Have we lost our ability to feast?
And what can we do to recover this important part of Christian culture?
– by Bernhard Stock
Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work which he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy. (Genesis 2:1-3a)
The Origin of Feasting
Right at the beginning of all, we see that God is active – he creates a vast universe. But then he finishes his work, and he establishes a day of rest – the seventh day, the Sabbath. Of course, this is not the end of God acting, as if, after this he has been just leaning back and watching what mankind does with his world.
This idea of God as a passive deity who no longer interferes with the world was, by the way, a theological position called Deism. Many Christians still think like Deists, as if God were no longer active –a mere philosophical principle. But God is still at work. He is a living God, who intervenes, acts in our lives, and speaks to us.
A Glorious Interruption
When God inaugurated the Sabbath, he actually interrupted his work and established a feast. And for us also, following his lead, a real feast is to be an interruption of day-to-day-life.
For there to be an interruption, there has to be something to interrupt – such as the normal day-to-day-life and activities, the hard work, the worries of life. We can only celebrate well and enjoy a feast if it is something special – something set-apart from the daily routine of life. And this means that people in our times, especially in the Western world, are in danger of losing our ability to celebrate. In a world where almost everything is special, where we can live in material abundance, where we can have almost everything we want, and some people don’t even have to work for it – in a world like this nothing becomes special. Can we who are wealthy by historical and current world standards really celebrate? No! If our lives are one ongoing party, in the long run, they become dull, shallow, and boring.
Sometimes I hear people complain about the work they have to do in preparing a celebration – the decoration, the cooking – but this is part of the real feast! It gives you all the more joy if at the end of all the work you can sit down and look around and say (like God did): behold, it is very good.
Eternal Roots in God
Scripture also teaches us that the genuine feasting has its origin in God – it has eternal roots. In fact, we cannot create a real feast. We cannot sit down and find a cause for celebrating and then celebrate. The cause of the real feast is already given to us. It’s not something we achieve on our own.
All major feasts in the Jewish and Christian tradition have at their root something which God did – he delivered his people from Egypt, he gave the commandments, he sent his Son, and the Son, Jesus, rose from the dead, bringing us the promise of our own resurrection in him. We can see that as more feasts become secularized, they lose their eternal origin and meaning (some modern feasts don’t even have an eternal origin), they lose their attraction and become distorted and perverted.
For example, Christmas is no longer a joyful celebration of our Savior’s birth. It has been replaced as the “feast of the family” or, even worse, the “feast of giving gifts”, and an “orgy of consumerism”. The more man celebrates himself and his achievements (such as the mass celebrations which many communist and totalitarian regimes have put on each year), the more this becomes a mere flexing of muscle and less a real feast.
If a genuine feasting needs an eternal cause, we Christians should be the experts in celebrating, because we have more than enough reasons to celebrate. My personal conviction is that if Christians really learn to celebrate well, the people of this world will take notice and will want to learn from us how to celebrate the real feasts, such as Christmas. The world has lost the art of celebrating because it has lost the real cause for feasting.
How should we celebrate?
Afterward Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said: “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, Let my people go, that they may hold a feast to me in the wilderness.” (Exodus 5:1)
A feast in the wilderness
Isn’t this amazing? The Israelites have been an occupied people for 400 years in Egypt and now they ask Pharaoh to let them go so they can hold a feast to the Lord! When God was about to set his people free from slavery, he told them to prepare a feast!
What can we learn from the scriptures about how to celebrate well, especially as families? In the Exodus account of the Passover, we can see a model or pattern for how God wanted his people to celebrate. The Passover (or Seder), which is celebrated every year in Jewish homes, is known in Jewish tradition as the feast of all feasts because it celebrates God’s deliverance of his people from slavery in Egypt.
I want to pick out three important elements for our consideration about feasts: commemorating, giving thanks, and celebrating.
We feast to commemorate
God instructed the Israelites to commemorate – to remember, recall to mind, and recount by retelling the story of the first exodus when God delivered his people from bondage in Egypt. Why do we come together, as families and community, for feasts? First to commemorate. We need to remind ourselves of the eternal reason for celebration; we have to “tell the story” – his story – and point it out to one another.
And it can be really helpful to tell it. In our community (the Bread of Life in Munich), we celebrate a big Christian passover seder every year. And at this celebration, we ask someone to “tell the story” – the story of our deliverance, our exodus, in a new and fresh way. Over the years, we have discovered more and more about the exodus, since each storyteller has his different version of it. And then, we ask someone to tell the story of our community during the last year – what God has done with us.
As a community we encourage all of our families to regularly have a Lord’s Day celebration meal in their homes on Saturday evening as a way of preparing ourselves to mark Sunday as the Lord’s Day – a day set-apart, sundown to sundown, to rest from our normal work and activities so we can honor the Lord in a special way and worship together. In the Lord’s Day celebration meal we can tell each other the stories of what God has done for us in the last week, or so. And of course, whenever the gospel is read in a celebration, it is also “telling the story”: Remember, O people of God, what great things he has done for each one of us!
When we remind ourselves of the deeds of the Lord, we should think of ourselves as participating in it again, since as Jewish tradition says, “if you don’t consider yourself as being part of it, you are not celebrating well.” This also gives us a guideline for our emotions: they should not be an expression of our personal mood, but rather an appropriate answer to the “eternal reason” of our celebration: awe in the presence of God, joy about the work of salvation, mourning for sin, attentive while hearing about his deeds (see Nehemiah 8:9-10).
We feast to give thanks
Secondly, we should give thanks. Since the origin for a real celebration is not in ourselves or in something we did or achieved, it is only appropriate to give thanks and honor to the “originator,” the Lord. This is true even if we are celebrating a birthday and honoring a person, since the person could do nothing about being born, and not exist except with God’s help. So it’s appropriate also to honor not only the people, but also their parents and the Lord, who brought them into existence, and made them the wonderful people they are now. This will also keep us from sliding into a “cult of personality”, which is actually a perversion of a real celebration.
We feast to celebrate
And last, of course we celebrate. Many things can work together to make a good and joyful celebration: clothing, decoration, music, arts, a good meal, dance, fellowship, talking with one another. These look different at a big occasion, than they do at a small one; but they should always strive to foster a culture of celebrating. To celebrate well, we need good preparation, good order, a sense for what is real beauty, and also discernment: for instance, dancing before the Lord (as David did before the ark of the covenant) is one thing and dancing around a golden calf is something altogether different.
When the Queen of Sheba, who did not believe in the one God, visited King Solomon, she was impressed: by the food, the clothing of his servants, the way they served, the order at the table (2 Chronicles 9:3) – she was impressed by the way he knew how to celebrate! And she ascribed Solomon’s wisdom to his God. If Solomon’s court is so wonderful, he must have a wonderful God! Could others say this about us?
Observing the Lord’s Day
As an example for celebration, let’s look at the Lord’s Day. In a traditional society (like the one I grew up in northern Bavaria), the Lord’s Day started on Saturday afternoon. Everything was cleaned, the children had their baths, and normal work ceased until Sunday evening. People really rested – no chores around the house, no washing the car, especially no shopping, and no other work. Sunday was genuinely a day of rest, a glorious interruption. And the reason for this was obvious as we all went to our respective church services on Sunday mornings. The “eternal reason” was clearly the center of the whole feast. And, of course, within the church service or liturgy, we remembered the deeds of the Lord, and we gave thanks to him. Afterwards, there was a special family meal, people wore special clothes, and there was a solemn but not stiff atmosphere, and there was fellowship with the whole family – a real celebration.
In our communities, we have the great blessing of renewing the culture of the Lord’s Day, starting it with our Lord’s Day celebration on the eve of Sunday.
Observing the Lord’s Day and celebrating it well are not only “good things”. They are vital. Scholars say that Judaism owes its survival through the centuries, and all the persecutions – and in the diaspora without a temple for almost two thousand years – to the Jews’ faithful and continuing observance of the Sabbath. The Sabbath celebration in families, and then the meeting in the synagogue and the strict adherence to keeping a day of rest.
We could also have a look at other celebrations during the year: the big feasts of our salvation (Christmas, Easter, Pentecost), celebrations in our communities, and personal occasions (anniversaries, birthdays, etc.). As we learn to celebrate these well, we are only anticipating the one, ultimate, and eternal celebration: the wedding banquet of the Lamb (Revelations 21) which is pointed to throughout the scriptures:
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of fat things, a feast of wine on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wine on the lees well refined.
Berhnard Stock, a gifted teacher and a founding leader of Brot des Lebens (Bread of Life Community) in Munich, Germany. He is actively involved in community building work for the European region of the Sword of the Spirit and is currently the Moderator of Christ the King Association. Taken from Living Bulwark October 2007. Used with permission.