A Compassionate Theology: Holy Days
Just after sunset on Easter Sunday, I listened as an Adventist evangelist reminded his audience that neither Easter nor Christmas are mentioned in the Bible. “In fact,” he said, “there are no Christian holy days mentioned in the Bible except the Sabbath. All other Christian holy days are pagan in origin."
What he didn’t say, but allowed his listeners to infer on their own, is that these days are somehow evil due to their pagan origin. This is precisely the wrong conclusion to draw and yet fundamentalist Christians have been doing so for decades. Christmas, Easter, and lesser known (more localised) Christian festivals began as early Christians looked for ways and days to celebrate key moments in their faith. Instead of being involved in the pagan celebrations, the Christians rebranded the holy days and celebrated significant events in the life of Jesus rather than joining in the worship of false gods.
Instead of celebrating the winter solstice and the rebirth of the Sun by worshipping the ancient Babylonian sun-god Tammuz (or one of the other sun-gods who evolved from Tammuz in ancient religions after Babylonian times) the Christians chose to celebrate the birth of the Son of God – Jesus. Focusing on the new life of Baby Jesus, the incarnation of God into human flesh, Christians in effect stole Christmas away from paganism and gave it to their God.
Instead of celebrating the return of spring and worshipping the ancient Babylonian fertility-god Ishtar, the Christians chose to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus and the promise of new life that comes because He died and returned to life for us. Combining some symbols (like bunnies and trees) into Christian celebrations happened as early Christian converts from various other religions kept their innocuous traditional activities while embracing Jesus and the new meaning His people gave to the day of celebration.
If it is wrong for Christians to practice anything and everything that was first done in an ancient pagan religion, there are a lot of things we need to stop. Prayer, temples, and sacrifices all started in ancient Mesopotamia well before Judaism or Christianity. Likewise, funerals and little stone statues in your garden. Wedding ceremonies, wedding rings, marriage proposals, a veiled bride, the groom shaking the hand of the Bride’s father as he delivers her as contracted beforehand, and the bride becoming part of the groom’s family (in name and location) are all from ancient Mesopotamia well before Genesis 2:24 was written.
Rather than abandoning humanity’s past, we need to embrace Divinity’s entrance into our story. Jesus changes everything. When we confess belief in Jesus, are baptised and welcome the Holy Spirit into our hearts – our past is not erased. We are still the product of the many experiences and stories that have formed us. But we are, at that moment and into the future, part of a greater story which reaches farther back than human history and farther forward than human imagination. One day, in the twinkling of an eye, we will all be changed at the last trumpet. Until then we must live knowing who we have been and who we are becoming, where we have come from and where we are headed, and that we are dearly loved by our God every step of the journey.
In the early church in Corinth, the people were struggling with being involved in pagan worship. As believers in Jesus, they had no interest or desire to enter the pagan temples, but much of the food blessed in the pagan temples was later sold in the common marketplace. They debated amongst themselves if they should eat food offered to idols. Paul’s answer in 1 Corinthians 10:25-28 is useful to us in understanding involvement in Christian holy days. Paul quotes Psalm 24:1 which declares that the Earth and everything in it belongs to the Lord.
From this Biblical platform Paul goes on to council the group of maturing Christians in Corinth to eat anything from the marketplace without a battle of conscience. He continues his thought saying that if a Christian should be invited into someone’s home, they should be bold in eating whatever is offered to them, not worrying if it has been offered to idols. When facing a decision between accepting and rejecting hospitality, be gracious thinking of the host before yourself.
At this point, Paul adds some complexity to the argument. What if the person who has invited you into their home to eat, places the meat on the table and declares that the food has been offered to idols? Paul says, this is when it is your duty to politely decline. This is a prime opportunity to explain your commitment to the God who made the Earth and everything in it. For the sake of the other person, who believe they are blessing their guests by feeding them idol-blessed food, demonstrate your conscientious commitment to Jesus as your only God by refusing to participate in their act of pagan worship.
Never in all my years of collecting, purchasing or hiding Easter eggs have I been encountered by a fellow participant, shop owner or neighbour who said, “Thank Ishtar for this new season and this lovely gift of chocolate!” If I ever did hear such words, I would have a most vigorous conversation with them. Likewise, in the many preparations and interactions at Christmas, I have never shared a moment with a believer in Tammuz who declared their bliss in the return of the sun.
There are two days every year when the world stops to examine – sometimes closely, often from afar – the Christian faith in Jesus. In my town of Warrandyte all of the local churches, across denominations, joined together on Easter Sunday to run a “He is Risen!” celebration service in the local outdoor amphitheatre. While they were singing and speaking of their passionate belief in our risen Saviour, I – along with my fellow Adventists – hid on a campground listening to things we have heard a hundred times before. I missed a great opportunity to speak about my Jesus while the world was willing to listen.
Rather than encouraging ourselves to create further distance from these key outreach opportunities, we should be embracing the Christmas shoppers and the Easter egg hunters as they wonder at the meaning of a babe in a stable or a cross on a bun. Let us reverse the paganising of Christmas and Easter by contemporising them. Meet the people where they are, when they are open, as they are listening, while they are preparing for a celebration which we truly understand.
Then people of the world would recognise Jesus in His followers, embrace the Christ-story as their own new story and, recognising the religious roots of the secular celebrations which they enjoy so much, teach their children something truly beautiful. That this world, which often seems so hollow and meaningless, was embraced by the one true God who sent His Son – to be born, to truly live, to die, to reclaim life after death – because He loves us and our world so very much.
Not only would this time of focused outreach be a wonderful and fitting use for the Christmas and Easter seasons, it would also honour the original intent of our Christian ancestors in claiming and naming these days as holy. We are a people of the Jesus story as told in the Christmas and Easter seasons each year. These holy days are Christian because they come as a response to the love of Jesus through the actions and practices of His early followers. They are not in Holy Scripture because they are from a later time in history than the Bible’s pages. But early enough that Christ’s body after His ascension – the church – still understood the necessity of becoming all things to all people so that by all possible means we might save some.