Everybody likes a good party. I know I do. I don’t go to nearly enough. Let’s face it. People just love to celebrate. Just about every culture I know has some kind of harvest festival, a way to celebrate the gathering of food. And that carries over even to modern times. I know that it has always been a habit for me, and just about everybody I know, to go out to dinner, or do something to celebrate payday. At my old school, we nearly always had a TGIF celebration at a local restaurant/bar on payday. And isn’t payday really our urban version of a harvest?
We celebrate births, weddings, birthdays, promotions, anniversaries, graduations, and just about anything else we can justify. Some folks even celebrate divorces. And isn’t the reception after a funeral really the celebration of a person’s life? So celebrations are a natural part of humanity. And I’m not even including the cultural celebrations that are tied with religions and with the seasons of the year. In fact, celebrating must be one of the most purely human things we do. You don’t see dogs and cats celebrating. Fish may have schools, but they never graduate, do they? I guess we’re just party animals.
So it is natural that our human religions would have festivals. And it is of no little interest to me that most religions have similar festivals. As humans, we all have the same concerns. Since death is a natural part of life, all religions have some kind of feast day to honor the dead. The Buddhists in Japan have the Obon festival. Pre-Columbian cultures celebrated the Day of the Dead, a practice that carried over to present day Catholic México. And the three religions rooted in Judaic culture, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity all have some recognition of man’s inability to meet the divine standard, so some feast day is dedicated to the atonement for sins.
Today is an important feast day in the Christian church. It is the feast of Pentecost. Pentecost marks fifty days (from the Greek pente—fifty) after Easter, fifty days after the resurrection of Christ. It is on this day that, according to the story, the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles, those close students of Jesus, and the church was born, as it were. Pentecost is the birthday of the church.
According to the story, Jesus rose from the dead and then appeared, on and off, to his students for a period of forty days. You will recall that forty is a significant number in Bible lore. The Hebrews spent forty years wandering in the wilderness. Jesus fasted for forty days. It is based in Jewish numerological symbolism. Four was the number of completion. Multiplying that number by ten represents the maximum. So forty would indicate maximum completeness. The Hebrew (and Aramaic) word for that is translated as forty in Greek, actually means “the fulfilled time”. In other words, it could represent forty. It could represent ten. That word represents any time that is the proper amount of time. So if you were to translate an ancient Hebrew recipe, it would always call for cooking something forty minutes. You cook it until it is ready. You see what I mean? Forty just means the right amount of time.
So Jesus hung around after rising from the dead forty days, or the right number of days, whatever that was, and then, according to the story, he ascended into heavens, or at least, that is how it appeared to the people who wrote down the events. Then there was a period of ten days when the apostles all hid their butts in Jerusalem and waited for this “helper” that Jesus said he would send them. So they were all hiding in this house when there was a really loud noise described as being like a “strong driving wind” and those eleven guys were suddenly all talking in strange foreign languages.
When people in town nearby heard the sound, they all gathered around the house and heard the students of Jesus speaking these foreign languages and thought they must have gotten drunk. But all the foreigners in town, Jews who traveled to Jerusalem for the Passover season, were all amazed to hear the disciples talking because they could understand what they were saying. The apostle Peter then began to tell them all the story of Jesus with full four-part harmony and orchestration and everything like that and according to the story, some 3,000 people were baptized that day. I’ve told you all this story before, a couple of times. What I’ve never shown you before is the interesting harmony between the life of Jesus and the Jewish feasts.
The Jewish year is divided into seven major feasts, all of which roughly parallel the life of Christ. Those feasts are Passover, The Feast of Unleavened Bread, The Feast of First Fruits, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot.
Pesach, a festival period that is comprised of the first three feasts, commemorates the children of Israel and their trials in slavery in Egypt. The Passover celebrates the deliverance of the first born from the plague that claimed the lives of the first born in Egypt. According to the Old Testament story of Moses, God told Moses to tell the Hebrews who were in slavery to sacrifice a unblemished lamb, eat the meat, and smear the blood on the door post so that the angel of death would “pass over” their houses and leave their children untouched. This feast is still celebrated today and culminates in the Passover Seder dinner that is held in every Jewish home.
Within the Christian church, Jesus is considered the “Lamb of God”. It was at the Passover Seder that Jesus broke the unleavened bread, gave it to his disciples, and said, “Take this and eat it. This is my body, which will be given up for you.” In this way, Jesus became the Passover lamb. Jesus also took the wine and passed the cup to his students and said, “Take this and drink it. This is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant, which will be shed for you and for all, so that sins may be forgiven.” After this meal, Jesus went to a local garden to pray. It was there he was arrested, after which, he would be tried, convicted, and executed.
Following the feast of Passover comes the Feast of Unleavened Bread. This feast begins on the first day of Passover and lasts for the seven days of Passover. During this time, Jewish families are to take all bread with leaven, yeast, out of the house and burn it. There is to be no leaven in the home. In Hebrew culture, leaven was symbolic of evil. So the purging of the home of leaven was symbolic of purging all sin from the soul. It is interesting to note that Jesus was arrested on the first day of The Feast of Unleavened Bread. It is Christian doctrine that according to the Jewish Prophet Isaiah, the messiah was to take on the sins of mankind. At the end of Passover comes the Feast of First Fruits, when an unblemished lamb was to be sacrificed, and the first fruits of the harvest were to be sacrificed as an offering to God.
Fifty days from the beginning of Passover comes Shavuot, The Feast of Weeks. It is to be seven weeks from the Feast of First Fruits. This is a Harvest festival in the Mediterranean world. To the Jewish people, it commemorates the giving of the law, the Ten Commandments, to Moses. Since it comes fifty days after the first Sabbath day of Passover, it was also called Pentecost in the koine Greek spoken in Judea during the first century. So what you have here is the commemoration of the giving of the first law coupled with the coming of the new law. Quite a coincidence, eh? That’s why Pentecost is considered the birthday of the church.
There are other feasts that have not yet come about. There is a belief in Christian thought, although certainly not all Christians are aware of it, that these represent events that are yet to come. Four months (there’s that number four again) after the feast of Pentecost (Shavuot), comes The Feasts of Trumpets. This is set to be a day of rest and trumpet blasts when the nation is presented to the Lord. Christian thought likens this feast to the Second Coming of Christ, which, according to The Book of Revelations, is preceded by trumpet blasts. The Feast of Trumpets is better known as Rosh Hashanah, The Jewish New Year. New Year, New World, get it, get it?
This is followed, in the Jewish calendar, by Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when good Jews everywhere fast and repent of their sins. This corresponds nicely to the idea of a Final Judgement Day, when people are called to account for the way they lived their lives.
The last feast of the year is Sukkot, The Festival of Booths. During this time, Jewish people are supposed to go live in a tent outside their houses for a couple of weeks to commemorate the forty years the Hebrew children wandered in the wilderness because Moses couldn’t bring himself to ask for directions. Seriously, according to the Old Testament account, they wandered in the wilderness to atone for their sinfulness. Some Christian thinkers believe that this festival was a foreshadowing of the forty years between the death of Christ and the destruction of Jerusalem in which the Jewish nation was supposed to repent of their sins.
However, it could also represent the period of time in which Jesus came to earth before his ministry began. Or the whole thing might be a way for Christian theologians to strain at trying to find parallels between the life of Christ and the Christian church and the Jewish calendar, which would be a nifty thing if it could be done. The reason those festivals resonate with people and became religious festivals in the first place is that each of those events seem to mirrors times in our own lives, times when we feel lost, times when we feel the need to clean house, times when we feel joyful, times of thanksgiving.
And it is not odd that Christian thinkers want to relate those feasts to the life of Christ. We would all like to think that there is some kind of grand cosmic plan. It’s a much more comforting feeling than the idea that God might be making it all up as S/He goes along. I have to say that at my age there is an uncanny feeling that all the events in my life somehow worked in synchronicity to put me where I am today. So when I look back at my life, it does almost seem as though there were some kind of plan. I think back, for example, to my Christmas trip I once took to Arizona, in which there were a series of calamities that individually seemed to be horrible, but collectively led to something good.
So did God plan all this out? Or did the writers of the New Testament write the story in such a way as to point to some definite plan? I would have to say that, considering the time frame over which all those holy books were written, and the incredible scholarship involved in crafting such a complicated tapestry of events, it seems unlikely that any group of people over the course of a hundred years could put together a story like that. Even J.K. Rowling had a hard time keeping the Harry Potter story straight, and that was written by only one person over a period of a decade or so. The New Testament was written by a bunch of guys over a period of a couple of hundred years.
I refuse to latch onto any particular doctrine. I know what I believe. I believe in the teachings of Jesus, a guy who lived 2,000 years ago. I think he had a lot of great things to say. I do believe that he was chosen by God, however you want to think of God, to fulfill a mission, to show us how to change our way of thinking, to reconnect ourselves to the divine force, to realize our own divine nature. I have come to believe that the only true peace and happiness comes from feeling that force in the world. I think we can let go of fear and anxiety. I think we could make a heaven out of this world if we followed the teachings of Christ. I believe that our idea of death is an illusion and that our spirits are immortal. And that’s good enough for me.
If all those other things the church says about saints and all those feasts turns out to be true, well then great. And if they were all inventions by first and second century Christian writers, it doesn’t change a thing. The teachings of Jesus are still true.
Pentecost is the true birthday of the church. On this day, a couple of thousand years ago, those students of Jesus stopped being afraid and went out into the world and took that message of hope, peace, and love with them, and spread the word, just as Jesus told them to do. And thanks to them, we know about the message of Jesus. That day connects them and Jesus to us today in the twenty-first century. The teachings of Christ are as alive today as they were then. And looking out at the world, it seems to me that we need them every bit as much now as they did then. Maybe more.