Liturgical Holidays

“Eat whatever is offered to you…” 1Corinthians 10:27

With Thanksgiving two days away, for the sake of family unity, I think we should contemplate deeply the Apostle Paul’s advice to the Corinthians: “Eat whatever is offered to you.”

In Paul’s context this was not a matter of passing on saccharine-sweet candied yams, or appropriating to your plate as few slices of overly dry turkey breast as possible, or debating whether the cranberries should have been stewed or if the ones from the can really are the best.

Paul wasn’t talking about that. Paul was talking about idolatry.

First Corinthians 10 finds Paul giving detailed and sometimes contradictory advice to early Christians on how to behave as dinner guests when the holiday feast was baked on the altar of a pagan god.

“Feasting” in the ancient world– Old Testament, New Testament, Hebrew, or Greek– was always about worship. It was part of the sacrificial worship of Yahweh as detailed in Leviticus 6:18; 29 and Numbers 18:8-11– the meat from the sacrifice was eaten by the priestly families.

The Old Testament Passover lamb, emblematic of Jesus, was roasted– as would happen on an altar– and then shared by native born Israelites as a feast; and left overs were forbidden to the dismay of college students everywhere! (Exodus 12:6-10.)

Sacrificial consumption explains why Jesus would instruct his followers to “feed on me” in John 6:22-63.

Well before He inaugurates the first Holy Communion at the Last Supper, He is preaching about eating his flesh and drinking His blood. Why? Because He is the sacrifice.

Consuming the sacrifice was for priests; it was for the common family at Passover; it was an act of participation in worship and a rite of membership.

So, eating “whatever you’re served” has major implications to the Corinthian Christians. If they go to a pagan holiday dinner, and they are served meat that had been sacrificed to idols, are people going to think that they are still pagans– that they belong in the Pantheon not the Upper Room?

The interweaving of holidays and identity is a concern that pops up periodically throughout church history. Only a handful of Christians today are deeply concerned about pagan pageantry in major Christian holidays.

However, pagan intrusion into Christianity was of concern to the Pilgrims.

We owe our “Thanksgiving” to the Puritans who obviously really liked the idea of a feast commemorating the fall with a spirit of generosity and neighborliness, but couldn’t abide celebrating Martinmas, or St. Martin’s Day.

Puritans derided Catholics, above all, for the kind of idolatry that gives Martin of Tours not only a “sainthood” but a feast day. So, Martin had to go, even if the turkey dinner stayed.

The themes of St. Martin’s Day are generosity to others and gratitude for the harvest. It takes place every year on the 11th of November. And it is celebrated with a feast of roast goose, duck, or hen…or perhaps wild turkey.

If you’ve ever wondered why only Americans celebrate a Thanksgiving in November; it’s because literally all of Europe is celebrating St. Martin’s Day this time of year. Which also happens to be essentially the same exact holiday.*

The Puritans might have tried to bury the worship component of St. Martin’s Day by taking the idol’s name out of it, renaming it Thanksgiving, and de-spiritualizing it to mere “generosity,” “gratitude,” and “neighborliness,” but the spirituality of feasting is not something any person has the authority to undo– even if their intention is to ferret out idolatrous heresies in the church. In fact, de-spiritualizing feasting has a historical track record of fomenting heresy as we are introduced to in the book of Acts.

In Acts 6:5, we meet a man named Nicolas. He is appointed as a deacon to the church in Jerusalem.

Nicolas appears to have been a lover of ideas. A bit of a spiritual sojourner, he was a pagan Greek who converted to Judaism first and then to Christianity.

He is strongly believed to be the namesake, if not the leader, of the Nicolaitans of Revelation 2.

The Nicolaitans were a group of Christians that held to the heresy that the body mattered so little that what you ate, drank, or engaged in physically had no bearing on your holiness– only what you believed with your mind mattered.

This heresy happens to be the heresy that Paul is addressing in 1 Corinthians chapters 5 through 9 before he directly addresses the question: “Can Christians eat at a holiday party where the meal was sacrificed to idols” in chapter 10.

Before Paul can broach the lawfulness of eating food sacrificed to idols, he has to dismantle this heresy of de-spiritualization. You cannot de-spiritualize physical actions to the point of living out a disembodied faith. 

If you think that “only what you believe” matters, and your physical actions don’t, you become easy prey for a special satanic trap known as “the Doctrine of Balaam,” which the Nicolaitans employed as we are told in Revelation 2:14-16.

The Doctrine of Balaam is a New Testament phrase named for an Old Testament character. The Apostle Peter and the Apostle Jude equate Balaam to the false teachers that plagued the early church by polluting the gospel in various ways.

Balaam was a prophet that was asked to place a curse on the Israelites before they entered into the Promised Land. Balak, the Moabite king who asked for the curse to be placed, was very frustrated by Balaam’s inability to curse Israel. Because God was determined to bless them, (Numbers 22-24) Balaam was entirely unable to curse them.

But Balaam was a crafty man. Though he couldn’t curse Israel while they were under God’s blessing, he instructed Balak to entice the Israelites into sexual immorality and idolatry says Numbers 31:16.

Revelation 2:14 condemns Balaam of “[showing] Balak how to trip up the people of Israel. He taught them to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by commiting sexual sin.”

Balaam knew about a covenant  loophole– once the Israelites had engaged in sexual immorality and idolatry, God’s chosen and protected people would be punished by Him for ungodliness.

And they were. They were punished by a plague and the offending Israelites were killed.

What we do in the physical is spiritual. The Israelites partook with their bodies and worshipped with their inner being. And both body and spirit were punished…Jesus has a lot to say about this (see Matthew 10:28; Matthew 5:29).

The Nicolaitans were accused of the same folly as Balaam. They tripped Christians up by teaching them to eat and act in their bodies however they wanted; because after all, only the mind mattered.

Old Testament and New, our faith has never been simply cerebral.

By changing its name, the Puritans must have believed they had elevated St. Martin’s Day from an idolatrous feast day to a cerebral holiday that glorifies, not a man, but, ideas– the ideas of gratitude and community.

But you can’t just change a name, or the verbiage and think that that sanitizes the worship out of a holiday or food or drink or sex or feasting.

In talking about liturgical holidays, and which ones have pagan accoutrements, and which and what the kids can participate in, and where and when and how much…stop with the splitting of hairs over the meat sacrificed to idols! This is what Paul would say.

There is a whole other axe to grind:

That is, are you aware of just how spiritual this time of year is?

Are you aware that from a spiritual perspective a meal is just a meal; and from a spiritual perspective a meal is way more than a meal?

From a spiritual perspective the holidays are just a collection of days a year; and from a spiritual perspective the holidays are a hot-bed of spiritual warfare.

Are you aware that this is a sacred season for people who do quite literally sacrifice to idols? Do they pray to no one or nothing?

Investigate 1 Corinthians 8 & 1 Corinthians 10:19-22.

The worst thing we could do this time of year is to ignore the very present spiritual atmosphere while we worry about the past origins of these traditions. The traditions are a technicality.

They are the kind of technicality that Balaam exploited to distract and sabotage the Israelites.

Whenever we can be convinced to focus on only the physical or only the spiritual, rather than considering them and weighing them together, we fall prey to the Doctrine of Balaam and the heresy of the Nicolaitans.

We will be exploring these final four questions regarding spiritual warfare, the “distract to destroy” tactic of the Doctrine of Balaam, and how these concepts have everything to do with the holidays, in my Christmas post due out right around the Winter Solstice.

 

*Side Note: Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving in October closer to Halloween, which is ironic because Martinmas is also called Old Hallowmas Eve or Old Halloween. In some European countries, children trick or treat and carry jack-o-lanterns during St. Martin’s Day festivities.

 

Liturgical Holidays

“Job would send for his children and perform a ceremony…” Job 1:5

“Job would send for his children and perform a ceremony as a way of asking God to forgive them of any wrongs they might have done. He would get up early the next morning and offer a sacrifice for each of them, just in case they had sinned or silently cursed God,” Job 1:5 CEV.

We as humans are religion creators. We have an innate tendency to perform ceremonies, be pious, do extra, go extreme, and settle into ritualistic security.

Job was a religion creator just like the rest of us. Most bible translations add to vs. 5 that this ceremony to cleanse his children not of actual, but of fictitious sins, was Job’s “regular practice.”

Job deeply desired to please God– and God completely recognized his piety and blamelessness– but Job approached God through religion not faith. He displayed a type of existential anxiety in relation to the Lord that would be common to the pagans of his day.

I think many of us begin our journey toward faith in a superstitious religiosity in the midst of which, and despite of, the Lord extends to us an offer of experiencing Him through faith and freedom from our “regular practices.”

Job was a contemporary of Abraham– both of them would have begun as idolaters. Job was a religious man in the fashion of the spirit of the age– ritual sacrifice. At that time everyone offered sacrifices to the gods and burnt offerings. Religion always emerges from culture.

But Job’s faith emerges outside of his culture. He has an encounter with God that has nothing to do with his sacrifices.

I know that can be hard to take in, being that Mosaic religion is a religion based on atonement by sacrifice– on that note let me remind you that in at least 21 passages of scripture God says that sacrifice and offering is not what He really wants, desires, or accepts. He says it first to Samuel (1 Samuel 15:22);that His true desire is obedience.

In subsequent scriptures throughout the Bible, God relays His preferences over sacrifice as being: love, knowledge of Him, a broken and contrite spirit, righteousness and justice, mercy, to love Him with all our heart and strength and understanding, love our neighbors, love kindness, walk before Him humbly, walk in the way He commands us, delight to do His will, carry His law within our hearts, draw near to listen, faithfulness, to attend to others, to be reconciled to our brothers, to obey, to listen to His voice, and to do all He commands us.

This explains the entire book of Hebrews! Isaiah 1:11-17 says:

What makes you think I want all your sacrifices? says the Lord. I am sick of your burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fattened cattle. I get no pleasure from the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. When you come to worship me, who asked you to parade through my courts with all your ceremony? Stop bringing me your meaningless gifts; the incense of your offerings disgusts me! As for your celebrations of the new moon and Sabbath and your special days for fasting– they are all sinful and false. I want no more of your pious meetings. I hate your new moon celebrations and your annual festivals. They are a burden to me. I cannot stand them! When you lift up your hands in prayer, I will not look. Though you offer many prayers, I will not listen, for your hands are covered with the blood of innocent victims. Wash yourself and be clean! Get your sins out of my sight. Give up your evil ways. Learn to do good. Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Defend the cause of orphans. Fight for the rights of widows. 

This is a little confusing in light that God instituted all of those rituals. But! The author of Hebrews tells us that the first model that was given us was in fact only a model! It was a model of the heavenly things put into an earthly context, but once Jesus came that earthly context was no longer needed because Jesus revealed all to us, and now our worship is not to be in the fleshly way– for the fleshly way is in fact quite replicable by the world– but rather we are to worship in spirit and in truth for God is spirit (John 4:24).

See in Hebrews 10:1-10 how Jesus’ sacrifice put an end to ritual sacrifices to make way for true religion. The Apostle James defines this true religion in James 1:27: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

The sacrificial system was in a sense a syncretistic in that the Lord allowed a world system to act as a spiritual system. It was a system that seems to have emerged from the world not outside of it.

It’s not that God didn’t act, interact, or accept the sacrifices but religious piety– which was all the sacrificial system accomplished en masse– was not the ultimate goal, but rather the goal was relationship with God through faith. We see this starting all the way back with Job– the oldest book in the Bible. He is the first to say, “I know that my Redeemer lives!” and “If only I had an advocate.” The first person whose rebirth through faith is set into record was the first to say, “I thought I knew before, but now I know.” And that knowing is knowing that religion is a shadow— it is merely a carbon-based form for our carbon-based brains.

Religion speaks to us in our fleshly, worldly context before we are born again into the spirit.

We are a people in context, but we are called to live out of context. We are treasure in a field (Matthew 13:44). We are in the temporal but are of the eternal.

As we are surrounded by a worldly context it is difficult to not be saturated by that context. It is difficult to keep ourselves “undefiled.” And by undefiled I am actually not talking about by sin, but by religion.

It is the inevitable human tendency to create religion, I say again.

We as Christians have inherited both a faith and a religion. How do we interact with the religion we have inherited– the part of our worship that is of the earth, of the age, sometimes borrowed from false religion and often syncretistic?

How do we maintain faithfulness and obedience when even our own institutions and leaders bait us into unspiritual practices that emerge from man and culture?

The liturgical holidays are a great example of practical syncretism in the Christian religion.

I will now finally define syncretism for those of you who don’t have that definition on file. Syncretism is the practice of two religions at one time. It is the blending of a person’s old religious practices while believing in the tenets of one’s new faith. It is borrowing traditions and practices in one religion for use in another.

This is why I postulate that ritual sacrifice was possibly syncretism. Sacrificing made sense to pagans– still does unfortunately. Even modernly, it is in fact, legal in America to ritually sacrifice animals, and neo-pagans in Britain are committing kidnappings for human sacrifices today.

The most important point I want to make about ritual sacrifice, is that Jesus ended it. God may have allowed blood sacrifice as the agreement for atonement for a time, but it was only for a time until a better agreement was made. There is, therefore, in the same way, no longer a place for sacrifices or any other forms of culturally emergent Christian religious practice.

Inadvertently, American Christians still practice syncretism through the liturgical holidays. (You are in fact reading the preface post for my Liturgical Holiday series.)

Let’s identify syncretism in Christian religion and contemporary Christian practice by playing a game called “Who Borrowed Whose Holiday?”

  • Halloween is actually a Catholic holiday that the neo-pagans borrow, not the other way around!
  • Thanksgiving is not actually a Puritan holiday but is an assimilation of the Catholic St. Martin’s Day, a holiday that is still huge all throughout Europe.
  • And Christmas, the holiday we consider to be ultimately Christian, is actually the only one that is not Catholic by origin but pagan!
  • And just a side note: The only holidays that are ordained in the Bible are in the Old Testament, which very few Christians even know about. And, we are not commanded to celebrate Jesus’ birth nor His resurrection day. We are however, commanded to remember Him through participating in the Lord’s Supper and providing for each other’s needs– ordinances which we treat flippantly, without cheer, and with a bah hum bug closed-heartedness.

So, with this back drop let me explain what this series on the liturgical holidays will and will not be.

It will not be an exhortation to stop celebrating the liturgical holidays. I will make the argument that it is not going to damn you to celebrate Christmas. We will be talking through Paul’s perspectives on pagan feasts in 1 Corinthians to explore our freedoms regarding the liturgical/pagan observances.

It will be an exploration of the spiritual warfare involved in the liturgical holidays. On this count we will explore Balaam in Numbers, 2 Peter, Jude, and Revelation.

It will be a spring board to critique the emergent, missional, and discipleship Christian movements to assess in what ways our post-modernist efforts to evangelize do in fact “fish” men out of their context or if we are simply falling into the same assimilation traps that resulted in the Catholics giving us the liturgical holidays– occasions that leave us fat, sleepy, broke, accidently falling prey to spiritual attack, and very little conformed to the image of Christ.

Don’t worry: I don’t hate the holidays. But I do think they are a far better litmus for the state of the American church than we think. They are a great indicator that we love our “regular practices” and our ceremonies more than we love “walking humbly” and keeping his covenant (Exodus 19:5).

Warning! Through this seasonal series, let’s keep more in mind our own failings in practicing “pure and genuine religion,” than transferring blame onto Halloween, Thanksgiving, or Christmas. This exploration’s goal is to draw us into humility not pride.

The Lord is notorious for His patience with worldliness in His holy people so that they might eventually learn to recognize godliness. None of us can boast.