God’s Holy Days

It is worthwhile to ponder why God created set times for offering worship, appointed times for meeting together, regular appointments to celebrate, remember and anticipate His redemptive action in history. I suspect it has a lot to do with a strange turn of words in Exodus 24:3. The people of Israel stand at the foot of Mt. Sinai, where Moses has gone up to meet with God, and now returns to share with the people God’s instructions for living, and they reply, “We will do and we will hear.”

“Practice is to Judaism what belief is to Christianity. That is not to say that Judaism doesn’t have dogma or doctrine. It is rather to say that for Jews, the essence of the thing is a doing, an action. Your faith might come and go, but your practice ought not waver. (Indeed, Judiasm suggests that the repeating of the practice is the best way to ensure that a doubter’s faith will return.) This is perhaps best explained by a midrash (a rabbinic commentary on a biblical text). This midrash explains a curious turn of phrase in the Book of Exodus: “Na’aseh v’nishma,” which means “we will do and we will hear” or “we will do and we will understand,” a phrase drawn from Exodus 24, in which the people of Israel proclaim “All the words that God has spoken, we will do and we will hear.” The word order, the rabbis have observed, doesn’t seem to make any sense: How can a person obey God’s commandment before they hear it? But the counterintuitive lesson, the midrash continues, is precisely that one acts out God’s commands, one does things unto God, and eventually, through the doing, one will come to hear and understand and believe. In this midrash, the rabbis have offered an apology for spiritual practice, for doing.”[1]

One of the reasons liturgy, prayerbooks, and appointed times are so important to us is that they shepherd us through the ups and downs of a life filled with unknowns, with difficulties, with times that don’t make sense to us from our limited perspective. Not only do they root us in the practices that will envelop, guide and protect us, which will eventually shed light on precisely those things that perplex us, but they also work to remove from us the individuality so prevalent in North American Christianity.

When your doing is rooted in community—everyone I know and love is praying these prayers with me, my ancestors (spiritual and/or literal), my friends, my descendants will practice these same disciplines—it reminds that you are a part of something bigger than yourself and your obsessions. There are times when you benefit from the faith of those around you, even when you might not be sure if you could muster it up yourself. Indeed, Mark 2:5 tells us that it was due to the faith of his friends that Jesus healed the paralytic lowered down through the roof.

The Fall Festivals are upon us. To many Christians this is an unfamiliar phrase, yet what we often consider the Jewish holidays are never so called in Scripture. Rather, God declares: “These are My appointed times, the times of the LORD that you will proclaim as sacred assemblies” (Leviticus 23:2 HCSB). If, indeed, as Paul wrote in the letter to the believers in Ephesus we, “are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with the saints, and members of God’s household” then it is fitting for us as “children of Abraham”[2] to join Israel in showing up for the appointments God has set.

No, we cannot completely fulfill these festivals, for each included sacrifices and offerings that were to be given at the Temple, yet we can observe and remember them, seeking to find in them the truths God intended for His people to recall and to inhabit.


[1] Lauren Winner. Mudhouse Sabbath: An Invitation to a Life of Spiritual Discipline. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2003. pp. ix-x.

[2] Galatians 3:6-9

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