is important, because without it Jesus couldn’t have sent his “other comforter” that he had promised his disciples. Which is why in the church’s early history, Ascension Day and Pentecost were celebrated as the one festival.
Ten days after Ascension Day (seven weeks after Easter), is Pentecost. It was the day that God sent his power on the disciples. They were all huddled together in a room, when God sent his Holy Spirit to dwell in them. Then all of a sudden they were able to do many wonderful things. Instead of hiding away, they went out into the public arena. Instead of being awkward and tongue tied, they were confident and bold. They discovered abilities they didn’t know they had. And they demonstrated supernatural gifts they hadn’t had used before. They did all sorts of things that they never thought were humanly possible.
Now, like the other festivals, Pentecost has its challenges. Indeed most people do not consider it to be an important festival at all. But if Pentecost is all about the day that God sent his Holy Spirit on his disciples, and we are Jesus’ disciples too, then Pentecost is a reminder of the power that God has provided his people. As a consequence we need to be switched on to that power. Indeed we are useless to God unless we are switched on.
Pentecost, then, is about accepting God’s gift of the Holy Spirit. It’s about growing in the faith. And it’s about sharing our faith with others. Things that we can only do when we have, and use, God’s power. And that’s why Pentecost has and continues to be considered by many to be the second most important Christian Festival (i.e. after Easter).
And that leaves our look at the Christian Festivals, with the one which actually starts the Christian year – Advent. Now beginning on the Sunday nearest to St Andrew’s Day (30th November), Advent like Lent is about a time of examination. A time to check on how genuine we are in our Christian walk.
However, unlike Lent which has the death and resurrection of Jesus as its focus, Advent, these days, has the coming of Christ at its core: Christ’s first coming as a baby, which we celebrate at Christmas, and Christ’s second coming, when he will come to judge the living and the dead.
Now, I said “these days” that is the focus of Advent. Originally, however, before Christmas was ever considered being celebrated, and for a long time afterwards, Advent was focussed well and truly on the second coming of Christ.
And its purpose… well, it was like Lent. A time of preparation for adults wanting to be baptised. It was a time of rigorous testing to make sure that the candidates for baptism were genuine. And at the time Advent continued unbroken through to Epiphany, when the baptisms took place. It was a time to reflect on the future event of Judgement Day, with all its implications (for believers and non-believers alike). In other words Advent was a festival whose focus was primarily on how prepared we are for Judgement Day, and for life after death.
Now, whichever focus we want to accept today, the festival remains a reminder of our mortality, and of our failure to meet God’s standards. It’s a reminder that one day we will be asked to account for everything that we’ve done, and everything we’ve failed to do as well.
Of course on that basis we have a problem. We’re not good enough; we don’t meet God’s standards. However, we’re told, that come Judgement Day, those who have faith in Jesus will be acquitted for all they’ve done wrong, whilst those who don’t believe will be condemned. And why will those who believe be acquitted, after all we all make mistakes? Well, it is because Jesus has already paid the punishment for their sins, on their behalf.
Advent then is a reminder that Judgement Day is very real. That it is something that we will all face.
And that unless we are people of faith in this world, come Judgement Day, eternal damnation will be our lot. And we don’t get given a second chance.
Of course the question that is so easily asked is. “Why does the church’s year begin with Advent and not Christmas?” Well for a time the church’s year did begin with Christmas. But as I’ve already suggested, as far as church history is concerned, Christmas was the last of the festivals I’ve mentioned to be added to the calendar. It has, historically, also been deemed to be the least important. Which is probably why Christmas as the beginning of the church’s year didn’t last. However, Advent, with its focus on the need for people to be reconciled with God, picks up the very theme that was so close to Jesus’ heart. And it’s the theme that should be the main focus of the church’s life and teaching too.
Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Ascension Day, and Pentecost – these are the principle festivals that the Church celebrates today. Some began to be celebrated very early in the life of the church, others were later additions. Some remain much as they were at the beginning, whist others have changed their meaning. Some have evolved to meet the needs of the church, and dare I say it, sadly, some have evolved to meet expectations of the wider community. Most have always been considered important, whilst one at least, Christmas, until the nineteenth century was never really considered important at all.
Meeting together for worship has always been important, not only in Old Testament and New Testament times, but today as well. In the scriptures, God continually reminded the people through his prophets and the apostles, of the need for the community of faith to meet together regularly (i.e. weekly). And, in the Old Testament in particular, of the importance of remembering specific religious festivals.
Now we don’t live in either Old Testament or New Testament times, and we no longer live with a list of required festivals to be kept. But meeting regularly for worship to express our faith, and to encourage one another, is an essential part of the expression of the Christian faith. And remembering specific Christian festivals is an important part of the building up of our faith and our Christian community too.
However I believe that it is time to do some juggling in regards to which festivals we celebrate, and why. And we certainly need to have a conversation about the importance we place on each.
© 2015, Brian A Curtis