Throughout 2022, I spent the year learning about various holiday traditions and seeking to gain a greater understanding of what they teach us about God. My theme verse for the year was Psalm 145:7: “They celebrate your abundant goodness and joyfully sing of your righteousness.”
Each week, I focused on a holiday celebration that fell within that given week, studying various Christian liturgical, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist and secular holidays. In addition to researching the historic, cultural and thematic aspects of these celebrations, I prepared a Church at Home packet for the online community and taught through the theological reflections about the nature of God in my church.
Perhaps more than any other year in my life, this year has been filled with many different changes. I resigned as a pastor of a church and helped start a new community of faith in our town. I experienced the grief of the death of several friends and family members, most recently my father, who died earlier this month. I underwent unprecedented dental and medical procedures. I began a new decade of life. Yet, I can honestly say I am happier and healthier than I have ever been — spiritually, mentally, emotionally, physically and socially. In part, I think this is due to a focus on celebration.
As Richard Foster made famous in his classic work, The Celebration of Discipline, it is the spiritual practice of celebration that brings joy and meaningfulness to all of the other disciplines of our faith.
The experience of centering on the “holy days” was extremely rewarding to me, and I want to share some key lessons that evolved as I personally and collectively embraced this unique approach to spiritual growth and sermon preparation:
First, the chasm between sacred and secular is not very wide. So much emphasis tends to be placed on living distinctively as Christians in society. While our values should be Christocentric, we need to be people who remain culturally engaged in the world. Holidays such as New Year’s Day, Valentine’s Day, President’s Day, Memorial Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Independence Day, Halloween and Thanksgiving provide us great opportunities to connect with the broader community around us.
Participating in these celebrations offers a way to engage in the lives of other people and build a sense of belonging desperately needed in our world. Instead of pushing away these holiday opportunities, followers of Jesus should consider ways to incorporate them into the church calendar, embracing the privilege to walk alongside civic leaders and the broader communities around us.
Second, we can and should lean into the deep traditions of other denominations. The emergent church movement is teaching us there is tremendous value in embracing a broader historic and liturgical practice. This means churches of one denomination not only should embrace and cooperate with churches of other denominations, but it means we benefit immensely from the incorporation of the deep and historic traditions of other churches.
Protestant congregations, for example, are wise to consider the inclusion of Catholic and Orthodox liturgies. Studying the sacred practices of Baptism and Communion from the perspective of other established positions can open the door for churches and their congregants to examine their own perspectives, adapt them or hold their views with greater clarity. Choosing to participate in the practices of Ash Wednesday, Lent, Ascension Day, Advent, Epiphany, and Trinity Sunday unify the global church and Christendom.
Third, followers of Jesus need to respect and validate the ongoing practices of our Jewish heritage. Regretfully, many Christians focus on the New Testament predominantly and in so doing miss out on the rich foundational heritage of our faith. One of the best ways to reach back into the Jewish bedrock is to embrace the study, practice and meaning of the feasts and festivals of Israel.
Biblical celebrations of Sabbath, Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Purim provide a rich explanation of the Jewish symbolism and messianic expectation fulfilled in the coming of Jesus. In addition, the celebration of more modern Jewish holy days such as Hanukkah, Yom Hashoah, and Tu Bishavat give us a deeper understanding of the more recent history and cultural perspective of the Jewish nation.
Such incorporation provides us with a greater comradery with our Jewish neighbors and friends. Simultaneously, it deepens our understanding and application of the Scriptures, enhancing our identification of and connection to the historical Jesus.
Fourth, we earn the privilege of relational inclusion with people of other faiths when we value their religious expression. If we separate ourselves from those who worship in other Christian denominations, we can create an even greater chasm with those of other world faiths. Yet, like Judaism, identifying with the religious and cultural celebrations of other world faiths enables us to better connect with these religious groups in our communities, address our personal biases and prejudices, and seek to unite together in harmony and interfaith ecumenicalism.
Holiday celebrations such as Chinese New Year, Ramadan, Vesak Day, Eid al-Adha and Diwali incorporate many aspects of common faith traditions. While Christians may have stark differences of belief with Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, the moral centrality of the major world religions is strikingly similar.
Coming together in our communities to care for the marginalized, to love our neighbor and to debunk the disproportioned hostility between our faiths empowers us toward a common good for all human beings and the care of the world around us.
Fifth, we need more celebration in our lives. Life is hard, painful and perplexing. Churches need to be safe places for people to be authentic and transparent about the struggles and hardships of the real world. However, we also need to create a community of belonging where joy is found in the midst of trials.
The spiritual discipline of celebration is a path that moves us toward this balance, uniting us together with others. Without trivializing the challenges that come, celebration invites us to see God in the midst of the difficulties by engaging in the history of God’s providential involvement and presence in the chaos.
Christmas, for example, invites us to see the coming of Jesus into the brokenness of our world and into the lowliness of a manger to display the magnitude of God’s love. By centering on the celebratory, we find hope in the midst of our affliction, and we renew the joy of belonging.
As the new year approaches, I encourage you to lean into celebration. In the midst of uncertainty, challenges and heartache, you will find God — the Emmanuel, who is with you in the darkness. God’s presence will give you inward joy amidst the pain and struggles of life, and you will discover a love that envelops, sustains and empowers you. This is worth celebrating.
Patrick Wilson has served as a pastor for 25 years in Dallas and Austin, Texas, and most recently in in Rolla, Mo., where he currently is starting a new community of faith, CrossRoads. He is a graduate of Baylor University, earned two master’s degrees at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a doctor of ministry degree from Logsdon Seminary.