Foundations for Worship: Jewish Feasts
Foundations provide support for structures, but that does not mean that the structures will look like the foundation. A house does not look like a basement. This is the metaphor I urge when considering the feast days of the Hebrew Bible. I do not press people to copy these feast days, but I do argue that we should see them as foundational to what it means to serve God today. In some sense, these feast days speak of Jesus. They point forward to him, at times generally, and at other times, quite specifically. I will not dissect each feast day and make application to specific items of Jesus's ministry. This has been done in many other places, and is the typical way of approaching the subject. I prefer to take the “holy days” more generally to comment on how a year spent observing the feasts might be experienced, and how that experience enlightens Christian worship.
When we look at a passage like Lev 23 we note that celebrating God is not redundant. Although there are several special days, there is no concern that there are too many. In fact, the people were expected to travel to Jerusalem for Passover, Pentecost, and the Feast of Tabernacles. Such commuting would be quite taxing in those days! Yet God does not shrink from making this request. This counters the modern Protestant idea that repetition will bore the soul. Celebrations that began as daily and then evolved to weekly, now evolve to monthly, quarterly, or even annual observances. The stated reasons are to awaken emotions that might otherwise be flattened under the pressure of repetition.
What if the purpose is not to evoke some kind of emotional response, where close repetition would result in the failure of boredom? What if the purpose is formative? If that is the case, failure would be seen not in a lack of emotion, but in a lack of discipleship. Indeed this is the purpose of the holy days. The participants may or may not feel deep emotion, but they will “remember” the mighty acts of God and see themselves as delivered from Egypt, for example, and thus be able to benefit from the experience of people who were physically present.
Let me emphasize this point. I used to believe that faith would be a lot easier for me if I had been alive when God did the cool stuff. Surely if I had been at Mt. Sinai in Exod 19-24 I would have been able to remember those awesome sights and would be faithful to God all the days of my life. Ironically, the crowd assembled at Mt. Sinai did not make it to the promised land because of their unbelief. Although they had the experience of Sinai, they lived without the memory of Sinai. When faced with a faith struggle, namely whether to believe the ten frightened spies or the two faithful ones, they chose poorly. Similarly, I was not present at the last supper, the Garden of Gethsemane, Calvary, or the empty tomb, yet I am called to “remember” these events as often as I participate in the Lord's Supper. This “memory” is not a spiritual string around the finger, but is instead a formative experience. People with experience can fail in memory, but people with memory can gain experience. This is the power of days and events which “re-enact” the mighty deeds of God.
Another foundational point about these feast days is the pathos of the celebration. Only the Day of Atonement is less than joyous. All the rest are joyful assemblies. This reminds me of the Hebrew writer who, in chapter 12, reminds us that we have come to myriads of angels in joyful assembly. I have often been asked “how should I feel during the assembly? Especially the Lord's Supper?” With the history of Jewish observance informing me, I answer “joyful.”
This raises a problem. For many of us, we do not bring joy to the assembly. By this I mean that our lives are hard. We face mortal illness, or have unfaithful spouses, ungrateful children, unforgiving enemies. Our days are long and hard. Our emotion when we wake on Sunday morning is at best exhausted, and at worst discouraged. I understand this dilemma. This is where my wife and I are currently living.
Although I think there is a place for lament in our corporate assemblies, let me share something that has helped me a great deal. It is the realization that the joyful assembly is a divine gift, not a human accomplishment. I come to our assemblies with an acute awareness of the brokenness of our world and the evil it contains. I do not take even our physical safety for granted, nor am I confident that I will ever be able to live with the same assumptions of safety most Americans have. I am personally more stressed, more jumpy, than I have ever been in my life. Yet I continue to assert for all worshipers, including myself, that our assembly is a joyful one. God supplies the joy.
At times I feel it. At times I appropriate joy that I did not bring. At other times, I observe it. I see others in better places of life with joyful faces and ready smiles. It encourages me to witness their joy even if I do not subjectively join it. It reminds me that we come to a place where the spilled blood of Jesus speaks better things than the spilled blood of crime victims. Learning from my Jewish ancestors, I accept the joy that is offered in assembly where the presence of God, Jesus, angels, and perfected saints directs me onward to the goal.
The feast days are foundational for my worship. I can't praise God too much, too long, or too often. It is never redundant to repeat, rehearse, and remember his mighty deeds. I may not bring joy to the assembly, but it is there, and I can appropriate it there.
Next (time) may we do this in the fully-realized kingdom of God! Maranatha!
Grace and Shalom.