Every Easter and Christmas millions of people around the world celebrate festivals for a man which a lot of them have no belief in whatsoever. This ends up leading to criticism about the over commercialisation of holy days, taking all meaning out of them.
This is, inevitably, followed by the arguments by secular groups that these festivals are far from Christian. Christmas is timed to coincide with the old Roman festival of Saturnalia and Easter is name after Eostre, a Germanic pagan goddess. The line goes that Christianity has stolen local customs and festivals, changing their meaning to one centred around Jesus and destroying pagan heritage.
The thing is that this is pretty much completely true. The church has always been pretty open about it, too. The reason for it is simple; at their heart these festivals were always about Jesus, they just didn’t know it.
There was a story I heard of a missionary who went to an African tribal village. There, he was told of a great leader who taught peace and love between warring tribes, bringing many of them together. But some leaders hated him. They found war very profitable, in power as well as money, so they killed him. But, this great leader rose from the dead and will come again to unite the tribes and destroy the warmongers.
The missionary listened, then said,
“I know this great leader you speak of. His name is Jesus. Let me tell you more about him.”
Jesus is in everything. John 1, which I’ll get to on Monday, makes that pretty clear. These pagan festivals which Christianity incorporated weren’t destroyed by making them about Jesus. They were fully explained by making them about Jesus.
This has been on going since the last supper. The disciples joined Jesus in celebrating the Passover, commemorating the Hebrews being delivered from slavery in Egypt during Moses’ time. The breaking of the bread and pouring of the wine were already central parts of the feast. But here, Jesus makes these two symbolic gestures suddenly become symbolic of his own coming death. The bread is his body, being broken by Roman soldiers. The wine is his blood, shed as he is whipped, nailed to a cross and has a spear thrust into his side.
These two symbols, already ancient and rich with meaning and significance for the Jewish people, take on their final, fully explained form. They are no longer about lambs being killed and their blood helping the angel of death to pass over Jewish homes, but about Jesus being killed and his blood being used to help us all avoid eternal death.
He started with this, but carries on, even today, showing how he is, and always has been, in the most ancient beliefs, customs and festivals.
As Matt Redman wrote,