All societies set aside specific days (usually dates of historical or religious significance) for celebration, to break the monotony of routine daily life, and Israel was to be no exception. The people were given six festivals during the course of the year (Leviticus 23), when they would have opportunity to reflect on their relationship with God and give Him honour.
These festivals were not just excuses to have a good time, nor even simply occasions for worship. They also had a prophetic function, looking forward to the next phase in God’s dealings with His people. All the spring festivals (Passover, Firstfruits and Pentecost) were to be fulfilled in the first coming of Jesus: namely, His death and resurrection, and then the sending of the Holy Spirit. The autumn festivals (Trumpets, the Day of Atonement and Tabernacles) still await their fulfilment, which will be at His second coming: they anticipate His return, the cleansing of the earth from sin, and the joys of the new age.
What about Christian festivals? Now God hasn’t prescribed any as part of His new covenant – but that doesn’t mean that we can’t have them. Just like the Israelites, we benefit from an annual rhythm, the occasional break from routine, and opportunities to focus our attention on a particular aspect of God’s goodness. And we have even more reason than they did to celebrate! But our festivals are not compulsory, and there are no ‘rules’ as to how or when we should celebrate them.
However, there’s no denying that church calendars can become burdensome. It isn’t just the big festivals of Christmas, Easter and Pentecost – add in Lent, Advent, Harvest and saints’ days, and before long every Sunday has something attached to it and the pattern of church worship is more strictly prescribed than Judaism ever was. It isn’t just Catholic and Orthodox churches either; even the free churches can subscribe to “Bible Sunday”, “Persecuted Church Sunday”, “Fairtrade Fortnight” and a host of other worthy issues that demand our attention. Is that really how church life is meant to be organised? “Now that you know God – or rather are known by God – how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable forces? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? You are observing special days and months and seasons and years!” (Galatians 4:9,10)
If every week is ‘special’ for some reason, then ‘special’ ceases to have much meaning. So we need to strike a balance between festival time and ‘ordinary’ time. Festivals can be enormously beneficial and uplifting – so let’s make the most of them.