In last Sunday’s Mass we read from the eighth chapter of the Book of Nehemiah. I posted a lengthy commentary on it last week (On the Wonder of the Word of God). In today’s post I would like to ponder a rather surprising emphasis of that text. Let’s start with a little background.
In a stunning reversal for the Jewish people, the Babylonians invaded Jerusalem and destroyed not only the city, but the Temple as well! Prophet after prophet had warned the people of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and Judah that if they did not repent, God would permit punishments to come upon them in the form of destruction and exile. Those warnings were not heeded. The Northern Kingdom was destroyed in 721 B.C. and the end came for the Southern Kingdom of Judah in 587 B.C. The Temple of God lay in ruins and the survivors of the war were led captive into exile in Babylon. As they went they sang this song:
By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors
required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How shall we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy! (Psalm 137:1-6)
After 80 years the Lord lifted this exile by permitting Cyrus and the Persians to defeat the Babylonians. Not only did Cyrus allow the Jews to return to their land, he even offered monetary aid for the rebuilding of the city wall and the Temple.
Nehemiah chapter 8, from which we read last Sunday, describes a gathering of the refugees who had returned at which there was a reading from Scripture that convicted them of their sin, explained the exile, and set forth blessings. The passage that seems to have been read was from the Book of Deuteronomy. Apparently this book had been neglected by the Jews in the decades prior to exile. Their forgetfulness of it proved fateful, for in it was described the blessings of keeping the law and the terrible curses that would befall those rejecting it. Among the consequences of rejecting the law were destruction and exile.
Standing there that bright morning at the water gate listening to the book being read to them, the people began to weep uncontrollably (Neh 8:9). They realized that they and their fathers could have avoided all the ensuing death and pain had they but heeded God’s Word.
But then comes the surprising focus of the second half of the chapter. Surely there were many infractions of the Law that they and their forbearers had committed: false worship, idolatry, sins against the truth, sexual sins, injustice to the poor, theft, greed, and murder. But none of these many was the focus of the summons to repentance that follows in Nehemiah 8:13ff. Rather, the focus was on a certain feast day that they had failed to celebrate.
Not celebrating a feast day? Really? Of all the sins to focus on; failing to celebrate a feast day? Yes.
The feast that they had been neglecting was the Feast of Booths (or the Feast of Tabernacles). It was a feast that commemorated their time in the desert and the giving of the Law by Moses.
Certainly it was an important feast; in a way it symbolized the whole Law. To our modern minds, though, the neglect of a feast hardly seems worth mentioning when compared to some of the other sins listed above that we human beings routinely commit.
So what’s going on here? Why are feast days important?
Most of us moderns do not pay much attention to sanctoral cycle that makes up the Church’s calendar. On this calendar are the feasts of saints as well as feasts that commemorate God’s saving acts: Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, Corpus Christi, the Annunciation, and so forth. To us these seem to be mere commemorations of events in the distant past; we do not use them to mark the passage of time. But the feasts of the Lord and His saints have value in our lives.
Prior to modern chronographic devices, people measured time by what God set forth: the sun, the moon, and the stars in their courses. But the feasts of the Lord that were also integral to their sense of time. Passover was an important feast, but so were many others: Pentecost, Tabernacles, the Day of Atonement, Rosh Hashanah, and especially the weekly Sabbath. God was the clock of the ancients.
This pattern continued into Christendom, when Sundays were cherished and feast days framed the year: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, and the great feasts of the saints: Peter and Paul, John the Baptist, Joseph, Mother Mary, and many local saints. Indeed many words have come into our vocabulary that describe the Catholic Calendar: “Christmas” comes from Christ + mass. “Carnival” comes from the Latin carnis (meat) + vale (farewell) and signifies the great feast at which the last of the meat and fat were used up before Lent; Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) has a similar origin. “Holiday” comes from Holy Day.
With secularization these feasts have vanished into the background altogether. Holy Days were replaced by the secular mispronunciation “holidays” and became largely secular in focus. Today, Labor Day and Memorial Day mark the bookends of people’s summer more so than do the Feasts of the Sacred Heart (first Friday in June) and the Assumption (August 15). Christmas and Easter are still there, but they feature candy canes and Santa Claus, eggs and a bunny—not Jesus.
What does celebrating feast and Holy Days say? What it says is this:
God, you are central in our lives. We tell time by what you have done. Every week begins on Sunday in your house. In all the feasts we remember your saving works of the past and permit those acts to be present to us. We give you thanks for what you have done; we remember and we praise you. We celebrate your place in our life and we frame our lives around what you have done in our time and in our history. We love you, Lord, and not only do we celebrate what you have done, we celebrate you; we gather to praise you in your holy house and give you glory every Sunday and feast day. You are part of our lives, you are integral to them. We make room for you at our tables and on our calendar. You are ever before us. We also praise you for what you have done in the lives of the saints and we celebrate their lives, too. Our lives intersect with your salvation history. We tell time by you and what you have done.
So feasts are important. And while restoring a lost feast day might not occur to us as the first thing to do based on the call to repentance in Nehemiah 8, perhaps now its symbolic meaning can shine more brightly.
What about us? It surely didn’t help that the bishops removed most of the feast days as days of obligation. But frankly, most Catholics had lost any sense that they were feasts at all, referring to them merely as “holy days of obligation.” Instead of being feasts that framed our lives and interpreted them, they became things that interfered with our lives. Instead of looking forward to Church feasts as days to celebrate, many found them more to be cursed for the obligation they imposed. We have become very busy—too busy for God. We are all in a big hurry; there’s not even any time to celebrate. God has been shoved to the margins in our culture. We tell time by artificial devices. Gone are the feasts. Gone from our hearts is the God to whom the feasts referred. Even the sun, moon, and stars are largely absent from our lives as we stare into our little devices.
In response to this forgetfulness of God, to this moving of Him to the margins, God sends this instruction through Nehemiah:
“This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep”—for all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law. Then he said to them, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Neh 8:9-10).
The text goes on to explain the reason for this instruction: it was the restoration of a lost feast.
[For] they found it written in the Law that the Lord had commanded by Moses that the people of Israel should dwell in booths during the feast of the seventh month … for from the days of Jeshua the son of Nun to that day the people of Israel had not done so. “Go out to the hills and bring branches of olive, wild olive, myrtle, palm, and other leafy trees to make booths, as it is written.” So the people went out and brought them and made booths for themselves, each on his roof, and in their courts … And all the assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and lived in the booths … And there was very great rejoicing. … They kept the feast seven days, and on the eighth day there was a solemn assembly, according to the rule (Neh 8:14-19).
What feasts have we forgotten? What does that forgetfulness symbolize? Are we really so happy to be freed of the “burden” of keeping festival with the Lord? The people of the ancient world worked hard, probably a lot harder than we do. But they knew how to stop, rest, and enjoy the festivals of the Lord.
Our faith used to frame our lives, our culture, our calendar, and our whole sense of time.
Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine,
There’s always laughter and good red wine.
At least I’ve always found it so.
What good is life without feasts? We have lost our way in the bland, secular calendar of Monday holidays and having relegated God to the periphery. What joys and hopeful reminders we have lost!
To every Christian and to the Church seeking rebuild a darkened culture comes this instruction, this admonition from Nehemiah 8 to remember the feasts of the Lord:
This day is holy to the Lord your God … do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord must be your strength! … And there was very great rejoicing.