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Celebrate the Whole of It
It is important to God that His people celebrate His bounty and His redemption. What is not celebrated is often forgotten.


Some years ago a worship group named The Fisherfolk put out an album entitled, Celebrate the Whole of It. The title song was "The Celebration Song" and started off, "For our life together we celebrate." The refrain was, "Ah, there's the celebration! … Celebrate the whole of it."

… one could not celebrate in ways that caused others to labour …

While I have not listened to that album in years (nor could I—I no longer have a record player and that album was vinyl), I still sometimes sing parts of the songs. Why would that be? Could it be that I have perceived something biblical in it?

Celebration has to do with remembering

Israel was a nation full of celebration. Just think of the festival cycle in the Hebrew Scriptures. There was a weekly celebration of creation and national redemption called the Sabbath. Originally this was not a religious celebration in the sense that you gathered to worship and discuss Torah (the Law or Covenant). Most Israelites right up to the first century did not have a local place of worship unless they worshipped in ways that God forbade. Rather, the Sabbath was a day to kick back, to relax, to celebrate.

According to the Torah one could not celebrate in ways that caused others to labour, but one could do so any other way they wished. You could gather with friends or family, or play games, just sit under a tree and think, or eat and drink. By the first century it was ruled that food had to be prepared beforehand, but neither quantity nor quality was otherwise limited. The one requirement was to stop and hold Sabbath, for God did not want the people to forget His creative act, their history, or what He had done for them.

On top of this there was a yearly cycle of celebration*1). Of all of the festivals that God commanded, only one—the Day of Atonement—was a fast. The rest were feasts timed to coincide with various major events of the agricultural year. The agricultural year began in the spring with Passover followed by the feast of unleavened bread. Seven weeks later the harvest started with the feast of weeks (see Exodus 34:22), also called the feast of harvest. A number of the feasts have more than one name.

The agricultural year closed with the feast of ingathering (see Exodus 23:16; 34:22), which should probably be identified with the feast of tabernacles (see Leviticus 23). Each of these feasts had both a connection to the agricultural cycle (God's on-going blessing) and a connection to what God had done for His people (God's historical blessing). There were also New Year's and new moon festivals, although the latter were not commanded.

In time other festivals were added, including Purim (see Esther 9:26-32) and Hanukah that celebrated the re-dedication of the Second Temple in 164 B.C. These were winter festivals connected to God's on-going activity on behalf of His people. Most festivals were celebrated in family groups or clans and virtually all included communal eating as a major part of the celebration. Three were designated pilgrimage festivals in which those able were to go to the tabernacle or, later, up to Jerusalem to celebrate as a whole*2) group.

What is not celebrated is often forgotten. It was therefore important to God that the people celebrate His bounty on the one hand and His redemption on the other. These celebrations gave the people the chance to continually relive the past and personally enter into the experience of what God had done for them nationally. The added festivals of Purim and Hanukah show that leaders realized the importance of such celebration and added the commemoration of the most recent deliverances so those acts of God would also continue to be recalled and relived.

Families also had their personal celebrations, such as the yearly sacrifice that Elkanah offered (see 1 Samuel 1). We do not know what this commemorated (his birthday or something God had done for them?) but it was an important yearly event for the clan.

There were various spontaneous celebrations of victories, coronations, and other like events that were cause for joy and thankfulness. It would not be surprising if these were also repeated for a number of years in order to keep God's deeds in remembrance, although we lack that information.

In summary of the pre-first century material, we see that God is a God of celebration. He wants His people to remember His creative act, His ongoing provision, and His redemptive acts, and to mark them with celebrations that often involved eating together in His presence.*3)

Changes in exile

By the first century three things had happened that changed this cycle. First, most Jews lived in exile and could not participate in the pilgrimage festivals. Instead they developed ways of celebrating in their various cities.

The weekly Sabbath offered an opportunity to gather …

Second, by the first century the festivals became more religious and less festive with the switch to Jewish community centers called synagogues. Unlike Christian churches, these were communal gathering places built or adapted in cities and villages both within and without Palestine. The weekly Sabbath offered an opportunity to gather in such places. There the Hebrews read and discussed Scripture (whether in Hebrew or Greek). This practice also embraced various festivals, especially outside of Palestine where the Jews could not go to the Temple. In other words, the celebrations became more centered on religious services built around texts, expositions, and liturgies rather than around a great party that included worship.

Third, fasts were added on Mondays and Thursdays to the weekly cycle to commemorate the destruction of the First Temple and the desecration of the Second Temple, even though in both cases God had already intervened to turn the situations around.

Celebration and the Church

The early followers of Jesus continued to participate in the Jewish celebrations. Jesus Himself attended personal celebrations such as weddings, and participated in the national festivals. Scripture shows Him celebrating Passover, Hanukah, and the feast of ingathering/tabernacles. He was also known for His belief that human need trumped Sabbath observance and His non-observance of the Monday and Thursday fasts. Appropriately, His followers continued His example and participated in the various festivals when they could*4) because they viewed themselves as the true heirs of Abraham and Moses and thus representatives of the true form of Judaism. It was important for them to remember, i.e. celebrate their history, which included creation, Passover, and God's on-going provision.

However, as the community of Jesus' followers grew, many of those joining the movement did not come from ethnic Jewish backgrounds. The festivals clashed with their cultures. It would have appeared to onlookers that they were joining ethnic Judaism.

While followers of Jesus gave up ethnic markers such as Sabbath and other festivals, that didn't mean that they didn't celebrate. They celebrated weekly in a communal meal that eventually developed into the symbolic meal we know of as the Lord's Supper. They gathered daily in Jerusalem and weekly in the pagan world, and celebrated their sense of family with the kiss of peace. They chanted hymns in praise of their King and His Father, ate together in the Spirit's presence, and celebrated their unity, each supplying what they could and sharing it with one another. They read aloud and discussed such Scriptures as they possessed, but celebration was primary and the teaching function was secondary.

Thus the central feature of community life in the early Church was a weekly gathering for a festive meal to celebrate what Jesus and His Father had done for them, and to anticipate what they would yet do.

This weekly celebration picked up the theme of the Jewish Passover celebration, as evident in Paul's use of a term meaning "to celebrate a festival" (see 1 Corinthians 5:8). The phrase means that Christian eschatology is often pictured as a celebration. It anticipated that Jesus would do what any good ruler would do when he came home to his kingdom—that He would reward those who were faithful and execute justice on those who were not. We call this the last judgment. Subsequent to this event would be a grand celebration. Revelation describes it as "the wedding banquet of the Lamb," which picks up the theme of a "Messianic banquet" in some streams of first century Judaism.

These events seem to inaugurate a period when things in the world will be set right. This act of recreating the world is so radical that it can be called a new creation. God's people will then be in continual celebration on the earth, for there will be no one in need, and God's presence will be on earth so that the earth's bounty, which is God's bounty, will be enjoyed and celebrated at any time. This was the celebration that was anticipated on earth in the weekly celebration of Jesus' covenant-forming act. No wonder Revelation is so full of song!

Thus we see that God's people throughout history have celebrated all that God has done for them, including creation, harvest, and redemption, with song and joy, and especially with a good meal and drink. Such celebration was not just Old Testament behaviour, but continued into New Testament times as the characteristic meal around which the followers of Jesus gathered. Not only was it a celebration of Jesus and His Father in creation and redemption, but it was also an anticipation of the coming grand celebration when creation will be renewed and God's people will live in His immediate presence. These celebrations were fun, but most important, they helped God's people remember what He had done for them and what He was going to do.

What does this mean for us?

First, it clearly means that we as God's people should be a people of celebration. Our focal celebration should be that of Jesus' covenant-forming act and the anticipation of its fulfillment when He comes in pomp and splendour to be welcomed by His people. We must remember; we must not forget.

… we should also celebrate the smaller gifts of God …

Second, because this covenant is half of the covenant/creation pair, we should celebrate both creation and Creator not just verbally, but with enjoyment in His presence, both communally and individually.

Third, we are brought into covenant and made one family in Christ. Becoming part of that family is another aspect of our celebration. We celebrate both individually and collectively that God has gifted us to be a re-created people drawn from every tribe and family and nation. We need to remember who we are.

Finally, given the underlying tone of celebration in the gathering of the community of the followers of Jesus, we should also celebrate the smaller gifts of God—milestones God has granted our particular group, and gifts He has granted us as individuals and family groups. After all, in Jesus' parable the reunification of a family resulted in four of six celebration references in the NRSV New Testament (see Luke 15:23-32)*5).

Christians are people of celebration and remembrance. They celebrate the great things of life: creation, redemption, and coming world renewal. They celebrate the more mundane things of life: the agricultural cycle, God's supply, a new person submitting themselves to Jesus. They celebrate in weekly gatherings and less frequent gatherings for special events. And they have little celebrations all by themselves when they realize the good that God has done for them.

It is true of the followers of Jesus that they are to "celebrate the whole of it!"

Endnotes

1) There is no single word for "celebration" or "celebrate"; there is a Hebrew and corresponding Greek term for celebrating a festival, but you also "do" a festival, thus the concept of celebration is there, but it is expressed by a variety of terms.

2) After the Exile such pilgrimage was the exception rather than the rule except, perhaps, within Palestine itself, and even then rarely three times per year; before the Exile the three times per year ideal was also rarely if ever observed by most men.

3) These periodic gathering helped produce national cohesiveness. For the sake of national cohesiveness, when Israel split from Judah, Jeroboam felt it necessary to construct His own pilgrimage festivals and discourage those centering on Jerusalem.

4) Paul, although outside of Palestine, stopped to observe Passover and tried to get to Jerusalem in time to celebrate harvest/weeks.

5) To this one can add the many things for which Paul, among others, praised God in words—the coming of Titus, the arrival of financial support, good friends, that a church was doing well, etc.

Peter Davids is a biblical scholar and writes training materials for the German speaking Vineyard movement and has taught or written for the German, Benelux, and Canadian Vineyard movements during the past year. Peter and his wife Judy have recently moved to St. Stephen, New Brunswick.

Originally published in Vineline, Summer 2006.

 

 
 
 
 

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