As Holy Week and the Easter season approach it is helpful to ponder what we actually do. A question I received from a reader of my column at the Our Sunday Visitor will help frame the discussion and answer a few questions.
My family and I are making a bible study with others online. As the books of Exodus and Leviticus were being read, there were multiple references to Jewish feast days such ass Passover, Pentecost, and Yom Kippur, where the Lord himself was explaining in very exact detail as to how these feasts should be celebrated. In several cases, the Lord said these words or something similar: “You must observe this day throughout your generations as a statute forever” (Ex 12:17). I know that Jesus ushered in the New Covenant that superseded the Old Covenant, but the words of God here seem unambiguous. Did God not mean what he said here? — Name, location withheld.
It would be wrong to say that we, as Christians, do not observe the solemn Jewish feasts at all. We do more than observe them, we fulfill them. These Old Testament feasts pointed to Christ and are fulfilled by Him.
The clearest example of this is Passover. Christ Jesus is our Passover (or paschal) Lamb and every Easter we solemnly celebrate that Christ our Passover Lamb has been sacrificed, once and for all. We are delivered from death and make our Exodus from the slavery of sin to the glorious freedom of the children of God.
So, we do more than celebrate Passover, in Christ we fulfill it. That is, we partake fully of all that the Passover pointed to. In a certain sense we celebrate it every Sunday, which is a mini-Pasch (or Easter).
As for the Jewish Feast of Pentecost (also called the Feast of Weeks, Harvest or Shavuot), we continue to celebrate that as well. While it was essentially a harvest festival celebrating the end of the wheat harvest, it also commemorated the giving of the Law. As Christians we fulfill this feast in that it celebrates the Law being written in our hearts by the Holy Spirit (not just on stone tablets), and the commissioning of the Church to go forth and bring in a mighty harvest.
Another major Jewish feast is Yom Kippur, the day of Atonement. But here too, what they looked to and longed for, has been fulfilled (not set aside) in Christ who atones for our sins, not just once a year, but once and for all, and this mercy is available every day.
Irenaeus of Lyon speaks of these foreshadowings and their fulfillment in Christ.
God kept calling them to what was primary by means of what was secondary, that is, through foreshadowings to the reality, through things of time to the things of eternity, through things of the flesh to the things of the spirit, through earthly things to the heavenly things. As he said to Moses: You will fashion all things according to the pattern that you saw on the mountain.
For forty days Moses was engaged in remembering the words of God, the heavenly patterns, the spiritual images, the foreshadowings of what was to come. Saint Paul says: They drank from the rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. After speaking of the things that are in the law he continues: All these things happened to them as symbols: they were written to instruct us, on whom the end of the ages has come.
Through foreshadowings of the future they were learning reverence for God and perseverance in his service. The law was therefore a school of instruction for them, and a prophecy of what was to come. – (Irenaeus of Lyons Adversus Haereses, Lib. 4, 14, 2-3; 15, 1)
And we must also remember the teaching of St. Paul: Therefore let no one judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a feast, a New Moon, or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the body that casts it belongs to Christ. (Col 2:16-17). He says something similar in Romans 14.
You also present a quote that speaks to the perpetuity of these ancient rites: “You must observe this day throughout your generations as a statute forever” (Ex 12:17). However, the Hebrew word here as “forever” is “olam” which admits of many shades of meaning. It could mean “perpetually,” but it can also mean “a long time or duration.” So, the meaning isn’t as unambiguous as you may think.
Finally, we must not forget that the Apostles was given authority by Christ to bind and loose. Hence, at the First Council of Jerusalem (cf Acts 15) the apostles and priests gathered determined that the whole of the Jewish ceremonial Law and traditional observances did not apply to Gentile converts. Jesus had already set some precedents in this regard when he rendered all foods clean (Mark 7:19) and disregarded some of the stricter Sabbath rules about work.
So, we have a threefold teaching. First, we are doing more than observing the ancient feasts, we are fulfilling them in Christ. Secondly the word “olam” does not necessarily mean “forever.” And third, that the Church, which now includes Gentiles, has the authority to regulate such observances and discern with Christ what binds from the Old Testament and what no longer applies, or what is fulfilled in a richer way.
Soon the Passover of the Lord will be here. Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world! Soon, the battle he took up for us will be made present once again.