Holidays Or Holy Days?

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Have you ever asked yourself what Easter baskets, colored eggs and chocolate bunnies have to do with the worship of God? What about observing Lent, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday? Where are these customs mentioned in the Bible? Does God really care how we worship Him? The Bible's answers to these questions may surprise and even shock you!


Does God want Christians to observe Lent and Easter?

How did these customs originate?

The spring of every year is a busy time in modern Western societies. For those who profess the Christian faith, the spring months contain a series of important holidays— Lent, Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday. As the calendar moves toward summer, most Christians observe Pentecost, while Roman Catholics and Anglicans also celebrate Ascension Day and Assumption Day somewhat later. Not surprisingly, in our modern materialistic age, many commercial interests also thrive on these same holidays—clothing manufacturers, the travel industry, promoters of Easter eggs, and makers of Easter baskets and chocolate bunnies.

While these traditions are deeply embedded in Western culture, few seem to know or understand where these customs came from or what the Bible actually says about such practices! Most professing Christians assume that to observe these traditions is to follow biblical teachings and that this is pleasing to God. However, this well-meaning assumption could not be further from the truth. Historical sources clearly show where these customs originated. The Bible also plainly reveals how God views these practices. If you truly want to walk in the footsteps of Jesus Christ and please God, you need to understand the difference between man's holidays and God's Holy Days.

Origins of Easter

Easter is one of the most important festivals in mainstream Christianity. It is observed to commemorate the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and for many individuals it is one of the few times in the year when they actually attend church. Yet the Bible contains absolutely no instructions that Christians are to observe Easter or celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ! The Encyclopædia Britannica plainly states, "there is no indication of the observance of the Easter festival in the New Testament or in the writings of the Apostolic fathers… neither the Lord nor his disciples enjoined the keeping of this or any other festival" (11th ed., Easter). The article continues, "the name Easter… is a survival of old Teutonic mythology… is derived from Eostre or Ostara, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring." Another source describes Ostara as a German pagan goddess of fertility and that "to reveal the origins of the Christian celebration of Easter… we need look no farther than Ostara's ancient image" that is accompanied with eggs and bunnies (Celebrate the Earth: A Year of Holidays in the Pagan Tradition, Cabot, p. 113, 1994).

This same theme—a great mother goddess of love and fertility—is found in the Babylonian goddess Ishtar (often pictured as a mother holding a child), the Phoenician goddess Astarte, the Greek goddesses Aphrodite, Artemis and Diana, and the Roman goddesses Juno and Venus. According to Babylonian mythology, Ishtar was hatched from a giant egg that fell from heaven into the Euphrates River. Eggs have long served as sacred symbols of fertility in pagan religions around the world (see The Two Babylons, Hislop, pp. 108–109, 1916). Rabbits, because of their fecundity, are also used as fertility symbols. The sobering fact of history is that the Easter festival, with its eggs and rabbits, has nothing to do with the resurrection of the biblical Jesus Christ. The festival and its familiar symbols are the remnants of pagan customs that crept into Christianity over the centuries.

Origins of Lent

Lent is a 40-day period of penitence and fasting observed by many professing Christians in the spring of the year. It begins with Ash Wednesday and ends at Easter, commemorating Jesus Christ's 40 days of fasting in the wilderness. Here again, the Bible gives no instructions that Christians are to observe these practices! The observances of Ash Wednesday and Lent rest on traditions. But where do these traditions come from?

The Encyclopædia Britannica records that the first acceptance of a 40-day Lenten observance does not appear until the 7th century AD, and the first mention of a Lenten fast (of shorter duration) surfaces in the records of the Council of Nicaea in 325AD(11th ed., Lent). Tertullian, writing in approximately 200AD, mentions a fast between Good Friday and Easter Sunday (ibid.). However, Christian historian Alexander Hislop plainly states that Lent was not observed by the early Apostolic church. He writes: "the observance of the 40 days had no existence, as long as the perfection of the primitive church remained inviolate… the fortyday abstinence was directly borrowed from the worshippers of the Babylonian goddess" (The Two Babylons, p. 104). Hislop also records that a 40-day Lenten period was also observed by pagan Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and Mexicans, and by Devil-worshippers in Kurdistan (ibid., p. 105). Hislop continues, "among the pagans this Lent seems to have been an indispensable preliminary to the great annual festival in commemoration of the death and resurrection of Tammuz, which was celebrated by alternate weeping and rejoicing" (ibid.). Tammuz was a Babylonian god and the youthful lover of the goddess Ishtar. In order "to conciliate the pagans to nominal Christianity, Rome, pursuing its usual policy, took measures to get the Christian and pagan festivals amalgamated" by adjusting the calendar observances of these festivals (ibid., p. 105). Here we see again that the so-called Christian observance of Lent is merely a continuation of widespread ancient pagan practices that were subtly incorporated into mainstream Christianity over the centuries!

More Festivals Adopted

Many Christians observe the Feast of the Ascension 40 days after Easter, to commemorate Christ's ascension to heaven—in spite of the fact that there are no instructions in the Bible to observe such a festival. According to the Encyclopædia Britannica there is "no discoverable trace of it [the observance of this festival] before the middle of the 4th century" (11th ed., Ascension). Pagan Germanic mythology, however, observes on the same day as the Ascension feast, a festival called Mjollnir that celebrates the hammer of Thor (The Pagan Book of Days, Pennick, p. 72, 1992).

In late summer, on August 15th, some Christians observe the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. Some believe that Jesus returned to earth and carried His mother's body to heaven—even though there is no indication in Scripture that this ever occurred. For this very reason, the festival was rejected by most Protestant churches during the Reformation (Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th ed., Assumption). Christians who believe in the Assumption base their belief on apocryphal sources that date from about 400AD. It first appears as official teaching in the Byzantine church in the late 500s, from where it passed to the Western church in Rome (ibid.). It is sobering to see the parallels in Babylonian, Greek, Roman and Chinese mythology, in which there are stories of a god who descends into hell to recover the body of his mother and carries it to heaven. The rescued woman is revered as a "Mother… The Holy Virgin… distinguished by her immaculate conception" (The Two Babylons, pp. 125–126).

As we have seen again and again, ancient pagan beliefs have been incorporated into mainstream Christianity by merely giving the old myths and practices a new "Christian" face. This is why even knowledgeable Catholic historians like Will Durant write: "Christianity did not destroy paganism; it adopted it" (Caesar and Christ, p. 595, 1972). The question then arises: Can a person who sincerely desires to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ, as found in the Bible, observe holiday customs that are so clearly based upon pagan traditions? Does it matter to God? Does the Bible offer any instructions?

What the Bible Condemns

Contrary to what many would like to assume today, the Bible explains clearly how God feels about man's tendency to absorb pagan festivals into the religion He revealed to His chosen people. The first of the Ten Commandments states: "You shall have no other gods before Me" (Exodus 20:3). The second commandment states: "You shall not make for yourself any carved image… you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God" (Exodus 20:4–5). When human beings give pagan festivals and practices new names, and continue to observe the old ways, they put pagan customs before, or in place of, instructions from the true God.

Some argue that as long as people feel in their hearts that they are worshipping God and honoring Christ with their efforts, they are much better off even though they continue to follow formerly pagan customs. But this argument simply runs contrary to what the Bible reveals. Moses was instructed to warn the Israelites about pagan religious customs they would encounter when they entered the Promised Land. He wrote, "take heed to yourself that you are not ensnared to follow them… do not inquire after their gods, saying, 'How did these nations serve their gods? I will do likewise.' You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way; for every abomination to the Lord which He hates they have done to their gods" (Deuteronomy 12:30–31). God clearly proclaimed to the nation of Israel: "Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it" (Deuteronomy 12:32). Some of the fertility rites associated with the worship of the goddesses of spring (Ishtar, Astarte, Diana, Venus, Bel) included human sacrifice and acts of sexual promiscuity and perversion. This is why God takes such a strong stand against incorporating pagan customs into the religion outlined in the Bible.

However, the record of history reveals that the Israelites repeatedly ignored the commandments of God, and slipped back into idolatry. Shortly after the Israelites were supernaturally delivered from Egypt, they grew impatient while Moses was receiving instruction from God, and they turned to Aaron, Moses' brother, for leadership. Aaron fashioned a golden calf (worshiped in Egypt) and told them: "This is your god, O Israel, that brought you ought of the land of Egypt" (see Exodus 32:1–8). Aaron then proclaimed the next day a feast to the Lord. What followed, as part of the idolatrous worship, was feasting, partying and sexual indulgence—which led God to tell Moses "your people whom you brought out of the land of Egypt have corrupted themselves" (ibid.). Hundreds of years later, Jeroboam led ten tribes of Israel into idolatry by reintroducing the worship of golden calves and by changing the dates of God's ordained festivals (1 Kings 12:26–33)—which the Bible labels as a serious sin (1 Kings 14:15–16). This is how God views the adoption of pagan customs that have given rise to many of modern Christianity's holiday traditions.

God sent a series of prophets to the nation of Israel in an attempt to warn them of the impending consequences of adopting the idolatrous religious practices of their neighbors. Isaiah was instructed to write: "Your appointed feasts My soul hates" (Isaiah 1:14–15). Amos recorded: "I hate, I despise your feast days, and I do not savor your sacred assemblies" (Amos 5:21–23). Hosea warned Israel: "I will also cause all her mirth to cease, her feast days, her New Moons, her Sabbaths—all her appointed feasts" (Hosea 2:11). God told Ezekiel to explain to the elders of Israel that they were punished by God and went into national captivity because "they rebelled against Me and would not obey Me. They did not all cast away the abominations which are before their eyes, nor did they forsake the idols of Egypt… they did not walk in My statutes; they despised My judgments… and they greatly defiled My Sabbaths" (Ezekiel 20:8, 13). One idolatrous practice that God called an abomination involved women weeping for Tammuz (one source of Lenten customs) and "worshipping the sun towards the east" (Ezekiel 8:14–20)—a practice that continues in Easter sunrise services today.

But just what statutes and judgments did God's chosen people despise? What Sabbaths did they defile?

What the Bible Commands

When God brought the Israelites out of Egypt, His intent was to make them a model nation that would be a light to the world. This is why God gave them specific statutes and judgments, and warned them not to tamper with His instructions. They were to carefully follow and teach God's ways to succeeding generations (see Deuteronomy 4:1–9). God's instructions to Israel included a series of divinely appointed festivals that were to be observed every year—including weekly Sabbaths, and annual Sabbaths or Holy Days (see Leviticus 23). In the spring of each year the Israelites were to observe the Passover in the month of Nisan, at the beginning of the 14th day, in the evening, followed by the seven-day Festival of Unleavened Bread (with the first and last day being Holy Days). In early summer, the Feast of Pentecost was to be observed as a Holy Day. These are the only festivals that God commanded His people to observe during this time of the year.

Most people today assume that these biblical Holy Days were only given to the Jews, and that they are no longer required of Christians. This idea, however, does not agree with the facts of history or the plain statements of Scripture. The Encyclopædia Britannica states: "The first Christians continued to observe the Jewish festivals, though in a new spirit" (11th ed., Easter). This is exactly what the Bible reveals. Jesus was taught by His parents to keep the Spring Holy Days (Luke 2:41–42). He was still keeping those same Holy Days with His disciples before His death (Luke 22:1–11)— although in a new spirit (see vv. 14–20). Jesus instructed His disciples to "follow Me" (Matthew 4:19). This is why, years later, we find the Apostle Paul urging the Corinthian church to "keep the feast"—referring to the Passover and Days of Unleavened Bread (1 Corinthians 5:7–8). In the book of Acts we see Paul, some 20 years after the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, still keeping not only the weekly Sabbath (Acts 17:2, 18:4), but the annual Holy Days (Acts 18:21), and using the Holy Days as benchmarks to indicate important times of the year (Acts 20:6). Paul and the other Apostles were taught by Jesus Christ to keep the Holy Days. They continued to teach what He had commanded them to teach (Matthew 28:19–20). But why are these Holy Days important to God?

Purpose of the Holy Days

The annual festivals (see Leviticus 23; Deuteronomy 16) given by God to the Israelites—and observed by Jesus Christ, the Apostles and the early church—picture the major steps in God's plan of salvation for mankind. The spring Holy Days commemorate the initial steps in that plan, foreshadowing the work of Jesus Christ. The Passover, observed in the evening at the beginning of the 14th of Nisan, is a memorial of Christ's sacrifice for the sins of mankind (compare Exodus 12:1–6; John 1:29). It is through repentance (turning with sorrow from breaking the laws of God), and the acceptance of Christ's sacrifice, that we can be forgiven of our sins (Acts 2:38). The Bible defines sin as the transgression of God's law (1 John 3:4)—which would include not keeping the Holy Days. Eating unleavened bread for seven days during the Days of Unleavened Bread is designed to help Christians become aware of the need to eliminate sin (pictured by leaven) from our lives. This is why Paul told the Corinthians to "purge out the old leaven… of malice and wickedness" (1 Corinthians 5:7–8). Overcoming and eliminating sinful thoughts and actions is part of the challenge of living as a Christian (see Romans 12:21; Revelation 3:12). By observing the annual festival of Pentecost, which pictures the outpouring of God's Holy Spirit (Acts 2), we are reminded of the spiritual power that God makes available to us to help us in this overcoming process. However, the Bible also plainly states that God only gives His Spirit to those who obey him (Acts 5:32). The Holy Spirit also imparts an understanding of God's word and His plan of salvation (1 Corinthians 2:7–16).

So we can see that God commands observance of the annual biblical Holy Days. When we repent of breaking God's laws, and begin to obey Him, we have access to His Holy Spirit, which lets us begin to understand the Word of God. If we choose not to observe the Holy Days that God commands, and we decide to keep holidays that originated in paganism, and if we continue to perpetuate customs that God condemns, we disobey God and no longer have access to His Spirit. Our understanding of spiritual issues will become clouded. Scripture indicates that disobedience produces spiritual blindness (see Romans 1:21, 11:8–10). When humanity loses sight of the Holy Days (which happens when keeping pagan holidays) it loses sight of God's plan of salvation for mankind. The real purpose of human life disappears from view. This happened to ancient Israel. It happened over the centuries to the church that Jesus and the Apostles began. It happens today. This is why God has put so many warnings in the Bible not to tamper with His instructions. This is why the Holy Days were commanded to be kept forever (Leviticus 23:14, 21, 31, 41).

A Lesson of History

The historian Edward Gibbon records that the Apostolic church "united the law of Moses with the teachings of Jesus Christ" (The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, chap. 15). The early church fled from Jerusalem when the Romans destroyed the city in 70AD. After languishing for over 60 years in Pella, "a considerable part of the congregation renounced the Mosaic law" which the church had observed for over a century (ibid.). This was done not to obey God, but to gain admission to the new Roman colony that Hadrian established at Jerusalem, which forbade admission to Jews (or to those whose religious practices would make them appear Jewish). Gibbon indicates that a major part of the early Jerusalem church compromised their beliefs in order to cement their union with the emerging universal Christian church (ibid.).

This sentiment against anything that appeared to be Jewish continued to build throughout the first several centuries of the New Testament church era. Under the influence of the Apostle John, the churches in Asia Minor continued to observe the Passover on the 14th of Nisan, while churches in the western part of the Roman Empire began to observe Easter.

We read of an encounter (in 159AD) between Polycarp (the Bishop of Smyrna and a disciple of John) and Anicetus (the Bishop of Rome), in which Polycarp argued successfully against dropping the Passover observance on the 14th of Nisan in favor of Easter. However, about 40 years later, Victor, the bishop of Rome, excommunicated Polycrates, a leader of the church in Asia Minor (and a disciple of Polycarp) for refusing to go along with Easter observance—which was becoming the accepted custom in Christendom. At the time of Polycrates (about 200AD), the churches in Asia Minor were the only ones still keeping the Passover on the 14th of Nisan instead of Easter. They did so because they were taught to do this by the Apostle John, who had been trained by Jesus Christ. This debate over keeping Passover on the 14th of Nisan or observing Easter is called the Quartodecimian controversy. It was finally settled by the Roman Emperor Constantine at the Council of Nicaea in 325AD when it was decreed that the Christian world would keep Easter and "that none should hereafter follow the blindness of the Jews" (Encyclopædia Britannica 11th ed., Easter). However, remnants of the Apostolic Church that kept the Holy Days continued to exist on the fringes of the Roman Empire—but these Christians, though faithful to Apostolic Christianity, were branded as heretics.

The lesson of history is that a church council, presided over by a sun-worshipping Roman emperor who was converted to nominal Christianity on his deathbed, simply overruled the Scripture and disregarded the clear example and teachings of Jesus Christ and the historical record of the Apostles.

Now that you know how pagan holidays came to be observed by many of this world's Christian churches, you may have some thinking to do. Why not learn about the God's Holy Days? When you begin to keep God's festivals, you will be walking in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. You will begin to practice true Apostolic Christianity. You will begin to grow in your understanding of the Bible and God's plan of salvation for mankind. The spring Holy Days picture vital steps in that plan—but they are just the beginning. The fall Holy Days are even more exciting. We will look into that subject in a future article.

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