Christianity 201

May 15, 2021

Jewish Feasts, The Christian Calendar, Secular Holidays

“This is a day to remember. Each year, from generation to generation, you must celebrate it as a special festival to the Lord. This is a law for all time.” – Exodus 12:14 NLT

May, June and July offer a concentration of holidays in the U.S. and Canada, and I suspect Europeans also have days which take advantage of the nicer weather. To what degree the pandemic will affect our ability to gather together remains to be seen, but we do mark these days with, at the very least, a day off work.

For Christians, we also — to varying degrees depending on our denomination — follow the Christian liturgical calendar as well, but our understanding of the world that Jesus, the incarnate second person of the Trinity, inhabited during his short stay among us also included a celebration of the Jewish festivals, and many of those were actually pointing to Him.

First stop for the Christian is to understand our Jewish roots, and in particular the Feast Days and also, as the lower section of the chart below shows, their fulfillment in the New Testament:

Source: God’s Calendar.

In searching, I came across several articles by a group called United Church of God, which celebrates these Feasts but doesn’t do Christmas or Easter. (Jehovah’s Witnesses fall into this category as well.) I don’t know much about this group, but I found this comment challenging:

Jesus Christ celebrated seven festivals every year that most Christians today can’t even name, yet He is at the core of all of them.

But when it comes to the special days on the secular calendar, one article on another site asked the question, “Should you observe God’s holy days or demonic holidays?” This rather provocative approach accomplishes little. We don’t live in a theocratic society as did the Jewish people. You may not celebrate those points on the calendar, but probably the place where you work will be closed for the day. Does the modern, secular Christmas detract from the Biblical story of incarnation? Absolutely, but we can also use the day as a talking point to inform our non-churched friends and neighbors. Similarly, we can share with them why the secular symbols of Easter — eggs and rabbits — are a shadow of the story of life we find in the resurrection.

One of the arguments used by those who oppose secular holidays, and secularized Christian holidays is that it constitutes adding to the calendar God has already given. Two verses in Deuteronomy are quoted:

Don’t add anything to the word that I am commanding you, and don’t take anything away from it. Instead, keep the commands of the Lord your God that I am commanding all of you. (4:2, CEV)

Diligently do everything I command you, the way I command you: don’t add to it; don’t subtract from it. (12:14, MSG)

Again, remember these verses are from the Pentateuch. These books teach us the ways of God and God’s dealing with humankind, but they also encode a law we are no longer under.

Those from liturgical churches however do have Evangelicals at an advantage. In the Biblical panorama of the church calendar we see things which are often missed in our modern churches. It might do some good to swap out the names Christmas and Easter to look more closely at “Epiphany” or “Resurrection Sunday.” [For a really good look at this calendar check out the image accompanying this article.]

Another example: We just passed Ascension Day on Thursday. Writing on Friday at DailyEncouragement.net, Stephen and Brooksyne Weber noted:

In most of Christendom this day doesn’t have nearly the emphasis as other notable events in our Lord’s earthly life such as His birth, death, resurrection or Day of Pentecost which followed His Ascension by 10 days. I wonder how many readers even recalled that yesterday was Ascension Day prior to reading today’s message?

The old order communities of faith in our area place great emphasis on this holy day. As we traveled through that part of the county yesterday we noted that many of the stores and businesses are closed on Ascension Day with special services being held.

Many Christians express their faith in creeds and a line in the Apostle’s Creed states, “He ascended into heaven”. Other churches have formal statements of doctrine and this truth is expressed as in a statement such as “in His ascension to the right hand of the Father”.

Did you know that Thursday was Ascension Day? I know that I never gave it a moment’s thought. Yet in a few days, Americans will both celebrate and remember the nation’s military history with Memorial Day. I don’t think that’s wrong. It’s important to remember the people who paved the way for our liberty and freedom. But I think it’s sad that, myself included, an important day on the church calendar should pass without notice…

…In preparing this I realized there is a place of balance to be found here between our spiritual worship and our civic obligations; and especially between our First Testament history and our Second Testament life under grace. Verses can easily be pulled out to randomly support particular positions. With respect to the Law, I think this one is helpful:

NLT Gal 4:10 You are trying to earn favor with God by observing certain days or months or seasons or years. 11 I fear for you. Perhaps all my hard work with you was for nothing. 12 Dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to live as I do in freedom from these things, for I have become like you Gentiles—free from those laws.

 

 

 

 

February 25, 2020

On the Lighting of Candles

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:22 pm
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But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.
 – I Peter 2:9 NIV

I did not grow up with the liturgical calendar or anything close to it. In the last decade or so, I have learned so much from those for whom this is a bedrock of how their faith in Christ is expressed. In preparing Christianity 201, we draw from a wide variety of doctrinal streams. (If you missed yesterday’s post, by a Lutheran minister, it is a great example.)

Today someone asked me about the availability of “Lent candles.” I was familiar with Advent candles, but this one was new to me. A quick Google search revealed there are indeed such things, and “Pentecost candles” also, which got me wondering where candles appear in scripture.

In the KJV, Proverbs 20:27 reads,  The spirit of man is the candle of the Lord, searching all the inward parts of the belly. The NASB renders this as, The spirit of man is the lamp of the Lord, Searching all the innermost parts of his being. The NLT seems to take a slightly different approach: The Lord’s light penetrates the human spirit, exposing every hidden motive. The Passion Translation best expresses the source of the light, The spirit God breathed into man is like a living lamp, a shining light searching into the innermost chamber of our being.

The candle reference to which more of you are familiar follows the statement of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount which begins, ‘You are the light of the world.’ Again, the KJV, Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Or, if you prefer, the ISV: People don’t light a lamp and put it under a basket but on a lamp stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.

But why do we light candles today?

The website Schoenstatt comes up in web search results and begins with a reference to Hebrews 9:2 (NIV shown) A tabernacle was set up. In its first room were the lampstand [KJV: candlestick] and the table with its consecrated bread; this was called the Holy Place. The article begins noting the prevalence of candles in Catholic worship:

The custom and praxis of lighting candles is a significant convention in Catholic and Orthodox churches, communities and families, originating from Old Testament times where an oil lamp was lighted to ‘sustain a perpetual flame.’ In The New Testament they emphasize the sacredness of this light in Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews. ‘A first tent was prepared with the lamp stand, the table and the bread of the presence; this is called the Holy Place’.

In current Catholic tradition, this light has a precisely distinct status for it symbolizes Christ who said, ‘I am the Light of the world; the one who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have light and life,’ chronicled in (John 8:12). Most clergy however, relate the candle as representing Jesus as the Light of the world, but also the light and fire as representing the presence and power of God (similar to the pillar of fire that led the children of Israel in the exodus).

Many individuals light a candle prior to worship to symbolize their life as an offering, being burned up in service to God. All of these beliefs, and many more, exist forming elements of this symbolism. Christian faith is filled with symbolism, all of which is effective in teaching us to appreciate our faith in a way that goes beyond the intellectual level. Anything you do, like getting on your knees in prayer as an act of humility, can be very helpful and meaningful for communicating nuances of our faith which goes way beyond our available intellect…

The HolyArt blog adds,

Lighting up a candle in church is a tangible sign of faith. From the baptism candles to votive candles, light as a symbol of love towards God…

Light as manifestation of God then, as His first manifestation since that is the first thing He created in his endless benevolence and wisdom, and with it, He made all the Creation visible. Light as symbol of Christ, who said about himself: “I am the true light”, and that for us all embodies the Light of God that brightens the world, that defies death and forces darkness to withdraw…

…But there is also a more intimate dimension, tied to the practice of lighting up a candle in church, something that concerns every devotee and his silent dialog with God. A lit candle becomes the symbol of divine fire burning inside all of us, the expression of a flaming passion that warms us and makes us part of that Light that Jesus symbolizes, but that all Christians are part of…

Lighting up a candle in church, or holding one during a procession or a community ritual, has a deep unifying purpose. In such occasions, our love becomes unanimous, like a hymn sung by many joyful voices altogether. It is not just us, nor our swaying flame, but we become part of a union made of love and warmth, many fragments of light warming up in the passion of our faith, in the endlessly benevolent and shiny look of God…

These are obviously two very Catholic answers, especially if you click the links to read the selected quotes in context.

But what about Evangelical churches which are increasingly using candles, not to mention adopting the whole of the liturgical calendar? Reformed/Calvinist worship leader Bob Kauflin dealt with this in a 2006 response to a reader.

[C]andles might intentionally be used to illustrate Jesus coming as the Light of the world, or highlight that the Word of God is a light for our path. They could also be used to emphasize that we are God’s people who have been called out of darkness into His marvelous light (1 Pet. 2:9). The atmosphere that multiple candles produce can also draw attention to the awe we should experience as we encounter the God of the universe. However that should be balanced by the fact that we are clothed in the righteousness of Christ and can enter God’s presence with freedom and boldness (Eph. 3:12).

We’re out of space for today. Are candles part of your church’s tradition?


We posted this song back in 2012, noting that it might be more familiar to Catholic readers. I hope you enjoy it.

 

 

 

 

July 15, 2017

Types of Observance

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:35 pm
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This article may look familiar to some of you. I was asked to write something for our local newspaper on very, very short notice; so I took an article which had appeared here and readjusted it to reach a wider audience. I’ve also made some adjustments here.

The 4th of July. My birthday. Trinity Sunday. Each one of these represents a different type of observance – one follows the civic calendar, one is a day that is personal to my immediate family and the last is part of the liturgical calendar which begins a new cycle at Advent and is now in what is called the ordinary time period.

For the people of Israel who were often foreigners in a strange land, the civic calendar of their surrounding neighbours would have meant very little. Theirs was a theocracy and their religious holidays were, as the root of the word suggests, holy days. Their feast days were remembrances of pivotal moments in their history, such as Passover, where God provided for them.

We do not have any synagogues in our community that I am aware of and it would be easy to be dismissive of the Jewish feasts as not applying to people here, but I think it’s important for us as Christians to remember that Jesus celebrated seven festivals every year which most Christians can’t even name yet each of them is central to His own narrative.

The Christian calendar has been more faithfully observed by Lutherans, Presbyterians, Anglicans, the United Church and Roman Catholics. Only recently have we seen an increased awareness among evangelicals of Advent and Lent. This yearly cycle anchors us more solidly in the gospel story and keeps us focused on Christ.

Think about Ascension Day. Many of us can repeat the line “he ascended into heaven” from the Apostles’ Creed but often little attention is paid to what it means — that Jesus’ earthly incarnation ended and he now sits at the right hand of God.

In writing to the Galatians, the Apostle Paul makes it clear that our faith does not consist in the keeping of special days.

You are trying to earn favor with God by observing certain days or months or seasons or years.  I fear for you…   Dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to live as I do in freedom from these things, for I have become like you Gentiles — free from those laws.  – NLT Gal 4:10-12

The idea of days of obligation is not found in Scripture. We aren’t Christians because we go to church – we go to church because we are Christians.

On the other hand, as Christians nothing stops us from enjoying the celebration of birthdays and events on the civic calendar as long as these things don’t distract us from our Old Testament and New Testament spiritual roots.

An illustration of the Christian calendar:

February 21, 2012

Lent Begins

Growing up in an Evangelical environment, I had little consciousness of the liturgical calendar beyond Christmas and Easter. There was also Thanksgiving, but then, how seriously could that be taken when it was observed more than six weeks apart in Canada and the United States?

To be Roman Catholic, Orthodox, or Mainline Protestant however is to be aware of the ever changing liturgical season; it is more than the passing of time, rather, each cycle is complete retelling of the New Testament gospel story. I’ve come to believe that Evangelicals are somewhat shortchanged in this area, though non-Evangelicals are also missing out on other ministry and worship opportunities because they are slave to the calendar. Balance is found somewhere in the middle.

Part of the reason both sides miss out is due to a lack of understanding of how things came to be. With lent — which begins this year as of tomorrow morning with Ash Wednesday — while I’ll admit that Wikipedia is not always the ideal source for theological information, this article is very comprehensive.

Lent (Latin: Quadragesima, “fortieth”[1]) is the Christian observance of the liturgical year from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday.

The traditional purpose of Lent is the penitential preparation of the believer—through prayer, penance, repentance, almsgiving, and self-denial. Its institutional purpose is heightened in the annual commemoration of Holy Week, marking the Death and Resurrection of Jesus, which recalls the events of the Passion of Christ on Good Friday, which then culminates in the celebration on Easter Sunday of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

During Lent, many of the faithful commit to fasting or giving up certain types of luxury as a form of penitence. The Stations of the Cross, a devotional commemoration of Christ’s carrying the Cross and of his execution, are often observed. Many Roman Catholic and some Protestant churches bare their altars of candles, flowers, and other devotional offerings, while crucifixes, religious statues, and other elaborate religious paraphernalia are often veiled in violet fabrics in observance of this event. In certain pious Catholic countries, grand processions and cultural customs are observed, and the faithful attempt to visit seven churches during Holy Week in honor of Jesus Christ heading to Mount Calvary.

According to the Synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus spent forty days fasting in the desert before the beginning of his public ministry, where he endured temptation by Satan.[2][3] Thus, Lent is described as being forty days long, though different denominations calculate the forty days differently. In many of the Christian churches, Lent is regarded as being forty days long, but the Sundays between Shrove Tuesday and Easter Sunday are not typically regarded as being part of Lent; thus, the date of Shrove Tuesday will typically be slightly more than forty days before Easter Sunday.

This event, along with its pious customs are observed by Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Anglicans and some Baptists.[4][4][5][5] Lent is increasingly being observed by other denominations as well, even such groups that have historically ignored Lent, such as some Baptists and Mennonites[6]

One of the things I don’t see so much in literature is a comparison between the season of Advent and the time of Lent. While Advent anticipates, foreshadows and prefigures the coming of the Messiah, Lent anticipates, foreshadows and prefigures Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection.

Both represent a long run-up to an event that we already know is to take place. There is a tension of wondering what happens next, even though we know the story. That tension is partly due to looking to see what happens next inside us. The anticipating of Christ’s coming is preparing our hearts to welcome Him and recognize Him as Divine. The anticipating of Christ’s suffering and death is preparing our hearts to receive what He is, in the narrative, about to do for us and has in fact already done. It is placing ourselves under the covering of His atoning sacrifice.

For those of Evangelical background like myself, the Wikipedia article includes significant dates falling within the next 40 days:

  • Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent in Western Christianity
  • Clean Monday (or “Ash Monday”) is the first day in Eastern Orthodox Christianity
  • The fourth Lenten Sunday, which marks the halfway point between Ash Wednesday and Easter, is sometimes referred to as Laetare Sunday, particularly by Roman Catholics, and Mothering Sunday, which has become synonymous with Mother’s Day in the United Kingdom. However, its origin is a sixteenth century celebration of the Mother Church. On Laetare Sunday, the priest has the option of wearing vestments of rose (pink) instead of violet.
  • The fifth Lenten Sunday, also known as Passion Sunday (however, that term is also applied to Palm Sunday) marks the beginning of Passiontide
  • The sixth Lenten Sunday, commonly called Palm Sunday, marks the beginning of Holy Week, the final week of Lent immediately preceding Easter
  • Wednesday of Holy Week is known as Spy Wednesday to commemorate the days on which Judas spied on Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane before betraying him
  • Thursday is known as Maundy Thursday, or Holy Thursday, and is a day Christians commemorate the Last Supper shared by Christ with his disciples
  • Good Friday follows the next day, on which Christians remember Jesus’ crucifixion and burial

I encourage you to read the whole article. The more Evangelical your background — especially if you are very Charismatic or Pentecostal, or very much part of a seeker-sensitive church — this will all seem rather foreign. But these traditions and forms had their origins in a church that was more vibrant than its descendant denominations today, and we do well not to toss out too much Church history.