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Holidays and Holy Days (Part 2)

Posted at Gentle Reformation:

The following article is a guest post by Dr. Michael LeFebvre, Pastor of Christ Church in Brownsburg, Indiana, author of Singing the Songs of Jesus: Revisiting the Psalms, and Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary Board President.

Several years ago, I wrote a post for Gentle Reformation called “Holidays and Holy Days” (link here). In that article, I described the roots of the Christian Calendar—including holidays like Easter and Christmas—in the Levitical holy days of the Old Testament. The point of that article was to explain why some churches like the RPCNA uphold the Lord’s Day Sabbath (which the New Testament continues to exhort) while not observing extrabiblical holy days like Christmas. The New Testament does not institute Christmas as a holy day, and in fact the Old Testament Levitical festivals (on which the “Christian Calendar” was based) have been discontinued in the New Testament. With due respect for the sincerity with which many hold Advent worship services each December, there is actually significant reason to question the celebration of Christmas as a church holy day.

That being said, there is every good reason to affirm the place of Christmas in the calendar of American, civic holidays. And to celebrate it as a civic holiday (but not a church holy day) along with the other federally appointed American holidays. In this article—as a sequel to that previous post—I want to offer an important biblical example of civic celebration days, and to illustrate their difference from religious holy days.

A helpful example is provided for us in the book of Esther. While the traditional title for this book highlights the role of the story’s heroine—Esther—the real focus of the book is on the origin of an annual day of celebration called “Purim.” At the end of the book’s main narrative and just prior to its epilog, the book reaches its climax with the appointment of Purim as an annual day of celebration (Esther 9:20–32). There are several details about this passage worth our attention as a pattern for civic celebration dates.

First, the day of Purim was not a “holy day.” Many of our English translations use the confusing English word “holiday” for Purim in Esther 9:22. “[Mordecai appointed] the days … that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday” (ESV). The English word “holiday” is a contraction of “holy day.” To call Purim a “holiday” might, therefore, imply that it was a religious festival. However, Purim was not a “holy day,” and the above translation is misleading.

The Hebrew word typically used for Israel’s holy days is not used in Esther 9:22. Israel’s holy days were mo’adim (the holy feast days) on which the people were called for a “holy convocation” to worship (Lev. 23:2). Esther 9:22 uses a different designation for Purim. The Hebrew term translated “holiday” in this text is actually a two word phrase that literally means “a day of goodness” (yom tov). Thus, the term used to describe this celebration distinguishes it from the holy days of Israel. It is not an addition to the calendar of holy feast days (the mo’adim), but a “day of good” or a “day of gladness” (yom tov).

Second, the day of Purim did not include a gathering to worship. Unlike the true “holy days,” Purim was not a day for worship. Instead, it was a day to gather in private homes—and, perhaps, in synagogues or public spaces—to feast and celebrate and remember what God had done for them. It was a day “of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and gifts to the poor” (Esther 9:22). But it was not a day to call the congregation to gather for worship. There was no sacrifice tied to this day. There was no liturgy for this day. It was just a time to feast, give gifts, and rejoice together.

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