Where we are here in Catania, we have taken particular notice that the churches that we are connected with don’t celebrate, or really barely even mention various religious holidays. For example, neither Christmas nor Easter, days that in America, we in the church would consider to be fairly important for remembering the birth of Jesus or the resurrection of Jesus, is essentially not discussed or recognized.
I think that there are a couple of reasons for this. First and foremost, it seems that this attitude and practice rejecting special days is a reaction against the Catholic church. The Catholic church has regular special days, even going so far as to have each day be connected to a particular saint, providing a potential special day for each day of the year. Unfortunately, this can stand in the way of spiritual practice and connection with God because the religious practice can focus on the celebrating of the day instead of the connection with God and a focus on the rebirth by the Holy Spirit through faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
I think the second reason is actually a scriptural reason and is connected with both the first point above and to the scripture. We see that Paul points out a similar practice with his new converts and churches, teaching them not to simply go along with the Jewish practices because the Judaizers have told them that they need to follow the Jewish practices to be saved:
Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. But now that you know God—or rather are known by God —how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable forces? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? You are observing special days and months and seasons and years! I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you.Galatians 4:8-11
So it seems clear that celebrating special days as part of a religious practice in an effort to curry favor with God by following to celebrate those days should have nothing to do with our relationship with God.
Exceptions to the rule?
And yet, it still seems that there are points at which we should consider a little bit further. Does this idea of no celebrating special days mean that we shouldn’t observe or recognize what God has done in the past and the reasons for which he was doing those things? Does it mean that we should reject the things of the past and that the law given by God to the Jews in the past should not have any bearing on how we should live at all?
I’m thinking not… Let me give an example.
In Genesis 2, in the time of creation, God creates the heavens and the earth and all of the universe within 6 days, and then on the seventh day, he rests.
By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.Genesis 2:2
God makes this seventh day, the day that he rested. It is a day that is blessed and he called it holy.
In this case, we see that the day is blessed, but the more important part is why. It is a time to rest following the work of the creation. God gives an example of what he wants his people to do. However, more than physical rest, God shows a connection between rest and holiness, something that I’ll try to dig into further in a moment.
Connection to Ramadan
This week is the second week of Ramadan in 2021. In talking with my Muslim friends, I frequently ask them what Ramadan means to them and why they fast. What is the reason? I get many different answers, but this week, a friend explained to me that he wants God to accept him. He wants to fast and pray enough that God will see his sacrifice and be pleased with him.
I asked him how he would know that God will be pleased with him and will accept his offering of fasting and praying. He explained that he didn’t know and couldn’t say whether God would accept his fasting and praying or not. He said that he felt tired, both physically and spiritually, and it was difficult for him to do the fasting during the daylight hours in this month.
As we continued the conversation, I explained that I thought Jesus had something to say about his situation. I think that, instead of God wanting us to do more for him, to pray more, to fast more, or to do more good works for him, he wants to give us rest. Not just physical rest, but spiritual rest.
My friend was baffled by this idea: “Spiritual rest? What are you talking about? How is that possible?” I showed him the words of Jesus from the book of Matthew:
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”Matthew 11:28-30
Jesus talks about giving rest for those who are tired. Those who have been trying so hard to please God by praying, by fasting, by trying to do many good works, and yes, even by closely keeping the Sabbath, Jesus will give them rest. They may have felt like they have a yoke upon their necks and that it is heavy, but Jesus says that their souls will find rest. They don’t have to wonder any longer whether or not God will accept them. They don’t have to carry the weight of sacrifice to make God happy. Instead, they can come to Jesus and be accepted. This rest is a rest for the soul, a spiritual rest that is easy with a light burden.
A Sabbath’s Rest in Jesus
God showed us an example as he rested from his work. He went on to command the Israelites to rest on the seventh day of each week. But all of this was pointing toward the day that Jesus would come to give rest for their souls. Physical rest is good, but it is short-lived. However, spiritual rest can be found in Jesus. As we put our faith in him, we can then have the burdens of our sins removed because of what Jesus has done for us. We no longer need to be weighed down as a result. Instead, we can rest in him.
The writer of the book of Hebrews outlines this idea in chapter 4. Here, he equates the Sabbath to resting in God:
There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will perish by following their example of disobedience.Hebrews 4:9-11
The Bible Project did a great video on this idea, showing the connection of the Sabbath to the spiritual rest that Jesus offers us. Take a look here:
So now, we can see that God has given us a life where we can be at rest in him. We don’t need to live in anxiety. We don’t need to worry about the next calamity. But instead, we can look to Jesus to enter the rest that he gives us, free from worries or concerns because we are his.