Concerning Some Festivals

Those who profess the Christian faith tend to look forward to Easter Sunday, which fell on April 12th this year. Some view this day, better called Resurrection Sunday, as a time of special remembrance, the conclusion of the three-day observance of Christ's Passover immolation, burial and resurrection according to prophecy (1 Corinthians 15:1-4). For us, it marks the beginning of the Dispensation of Grace. For others, it is a day for Easter egg hunts, wearing white again or dressing especially nicely for attending church.

For us, Easter always falls on the first day of the week, according to our Gregorian calendar, which differs from the Jewish reckoning of the passing of days. This year, 2009, the eight-day (seven days in Israel) Passover observance began when the first three stars could be seen in the evening sky on Wednesday, April 8 and ended at nightfall on Thursday, April 16th. Passover is the first of the three major Jewish fesitvals. In this festival, Jews celebrate the miraculous Exodus of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt, considered one of the most important moments in the development of the Jewish people

For 40 days following His resurrection, Christ was seen and heard by His disciples and many others. Then, in the presence of the apostles, He was taken up and disappeared in a cloud. (Acts 1:1-11). Some Christians know this day as Resurrection Day but, I suspect, precious few are even aware of it's significance.

(originally posted 5/21/01) The Ascension has been forgotten in many Protestant churches, jettisoning an essential part of the Christian story.

This Thursday, May 24, is Ascension Day. The Feast of the Ascension, Saint Augustine wrote, "is that festival which confirms the grace of all the festivals together, without which the profitableness of every festival would have perished." And yet in many Protestant churches, this week will pass without even a mention of the Ascension.

So it was in the Baptist churches in which I was raised. The church calendar had been discarded long ago, tainted with Romanism. And so it is in many contemporary congregations that seek to remove barriers to the unchurched.

But the Ascension can't be jettisoned without losing an essential part of the Christian story. Yes, there is the great triumph of the Resurrection, the victory over sin, death, and the Devil. But the Ascension is not to be conflated with the Resurrection, and to celebrate the former is not in any way to diminish the latter.

Christ "was made known in the flesh, vindicated in the Spirit, beheld by angels, preached among the nations, believed on in this world, taken up in glory," we are told in 1 Tim. 3:16. The Ascension . . . anticipates the Second Coming. It requires us to think in Trinitarian terms, as Christ ascends to sit at the right hand of the Father, where he is our high priest, and promises the Spirit to the church.

In The Call to be Formed and Transformed by the Spirit of the Ascended Christ (a chapter in The Unnecessary Pastor: Rediscovering the Call, published by Eerdmans), Marva Dawn urges us "to restore Ascension Day as a major church holy day." A good first step would be for each of us to work for such restoration in our congregations.

But that is a first step only. "Ascension," Dawn writes, "is a deep symbol that people don't understand any more because we so rarely discuss it." We need to talk about Ascension with children, in Sunday school, in sermons; we need to represent it visually, to make it real.

For pastors and others who want to undertake a systematic study of this neglected subject, the best book I know is Douglas Farrow's Ascension and Ecclesia: On the Significance of the Doctrine of the Ascension for Ecclesiology and Christian Cosmology (T&T Clark/Eerdmans, 1999). Farrow's book is brilliant, extraordinarily learned, and densely argued. It doesn't yield its bounty easily. But those who read it will never again be willing to relegate the Ascension to the back shelves of doctrine, to be dusted off every once in a while and then returned to obscurity. - John Wilson, Taken Up In Glory. Used by permission of Christianity Today International, Carol Stream, IL 60188. Copyright 2001 Christianity Today

The second major Jewish festival is shavuot, the Feast of the Weeks, a holiday celebrating the harvest season in Israel. Shavuot, which means "weeks", refers to the timing of the festival which is held exactly 7 weeks after Passover. This coincides roughly with the day we call Pentecost - which also only falls on Sunday in the Gregorian calendar:

Shavuot marks the anniversary of the day when we received the Torah at Mount Sinai. It is the second of the three major festivals (Passover being the first, and Sukkot the third), occuring exactly fifty days after the second day of Passover.

This is a biblical holiday complete with special prayers, holiday candle lighting and kiddush. During the course of the holiday we don't go to work, drive, write or switch on or off electric devices. We are permitted to cook and to carry outdoors.

The word "Shavuot" means "weeks"; it marks the completion of the seven-week counting period between Passover and Shavuot. During these seven weeks, the Jewish people cleansed themselves of the scars of Egyptian slavery and became a holy nation, ready to enter into an eternal covenant with G-d with the giving of the Torah.

On this day, we received a gift from Above which we could not have achieved with our own limited faculties. We received the ability to reach and touch the Divine; not only to be cultivated human beings, but Divine human beings who are capable of rising above and beyond the limitations of nature.

Before the giving of the Torah, we were a family and a community. The experience of Sinai bonded us into a new entity: the Jewish people, the Chosen Nation. This holiday is likened to our wedding day -- beneath the wedding canopy of Mount Sinai, G-d betrothed us to Him. G-d swore eternal devotion to us, and we in turn pledged everlasting loyalty to Him.

Every year on the holiday of Shavuot, we reenact this historic moment. G-d re-gives the Torah, and we lovingly reaccept, and reaffirm our fidelity to Him alone. - What Is Shavuot?

This year, Shavuot will begin with the sighting of the first three stars in the night sky on May 28th.

Those who profess Christianity regard Pentecost as the birthday of the Christian church. On this day, nearly 2000 years ago, as the Apostles and other Jews celibrated Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came upon them (Acts 2:10-4) and so began the Church Age, which will end when Christ takes the Church from the earth in the Rapture (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17).

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