This is a continuation of “A Theology of Celebration (Part I).” You are welcome to read that one first.
However, I have decided to make this second part more briefly than originally. Part one was written close to the time when some Christians were expressing the belief that Valentines Day may be “Un-Christian” and therefore should not be celebrated. But that was a few weeks ago. In a couple of more weeks, we will start getting the FB notices and articles that Easter is “Un-Christian” and likewise should not be celebrated. But at the moment, I am not feeling that annoyance so I will shorten my argument.
The starting point for a Theology of Christian Celebration is that God approves of celebration. We see celebration as being affirmed in Heaven in a number of places. Consider Luke 15:10 and Revelation 7:9ff. Celebration then, at least as a concept is not sinful… it is even viewed positively by God.
On earth, celebrations were identified by Jesus as good (consider Luke 19 and John 12 as examples of people celebrating Jesus’s presence). Additionally, the Jews had a number of celebrations of different sorts. Consider for a moment some of the variety.
- Some had been formally commanded by God (in the Torah) and some were not.
- Some were tied to historical events (Passover, dedication of the temple, Purim, Chanukkah), and some were not.
- Some were based on harvest festivals (pre-Jewish celebrations) and some were not.
- Some were national and some were tied to rites of passage (circumcision, wedding) and some were ad hoc (community feasts like described in Luke 15).
- Some were highly religious (day of atonement), some were not really religious at all (community feast), and some were non-religious where a religious significance was tied to it (Like Shavuot).
Let’s consider this last one. Shavuot marks a period of time in the year in Palestine where the end of the Barley harvest meets the beginning of the wheat harvest. As such it lines as a harvest festival and was certainly celebrated as a harvest festival well before the time of Moses. However, with Moses and the arrival of the Torah, The Feast of Weeks was established (“Shavuot”) in the Torah, to commemorate the gift of the Law to the Israelites. Later on, during the Feast of Weeks (also known as Pentecost), the Holy Spirit came upon the 120 in the Upper Room in Jerusalem. This event has been marked until today as Pentecost and is celebrated as part of the Christian Liturgical calendar. So we have one continuous celebration from Pre-Israel days to the Christian era— a harvest festival, the arrival of the Torah, and the arrival of the Holy Spirit. Not only does this appear to be blessed by God, it appears to be intentional. The arrival of the Holy Spirit ushering in the Church age, is supposed to remind people of the arrival of the Torah ushering in the era of the Law, and both are to remind people of the joy of the arrival of the first wheat of the agricultural cycle. The overlapping symbols are not competitive but supportive.
Today there are those who feel that symbols have a certain permanence of meaning to them. And a symbol of permanent meaning has a permanent moral value associated with it. Therefore, a day that was once used by pagans cannot be used by anyone else for any other purpose. A symbol that has meaning in one faith can never be redeemed by another faith.
The truth is, however, that symbols (especially “pure symbols”) have meanings associated with them that are purely arbitrary. Even with iconic symbols, however, they can be redefined as well. A cross can be a symbol of disgrace and of execution, or it can be a symbol of faith and salvation. Meat that had been sacrificed to the Greek god Zeus, can symbolize the power of polytheistic Greek faith to give health and blessing, or it can be a worthless activity that can be ignored as one thanks the God of the Bible who provides all good things.
Celebrations are similar. If someone feels like he is doing wrong by celebrating something, then he should not. If someone feels like he is celebrating something worthy of Godly joy, he should feel no shame.
However, the challenge comes when these two people come together. What do we do then. Who is the weaker brother? It could be argued that either of them is the weaker brother and is required to adjust to the other out of loving concern. On the other hand, perhaps neither are the weaker brother. Perhaps they each simply disagree. Neither needs to apologize and neither needs to try to shame the other.
But that brings up a new thought. Can one join a celebration of a different religion or celebrate a secular event? Is that wrong? Generally, there are two answers given:
- No you can’t. You are joining in something that is wrong. Or…
- Yes you can. We have Christian liberty. What is not clearly wrong is… right.
I would argue that there is another option… and that is “Maybe.” From a missiological standpoint there are then two questions that need to be considered.
Question #1. Rather than focus on Yes I can or No I can’t celebrate, the question can be “How can I as a Christian join with the celebrations of my community, my friends, and still be true to my faith?”
Question #2. How can I redeem the symbols of this celebration so that Christians can embrace the culture transformatively?
To me these questions are better to consider than addressing the issue of Bad versus Good. Is Valentine’s Day non-Christian? In some ways, historically, and practically, the answer is clearly Yes. In some ways Valentine’s Day is non-Christian. Is Valentine’s Day Christian? Historically, it is also quite clear that the answer has to be Yes as well. Valentine’s Day has very clear Christian roots. So instead of fighting about trying to argue that Yes is No… Christians should ask the question,
“How can we as Christians celebrate Valentine’s Day in a way that is transformative in our community and true to our God.”