Jewish Festivals, the Seasons and Telling Our Story

We live in a time where technology helps even out the seasons. We can stay warm in the winter and cool in the summer. We can get bananas just about any time of the year whether they are in season or not. If they aren’t in season here they ship them from another area of the world where they are still in season.We have effectively flattened the seasons out and have made life a lot more predictable and convenient than it was in Bible times.

In ancient times, the seasons mattered. Survival depended on certain things happening in specific seasons of the year. You had to plant crops at a certain time and harvest them at a certain time or else you would starve to death. Because of that, the year had a certain predictable rhythm to it.

In the Old Testament God infused that annual rhythm of life with the story of faith through three main festivals (explained in Deuteronomy 16). Growing up, I heard of Passover and Pentecost but only as they were mentioned in either the Exodus story or in the Gospels/Acts 2. I had no idea what these festivals were about, what was taught at each one and how it was connected to the harvest until much later in life. In each of these three festivals, God paired the necessary cycle of the seasons with the story of faith in some very explicit and memorable ways. The story was told, the story was lived, the story was remembered. Here are the festivals:

Passover - Every year they were commanded to celebrate Passover in the Spring time. Passover marked the beginning of the cereal harvest. The first to be harvested, at the time of Passover, was barley. It was at that time that they people sacrificed a lamb and retold the story of the deliverance of their ancestors from Egypt. They would talk about the death of the first born and the meaning of the elements of the meal (bitter herbs, the lamb, etc). Telling this story year in and year out was foundational to their identity and relationship with God.

Pentecost - Seven weeks later was the Feast of Pentecost (also called the “Feast of Weeks”). At that festival people celebrated the next major plot point in the exodus-to-promised land deliverance narrative, the giving of the Law at Sinai. Passover marked the beginning of the cereal harvest and Pentecost marked its end with the harvesting of the last type of cereal/grain – wheat. At the time they offered a grain offering to the Lord. Pentecost is considered to be the birthday of the Torah (because it marked the giving of the Law at Sinai). Because of that, the Jews read a lot of scripture from the entire Old Testament during Pentecost. Like Passover, Pentecost served as an annual reminder of a significant part of their faith story and relationship with God. It encouraged them to be thankful and to remember who it was who was providing them their harvest and also their Law.

Tabernacles - Third is the feast of Tabernacles. This is the time of harvesting figs, grapes, olives and pomegranates. What happened after Sinai? The people wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, living in booths/temporary shelters…anticipating their entrance into the promised land. It was during this harvest that many of the farmers would go out in their fields and construct booths in order to protect their crops during harvest. Once again, the season of the year and the agricultural activities were tied into their faith story in a way that reinforced their faith and kept the scriptures before them year in and year out.

Most of us aren’t very good at establishing sacred rhythms. The closest we probably get is Sunday worship. What are some ways we can infuse our faith with the seasons of the year so that we can instill in ourselves and our children the story of our faith and God’s faithfulness? The liturgical calendar is one shot at this. Many in our fellowship have rejected that approach because of its “denominational” roots but, honestly, what is wrong with us having reminders of who we are, where we have come from and how our God has worked in this world? How might we infuse our year with reminders of our faith?

3 Responses to Jewish Festivals, the Seasons and Telling Our Story

  1. The obvious response is to adapt the Jewish calendar to Christian purposes.

    Passover is easy. That was also the season of the death of Jesus and of our redemption from bondage to sin.

    Pentecost is also easy, for that is the birthday of the church and the sending of the Holy Spirit.

    Tabernacles should be a time for remembering that life is a pilgrimage, not an end within itself.

    What would this do our weekly assembly? It shouldn’t change much, except for different emphases at different times of the year.

    Of course, the Jews had other festivals that celebrated significant events in their history. Purim and Hanukkah immediately come to mind. Though not part of Torah, these were important times as well. Many Protestant churches celebrate Reformation Day, which of course is a major event in church history and an excellent time to remember that we should never allow tradition to blind us to the realities of God and His gospel. In the SC RM, this would be a good time to focus on the principles of what Alexander Campbell called “this current reformation.” Most congregations today have some recognition of the incarnation at Christmas time, while still recognizing that the actual date of Jesus’ birth is unknown.

    Individual congregations might also have certain times or dates in their own history to celebrate.

    Thanks for suggesting the value of a rhythm to our year!

  2. At Pepperdine, I’m doing a class on sacred meals. I think we overlook how “meal and celebration based” worship was under the old law and how “meal and celebration based” Christianity is supposed to be. I’m glad you’re talking about it here.

    One curiosity that I haven’t been able to answer. God told the Israelites to go up three times a year for the feasts, yet I find little record of anyone making three trips (or even two, if they combined Passover and Pentecost, something nearly impossible to do on a yearly basis). Have you seen any answer as to how or when that change became acceptable?

  3. Mark says:

    It does help to have the times of the year. Purim is quite biblical.

    You might consider going liturgical. The revised common lectionary is the commonly used outline and I am sure it is online. Some won’t like it, but especially around advent and Christmas, it is great to hear how Isaiah and Jeremiah are repeated in the gospels.

    One topic that must be dealt with is the fact that some of the readings are long and according to some church leaders, bore the congregation and reduce the length of time available for the sermon. Additionally, there are entire paragraphs that will be read which won’t allow verses to be taken out of context thus upsetting some who have added their own interpretation to one verse, aka proof texting. It is hard to keep proof texting alive when you have just read the previous and next verses which blows apart the argument you have made for decades by only reading the one verse in the middle.

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