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Jesus and the Jewish festivalsAncient Context, Ancient Faith
By Gary M. Burge
ZondervanCopyright © 2012 Gary M. Burge
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Festivals of Judaism
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EVERYONE ENJOYS public festivals and holidays. Through them we tell stories that are sacred to our shared histories, or we simply enjoy remembering the seasons in which we live. Festivals are also closely tied to culture. Long-practiced customs take on subtle symbols that are barely noticed by an outsider.
If you live in England, for example, you simply must know what Guy Fawkes Day means—and join the bonfire that night (November 5). Here's the backstory: in November 1605 a man named Guy Fawkes decided to blow up Parliament and the House of Lords, kill King James I, and restore Catholicism to Britain. He failed. The "Gunpowder Plot" and its demise (Fawkes was caught guarding barrels of gunpowder in the basement of Parliament) was soon a celebration, and it evolved into a British holiday with Fawkes annually being burned in effigy over huge bonfires in almost every English city. The night ends with fireworks, carnivals, and celebrations.
In Scandinavia, particularly Sweden, the saint Lucia Festival occurs on December 13. While not a national holiday, "Santa Lucia" is firmly held by the culture. A young girl is chosen to lead an entourage of other girls in a public procession (often from a church). The young "Lucia" wears white robes, a red sash, and a crown of lighted candles while distributing cookies (usually pepparkakor or gingersnaps). The origin of this festival goes back to a young sicilian woman who lived in about AD 300 and died as a martyr under the roman Emperor Diocletian. Numerous legends evolved over time about how she used candles in Rome's dark catacombs to bring food and aid to hiding Christians. Today in Sweden you'll be served Lussekatt, a bun made with saffron—and if you're in high school, you probably spent the entire previous night carousing about your town ("Lusse-vigil"). Today Lucia is closely linked to Christmas celebrations, but few Swedes can really tell you where it all came from.
Festivals and Cultural Codes
We have similar festivals in the United states. Some are well-known (Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving) while others are now more obscure (St. Patrick's Day, Labor Day). Sometimes we barely remember the historical origins of our festivals. In the United states Halloween has clear guidelines for what we're supposed to do. But few recall why we do it or know the link to the church festival of "All saints' Day." We celebrate the holiday and we don't understand it fully.
Festivals also have symbols that everyone may recognize but are difficult to explain. We know that the colors green and red belong to Christmas; black and orange go with Halloween. And pastels belong to Easter. These codes have a public consensus. In America no one would set out black and orange Easter eggs. But other codes are less clear. Imagine explaining to someone from rural western China all of the symbols of Christmas: wreaths, holly, Santa (and his outfit), mistletoe, plus all of the religious imagery: the manger, the star, baby Jesus, and endless presents. I'm not sure if I could explain how mistletoe and the Bethlehem star go together.
But we handle all of this with ease, and a part of the enjoyment is reliving the numerous memories that come from the festival's events. Occasionally some of these codes are so subtle that only a cultural insider would understand. I once asked a class of students to find me the most obscure symbol that immediately brought to mind "Easter." Their answer: marshmallow Peeps. If you're unsure what there are, there is an entire website devoted to them.
However, some societies are comprehensively religious, and in these places national holidays and religious festivals run together. The Muslim celebration of Ramadan comes to mind. Ramadan is the ninth month on the Arabic calendar. In the ancient world it was a time in Arabia desperate for relief from the heat and without abundant water and food. Daytime fasting for this one month became common. The birth of Islam in the seventh century made Ramadan fasting official. For one month Muslims will fast from sunset to sundown (this is stipulated in the Qur'an, 2:183–187) and then feast in the evening.
In places like Egypt, streets are decorated with elaborate awnings where public dinners are enjoyed. Often the daily fast is broken with dates—a common Arabian food (used by Muhammad to break his own Ramadan fasts). The month of Ramadan ends with the grand feast of Eid (Eid ul-Fitr) filled with traditional foods dictated by each region. Generally a sheep, camel, or goat is sacrificed for the feast. But to outsiders, this is as opaque as Christmas is to Chinese Buddhists. If you don't know how to eat fattoush or if you don't like lamb mansef with laban, you've never celebrated Ramadan in Jordan or Syria or Lebanon.
It is not surprising that outsiders get confused in festivals that belong to other cultures. Once I was in the huge Khan el Khalili market of Cairo where I saw a Muslim man selling tall inflatable plastic Santas. I asked him, "What does this red fat man mean?" "I don't know," he said. "But I think Americans use these to decorate their homes." I didn't have the heart to straighten him out.
Religious Festivals in Antiquity
If it is true that our communities enjoy their peculiar festivals, the same was true of people living two thousand years ago. We have evidence from countless literary records that festivals were everywhere. And in some respects they share a few motifs with our own. They were keenly aware of the agricultural calendar; thus, in the northern hemisphere both fall and spring were important to celebrate the end of the summer harvest or the beginning of spring, when new life appears. Ancient people also were alert to the shortening of days and could mark the fall and spring equinox when day and night were equal. The "loss of light" in the autumn climaxed with midwinter (or the winter solstice), and here festivals might celebrate light and pray for the return of longer days.
Most ancient calendars were also lunar; that is, they followed the phases of the moon. This rhythm was easy to measure, but today we barely notice. A new moon was followed by a crescent (the lunar phases move horizontally across the face of the moon from right to left), and this led to a full quarter and finally a full moon. Then the moon began to disappear (following these same phases in reverse). This cycle took about a month and was the basis of both the earliest roman and Jewish calendars. The solar annual calendar that divides a year into twelve months of thirty or thirty-one days, which we use today, was introduced by Julius Caesar (100–44 BC). By the time of Augustus (63 BC–AD 14) it was the common imperial calendar. Many of the month names we use today come from Rome. July stems from "Julius" (think: Julius Caesar). January (or Januarius) owes its name to the roman god Janus (god of gates, doors [Latin: ianus], and harvests).
Excerpted from Jesus and the Jewish festivals by Gary M. Burge Copyright © 2012 by Gary M. Burge. Excerpted by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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