|REDISCOVERING BIBLICAL CELEBRATIONS
by Dr. Charles Dorothy
Life's three basic questions--who is God?; who are we?; and how shall we live?--find answer in the Scriptures. Those answers in turn shed light on two neglected areas of Christian living; joy and celebration. Read and study the following so you may join us in rediscovery and rejoicing.
Oh God, the movie, in spite of lighthearted pop treatment offered good theology in several ways. God loves animals and stands up for the oppressed and downtrodden. He wants us to improve our relations with fellow humans and with him. This loving, caring God does not always make it easy for us however (hero loses his job, is mocked, scoffed at and cruelly misunderstood) but he counsels us "THINK GOD." Wonderful, healing advice! But the movie cannot tell us more about what to think, who God is, nor how to celebrate with him. We must look into biblical revelation for that vital information.
WHO IS GOD?
If he does not provide, his creatures--animal and human--will die. If he does not sustain, the second law of thermodynamics points to an untimely dead, dry, cold and lifeless solar system....
And there is more. Above all, for us who live now--but let me interrupt. Think about living now. Arguments, claims and counterclaims for the longest-lived man/woman rage between Arizona, Azerbijan, USSR, China, Japan, Ecuador and Hunzaland. Authentically documented cases of lives over 115 years are hard to come by, but the point is this. Assume that someone now living could be 125 or even 140 years old. Then add ten years as safety margin and get this: all living voices from 150 years ago have fallen silent! Dead silent. And silence threatens to obliterate the few remaining 100-year old voices. Once understood, this silence underscores both the preciousness of our lives and the need for the continuing sustenance of the world.
Besides sustenance (returning to the point) we who live now have another need, and God has yet another function. Yahweh fulfills other roles beyond creating and sustaining in the Hebrew Bible. Yahweh appears as the go'el, redeemer of his people (see the famous "historical recital" = Torah Story in Dt 26:5-11; "My father was a wandering Aramean...we cried out to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice...and brought us out (delivered/saved)...."; Ps 34:17, etc.). That deliverance reaches its cosmic climax in the Son of God who gave himself "as a ransom for many" (Mk 10:45). All humans are God's children, but the redeemed enjoy a special and joyous relation with their Maker.
WHO ARE WE?
If you have followed the above exposition, you will be ready and willing to look at the history of celebrations in our church. By "church" we mean to include the "church in the wilderness" of Ac 7:38. But wait! "Moses in the wilderness--won't that lead to legalism?" some will say. Won't we once again be in bondage? The answer is NO.
The theology discussed above opens the door to liberty in worship and celebration. The story of the early Christians and Israel will continue guiding and freeing us. We now examine the connection of the Church and Israel.
A modern commonplace identified the people of God with the venerable name Israel. But the direct identification "Church=New Israel" does not occur as commonly in the pages of the New Testament (=NT) as often assumed. In fact, it does not occur at all! P. Richardson--in a technical and thoroughly documented work--argues that the "honor-title 'Israel'" could not clearly apply to Christians until after the final and irreversible break between Jews and Christians sometime after 135 A.D. (the second destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans; Israel In The Apostolic Church, Cambridge, 1969. Nevertheless the seeds for applying "Israel" as honorific and identifying title to Christianity were sown in NT times and flowered in mid-second century. We today, if we choose, may enjoy the fruit of "Israel" ("to whom apply the sonship, the glory and the covenants, the giving of Torah, the service/worship of God and the promises..." Rm 9:4).
Now if we take the fruit and responsibility of that name seriously, then we must reckon with both "old Israel" and "new Israel"--assuming we also wish to associate (no pun, but reference intended!) or identify ourselves with the people of God. As Paul reminds the Romans, Jesus Christ came "to confirm the promises made to the fathers [of Israel]" Rm 15:8. For that reason, and for the second reason that much of the NT writings are composed of Old Testament quotations, allusions and backgrounds, we now have a two-fold basis for analysis as we trace the celebrations of the church and both testaments. Anything less will throw us out of balance.
HOW THE EARLIEST CHRISTIANS CELEBRATED
What are the "mighty acts of God"? Apparently they are many; apparently also they are mentioned for the first time as such in Dt 11:1-7. (Note the earliest "signs and wonders" of Ex 7:3, 34:10 and especially Dt 4:32-39.) Psalms celebrate many and various "mighty acts of God" or Magnalia Dei as writers and hymnists often call them: creation, flood, ten supernatural plagues neutralizing Egypt's immense economic/military power, the Exodus or deliverance from Egypt, the miraculous manna, etc., etc.
One Psalmist--overwhelmed by such Magnalia of God--doubts that anyone can express them:
Who can utter the mighty acts of the Lord, Or show forth all his praise? (Ps 106:2)
Nevertheless he proceeds to sing one of the longest lists of God's mighty deeds that we have! (Ps 106:3-48).
Lest we label all this as "lees" which can safely settle to the bottom of our NT wineskins, we will do well to heed the little children: Mt 21:14-16
Did you catch what the children saw? They saw the "wonderful things," the Magnalia Jesu--the mighty works of Jesus. Now notice the command of Paul in Phil 4:8:
Probably the children (Mt passage) knew to praise the present mighty deeds (note Paul's present tense in Ph 4) from the example of their parents and from scriptures such as Ps 150:2
and above all Ps 145:4-13
How are we of ACD, or any persuasion, to laud the Magnalia Dei to the next generation? Yes, we are to praise God in our hearts and in our services as these same Psalms show. But "declare his mighty acts to the next generation"? What a responsibility! Think of that...!
The remainder of this article will give both historical and doctrinal rationale toward a solution to the problem of memorializing the Magnalia Dei in both our own and coming generations.
These followers of the anointed one met with their Jewish countrymen through all decades up to 90 A.D., but less frequently after 70 A.D. (Fall of Jerusalem). Still it was not until after 120 A.D.--probably close to 135 A.D.--that the final split between Jews and Jewish Christians crystallized as complete and irreversible. (See the Didache [c.115 A.D.], hints in Justin Martyr and the history of the Smoneh Esreh-the Eighteen Benedictines--and the added curse, presumably against Christians.) That split however did not put an end to either Judaism nor to Jewish Christianity. What few seem to realize is that various groups of Jewish Christians existed until around 800 A.D.!
What is the point of all this for us? Without going into the lengthy and complicated history of these groups we know that they continued to observe the Sabbath and certain (though perhaps not all) of the above-named celebrations or festivals--Passover, Pentecost and Ingathering.
"ISRAEL" BECOMES GENTILE
But what change? Another commonplace (but a mistaken one) holds that one or more passages in the NT abolished these celebrations of Old and New Israel. Another possible explanation claims that all or almost all festivals were taken over by the growing Gentile Church and that only names were changed to protect the guilty. Neither model does justice to the changing, expanding and growing scheme of Church feasts, fasts and festivities. In one sense, none were abolished. Some were incorporated as claimed. Others were lost and lastly new ones were added. The Catholic churches of Rome and Constantinople (Latin and Greek) came up early on with some kind of commemoration for each and every day of the 365-day year! Protestants, not to be outdone came in later with much the same completeness. But let us return to our base, the NT.
SKETCHY COMMEMORATIONS = OPENNESS
Moving on we encounter another surprise/difficulty: the so-called Lord's Supper. The vast literature on this subject--in several languages, occupying whole library shelves and stretching into tens of thousands of pages--attempts to sort and assemble the bits and pieces of evidence which the NT leaves us. Amidst all this data one thing is clear: different churches in separate areas developed very differing practices for honoring the Lord's Supper. These dissimilar rites all center around the very minimal core facts given us in the Gospels and 1 Cor 11. Looking at those different practices objectively we have to say they are neither right nor wrong; rather being allowed by the Spirit, they are optional. From the vantage point of the NT or the risen Lord, they are OK. OK also because the NT is not a liturgical manual. The NT simply does not give us all the details.
Therefore we conclude from our brief survey of NT history that early Christian celebrations were many and varied--pluriform. The minimal and sketchy data preserved to us opens the way for us to rediscover the feasts/celebrations of "Israel" (new and old) and to explore creative ways of heralding the wondrous works of our God.
We have just seen that NT Scripture does not always spell out every fact nor every detail we would like. Put another way, the Bible (because the same is true of the OT) does not answer all the questions we put to the text. Why not, especially if it is the Word of God? Right there we have another topic worth many hours, but a short answer that will suffice for our purpose is this: each book, gospel and epistle was directed by the Holy Spirit as Word of God for a particular purpose, to a particular people. That is to say, the original documents do address questions, but other than our own. Some of their questions are ours; some are not.
"But," you say, "the texts have been preserved for us, as providing something essential." Right you are! The Bible as preserved to us offers not just one, cut-and-dried, straightline "magic key" formula of obedience. We are not given a single, magical program of conformity by which we can test our neighbor's righteousness (to see if it's as good as our own). Rather for our question the Bible offers various models for morality. The Bible survives not only because God wills it but because other generations have found their identity and their model for living within its pages. But their models do not have to be ours. More than one program and more than one combination of models can be discovered in or drawn from Scripture.
THE TWO-EDGED SWORD AGAIN
If living our whole life within this freedom and responsibility, striving all the while to develop the attitude and character of Jesus Christ and finally being born an eternal son or daughter of God--like Him, able to "see him as he is"--is not an incredible Magnalium Dei, then there is no such thing! The Torah could be trash, the Bible bunk, and life a loss.
STAMPED OUT BY SCRIPTURE?
In fact they confirm what we are saying here: God's wonderful deeds for his people should and can be celebrated in a non-legalistic, joyous way. But how can Scripture be used--how can it be applied--to the problem of holydays, feasts, fasts and festivals?
BREAKTHROUGH: A NEW APPROACH
Here is the new approach. Many churches and groups identify themselves by means of a "canon within the canon." That is, by emphasizing certain books or certain texts at the expense of other, just-as-inspired texts. The canonical approach reveals (and here we mention only two of the most important contributions) that the Bible consists of two complementary types of material: Gospel and law, muthos and ethos, challenge and constitution, identity and life-style. Further it does so in the rough proportion of 25% life-style/ethos/law and 75% identity/gospel/challenge. The Bible, repeat, the Canon itself does not give the final answer as to how these two elements are to be balanced or counterbalanced. We are only left with the fact that contrasting and complementary scriptures exist side by side, in tension, not contradiction. These two parts are always available under the leading of the Holy Spirit to redress any imbalance in either the too-legal or the too-liberal directions.
So the canonical approach gives us the whole Bible, in all its pluralism (for example, both covenants); it frees us to experience the Torah-Christ Story again and again in our day today; it places the "Israel of God," the New Israel--meaning the congregations of the people of God--back on center stage.
Now let us examine--on the practical level--what that approach says about our subject, the celebrations of Israel. Since the concept of canon involves the history of canonical growth, the following presentation of three "positions" draw on both canon and the experience of the Church (=History). There are two extreme positions which for now we may label only "right" and "left."
The Extreme Left:
No days, feasts, celebrations of any kind are necessary. In fact they are harmful in that they bring us back into legalistic Judaism. They are done away in Christ at the cross or by Paul and his "mystery," or both. It's OK if one wants to observe them OR it's not OK because they are "weak and beggarly" etc. Being in Christ or in the Spirit is all that counts. Here the 75% of canon--"gracism"--is absolutized. Thus revelation and theology in the OT are ignored or reduced to predictions of Christ's person and coming.
The Extreme Right:
All these days and feasts, OR the ones our church chooses, are required for salvation. Job, home and family must be sacrificed if they intrude on what God made holy. These festivals picture and prophesy the plan of God therefore anything less than strict observance is "weak and beggarly." To observe them one must come "out of the world." This literalist approach absolutizes the 25% of canon--"legalism"--and denies or minimizes both the New Covenant and the work of Jesus.
If these positions are caricatured, repeat if, then it is not meant in unkindness. In all due respect both positions leave out absolutely fundamental, foundational questions. Can you, as a reader, fill them in?
But Torah-Christ Story and/or the canon concept presents the thrilling opportunity of striking a new and bold course. Let us call it a "mediating" position because it accepts some of what stands in or behind both extreme positions.
The Mediating Position:
Thanks to the 25%-75% composition of the sacred canon we are free to accept or reject any time-bound physical display of worship (wearing Phylacteries, Ex 13:8; Nu 15:37f; observing days and dwelling in booths, Lv 23:39-43, etc., etc.). The social and cultural binding power of the Law is superseded in Christ; but the revealed theology behind each OT or NT celebration is eternally valid. No day is a dogma. Nothing we produce is required for salvation (except of course a willing mind). We are really, truly, genuinely free (Gal 5:1). Nevertheless, Jesus did set an example for us. Not being bound to do so, he nevertheless freely celebrated the Magnalia Dei with the Israel of God.
Can we celebrate the Magnalia of God and his Son better than Moses, Hezekiah or Jeremiah and Ezekiel? Can we do better than the children singing "Hosanna" to the Son of David in the Temple? You may remember Jesus often got in trouble with the authorities, not just for healing, but for healing on the Sabbath which would include annual Sabbaths as it perhaps did in that very example. Can we do better than many early "followers" of Messiah, the people of New Israel who were still meeting with Jews 40 years before and up to 40 years after the Temple was destroyed? I think not....
But...I think with the understanding we already have in the Association for Christian Development...we can do as well. Yes, now that the whole Bible is available to us, the theology underlying all the texts, and without the burden of denominational dictates, we, we of all people, can be, yes. are the New Israel. We can carry on the torch of tradition which the prophets and Jesus died for. We can do both the same as Moses and the same as Jesus on the one hand. We are free to hold services, love-feasts, or fellowship of any kind on any or all of the celebrative occasions of the Old and New Covenants. And with the guidance of the Holy Spirit on the other hand we can do something different precisely because we live in our own day, (precisely because Torah-Christ Revelation is on-going); we can do something to glorify God, pass on the Israel-Christian heritage. We can laud the present and past Magnalia Dei/Magnalia Jesu of on-going Torah-Story, both now and in the generation to come. We can also stand ready to witness the greater acts of our God coming in the near future.
We may now review some of the major points scored.
1. The theology of God as Creator, Sustainer and Redeemer--if you can grasp and internalize it--produces genuine joy. This happiness spills over into desire to celebrate.
2. What to celebrate? The clear answer from both testaments: praise God for his mighty deeds--"salvation history. "Magnalia Dei.
3. We rediscovered the roots of our forebears. Our church goes back to the Wilderness Wanderings under Moses (Ac 7:38) according to Stephen's speech, and even back to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob according to Genesis. We as heirs of that tradition--with other Christians of course--become the Israel of God (Gal 6:16).
4. Another rediscovery. Old and New Israel celebrated (Hebrew: haq means procession, dance or [joyous] festival) the "mighty acts of God" in three principle pilgrim festivals: Passover-Lord's Supper, Pentecost and Tabernacles.
5. Early Christians correctly memorialized new Magnalia surrounding Jesus' announcement of the Kingdom, his resurrection and ascension because God was adding a new and climactic chapter to Torah Story--such great acts must be celebrated. The ways of celebration vary of course due to time and culture differences, because the NT contains little about procedure, practices and protocol.
6. Jewish Christianity lasted to 800 A.D. with Sabbath and Sabbaths, and Gentile Christianity adapted and adopted, added and dropped feasts and festivals. All this is optional and permissible. We see no reason to jump into either ditch: slavishly copy Jewish or reconstructed early-Christian forms; or throw out all reference to time-honored seasons, names and events. We are free to explore and benefit from the middle way.
7. The canonical approach, taking all Scripture as God-given, and avoiding as much as possible the "favorite text" or canon within a canon trap, aims us toward commemorating the feast days of both Israels (they are really one Israel)--this because 25% of Scripture insists on remembering, obedient/responsive pilgrimage with God. Yet canon also aims us toward the almost 75% emphasis on the freedom of God, the creativity and latitude of our walk in grace with him. We are encouraged to strive for tradition and innovation, seriousness of purpose and joy of heart!
PURPOSE AND BENEFITS BEGIN TO BLEND
The spiritual purpose. First we draw closer to our Father and his Son in united worshipful praise. He communes with his people certainly as much, and perhaps more intensely on the special occasions hallowed by Scripture. Secondly, we remember and relive the Magnalia Dei, the Magnalia Jesu during the festival seasons. These would not be the only times, but would be especially appropriate times to learn more of God's ways and his plan for mankind. (Any benefits here?)
The historical purpose. We participate in carrying forward the history/tradition of the early Christians by commemorating a Passover, a Rosh Hashannah or any other feast of Israel. We actually extend and create history. We not only inherit instructive, uplifting tradition, we also may build new models. In short, we may explore and establish new tradition.
The personal. We humans experience the most happiness and deepest fulfillment when we open to something/someone outside ourselves. Our commitment to values beyond ourselves make it all worthwhile. So much for the anthropology of being human. When we come to the spiritual side of our humanity "the absolute necessity is to discover something that lifts us out of ourselves to what Reinhold Niebuhr called a more ultimate majesty than that of our own pride, a more ultimate center of life than that of our own construction" (Seattle Times columnist Dale Turner).
We could also speak of the joy involved in communal affirmation of truths we hold dear, the delight in group worship, the fun of fellowship and sharing. But let us return to the individual person. We suggest that "ultimate center" is found in the Father and his fellowship with us through his Son. The joy comes through knowing him--through sharing special celebrations which recreate power and rejoicing while memorializing the mighty acts of God.