Making Time For Worship: Understanding Liturgical Seasons (Part 2)
by Michael Barber © 2006
From on early on in Scripture we notice the biblical figures following a kind of liturgical calendar. Immediately after reading about the sin of Adam and Eve we discover their children following a sort of worship schedule. In Genesis 4 we read, “In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions” (Gen. 4:3-4). A literal translation of the Hebrew renders “in the course of time” as “at the end of days.” This very likely implies that Cain and Abel brought worship to the Lord at the end of the week, the Sabbath.
However, it is really in the Mosaic legislation that a full liturgical calendar is first laid out in Scripture. Other Feasts were later added. In this essay we will look at the liturgical feasts described by the Old Testament. Only by really grasping the description of the feasts in the Old Testament will we be prepared to understand the Christian calendar.
In Exodus 12, we read that the month of the Passover, “Nisan,” is to the beginning of the year (Exod 12:2). The “Passover” was the climactic plague the Lord brought upon the Egyptians. Through it Israel would be delivered from bondage and led out of Egypt. The Lord goes on to lay out the prescriptions for the feast of Passover. My uncle, Fr. Peter Irving, sums them up as “kill, spill, and eat your fill.” First, one must kill the Passover lamb. Next, its spilled blood must be placed on the lintel of the door the house. Finally, it must be eaten. The Lord tells Israel that, "This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the LORD; throughout your generations you shall observe it as an ordinance for ever” (Exod 12:14).
The feast was called “Passover” because it celebrated how the angel of death “passed over” the houses of the Israelites in Egypt. Of course, the Egyptians did not keep the festival. As a result their first born children died—including Pharaoh’s (Exod 12:29-30). Finally admitting defeat, the king of Egypt freed the Israelites and the promise of deliverance God made to Abraham was finally fulfilled (Gen 15:13-14).
Deuteronomy 16 mandates that the sacrifice of the Passover lamb be made at the central sanctuary, i.e., Jerusalem (Deut 16:5-6). The observance of the Passover therefore required a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Of course, no mention is made of this dimension of the sacrifice in the Exodus account. The future central sanctuary designed for Israel’s life in the Promised Land isn’t even mentioned until Deuteronomy 12. In fact, the three major feasts—Passover-Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Weeks and the Feast of Tabernacles—all required trips to Jerusalem (Deut 16:16-17).
When King Josiah sought to reform the kingdom and reunite the divided nation of Israel, he focused his attention on this festival (2 Kgs 23:21-23; 2 Chron 35). To lead Israel to national repentance, he recognized there was a need to faithfully keep the feast. The Passover of the eighteenth year of Josiah’s reign was a memorable one to say the least.
“No passover like it had been kept in Israel since the days of Samuel the prophet; none of the kings of Israel had kept such a passover as was kept by Josiah, and the priests and the Levites, and all Judah and Israel who were present, and the inhabitants of Jerusalem” (2 Chron 35:18-19).At the heart of Josianic program of national reform and return to the Lord was a liturgical feast: Passover.
As future hopes of restoration were formulated as New Exodus expectations, the Passover likewise took on an added eschatological dimension. As the Lord once delivered Israel on the feast of Passover, so in the future the restoration was would come during Passover. One tradition held that the Messiah would appear on Passover night. Eschatological hopes thus permeated the Haggadah, the ritual retelling of the Passover that developed for the Passover meal. This ritual was structured around drinking four cups. During the meal a major theme of the Haggadah is participation in event of Passover, recounting, “what the Lord did for me when I came out forth from Egypt.”
The Feast of Unleavened Bread
Immediately following the Feast of Passover was the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which celebrated the first grain (barely) harvest of the year. The Feast of Unleavened Bread is thus closely identified with the Passover. The two feasts are mentioned together in Exod 12—in fact, the description of the feast of Unleavened Bread is framed by descriptions of the Passover (12:2-14; 21-49). As part of the festival all yeast is to be removed from the houses of Israelites (Exod 12:19). By the time of Jesus, the term “Passover” was probably used to describe the entire spring festival, including both Passover proper and the Feast of Unleavened Bread (cf. Josephus Ant 17.213; 20.106).
The Feast of Weeks (Pentecost)
Seven weeks after Passover and Unleavened Bread came the Feast of Weeks, the second major liturgical festival. Its observance is described in Lev 23:15-22 and Deut 16:9-12. It celebrated the wheat harvest. The feast lasted fifty days (Lev 23:16), although there seems to have been some debate within some Jewish circles about when the counting began. In Greek it was referred to as Pentecost—referring to the “fifty” days.
Here Israel is specifically required to bring “leavened” bread to the temple to be waved before the Lord (Lev 23:17). This bread is to be consumed by the priests of Israel (Lev 23:20). Only unleavened bread could be offered to God in sacrifice (Lev 2:11; 6:17). The Feast of Weeks was associated with the giving of the law at Sinai—which occurred not too long after the original Passover.
The Day of Atonement
The Day of Atonement was celebrated on the tenth day of the seventh month. The Lord tells Moses:
“It shall be for you a time of holy convocation, and you shall afflict yourselves and present an offering by fire to the Lord. And you shall do no work on this same day; for it is a day of atonement, to make atonement for you before the Lord your God. For whoever is not afflicted on this same day shall be cut off from his people… It shall be to you a Sabbath of solemn rest, and you shall afflict yourselves” (Lev 23:27-30, 32; cf. Num 27:7).
On this day, Israel was to observe penitential practices. The Israelites are to “afflict” themselves—to “burden” themselves to make atonement for sin. One such practice seems to have been “fasting” (cf. Zech 8:19).
This was the one day of the year when the high priest entered into the Holy of Holies (the innermost part of the temple). Prior to is entry he was required to undergo specific penitential ceremonies. He was required to put on holy vestments (made of linen) and perform ritual washings (cf. Lev 16:4-5; also see 24, 26, 28). Rabbinic tradition describes other rites, including details regarding a week of separation from the people prior to the feast. Rabbinic tradition also tells us that the priest was anointed with ashes on the third and seventh days of this week (cf. Num 19:11-12). One further ritual performed on this day involved the high priest confessing all of the sins of his people over the head of the sacrificial animal (Lev 16:21).
The Feast of Tabernacles (Booths) or Sukkoth
This festival occurred during the harvest of grapes and olives in the seventh month, marking the beginning of autumn. The feast was also called the “Ingathering,” a reference to the ingathering of the harvest. As Unleavened Bread was associated with Passover, Sukkoth was associated with the Day of Atonement, which took place only five days prior to it. Furthermore, since Solomon had dedicated the temple in the seventh month (cf. 2 Kgs 8:2; 2 Chr 7), the Feast of Booths served as a celebration of the dedication of the house of the Lord. The book of Zechariah envisions the worship of God’s re-gathered and sanctified people in the eschatological age as taking place during Sukkoth (Zech 14:16-21).
The booths served both a functional and religious purpose. During the time of the harvest it appears many harvesters would employ the use booths or tents in the fields. At the same time, they served as a reminder of Israel’s time of wandering in the wilderness.
The Mishnah describes further rituals associated with the feast. It describes how the priests would take water from the pool of Siloam and bring it to the temple where it was poured out as a libation. In addition, the Mishna reports that the feast was associated with the lighting of candelabras in the temple. In this rite the people proclaimed their resolve to remain dedicated to the Lord and to the temple, promising not to reject Yahweh as the people in the time of Ezekiel did.
Two other feasts were later added to the calendar and seem to have enjoyed some kind of official recognition by Jewish leaders. They are Hanukkah and Purim. Hanukkah, which celebrated the re-dedication of the temple by the Maccabees, was observed in the ninth month (1 Macc 4:36-61). Purim was a spring festival held one month before Passover. This festival celebrated victory over Jewish oppressors and was especially linked to the book of Esther. No reference is made to it, for example, at Qumran where there is no evidence the book was read. The Qumran community also rejected the Maccabean books and probably did not observe Hanukkah.
However, the Dead Sea Scrolls make references to other festivals that seem to have been unique to the Qumran community. Following the pattern of the Feast of Weeks which involved a count of fifty days, the Qumran calendar includes a Feast of Wine (fifty days) after the Feast of Weeks), and a Feast of the Firstfruits of Oil (fifty days after the Feast of Wine. The origins of these Feasts probably stem from the threefold blessing on grain, wine, and oil (11QTemple43:3-10; Num 18:12; Deut 7:13).
The Reason for the Seasons
The major harvests and seasons of the year were punctuated with official memorials of what God had done for Israel in past times. These seasons involved both celebration but also, at times such as the Day of Atonement, repentance. The members of the Qumran community were especially careful to observe times of penitence and carefully followed the specific liturgical rites of purification (1QS 5:13; 6:16-17; 1QSa 2:3-10; CD 10:6-8).
Aside from the offiicial feasts, the Old Testament contains numerous referenes to national and personal periods of prayer, fasting and contemplation. When Israel went to war with one of their own tribes, Benjamin, the people went up before the ark of the Lord with weeping, fasting and sacrifices (Judg 20:26-28). Samuel led Israel in prayer and fasting after a period of sin and defeat (1 Sam 7:6). Ezra led the returning exiles in a time of fast and prayer (Ezra 8:23). In the psalms David is depicted as performing personal acts of fasting and penance (Ps 35:13; 69:10-11; 109:24). Likewise, when the people of Nineveh hear Jonah’s warning that they will be destroyed in forty days, they repent, fast and wear sackcloth (Jonah 3:7-9).
In fact, the period of forty days is often linked with penitence and fasting in Scripture. Both Moses and Elijah, for example, make a forty day fast while at the mountain of the Lord (Exod 1 Kgs 19:8). Of course, Jesus also performs a forty day fast (Matt 4:2). Following from this biblical model, the period of Lent lasts forty days. In the next essay we will look more carefully at Jesus’ religious observances of feasts, his personal acts of piety and his teaching regarding prayer and fasting.
(Read Part 3.)