Table Life

Holidays: well-practiced tradition, present reality, and future hope

A version of this article first appeared in Christian Citizen Dec 14, 2021

There are so many holidays on our annual calendar it is might be easy to forget a few throughout the year. Minor banking holidays like Columbus Day or Presidents Day might go unnoticed if we did not also get the nearest Monday off work. The hectic nature of life might prevent us from sparing time to buy a valentine card for a sweetheart or overlook a sibling’s birthday. To our own embarrassment many of us have even failed to remember our own birthdays or wedding anniversary or wish our parents a happy Father’s Day or Mother’s Day. Social media is always there to remind you of the newest celebration trend like national donut day and talk-like-a-pirate day.

But there are some holidays we schedule our lives around. Dates and festivities that shape our very being. For me the Christian liturgical calendar helps mark time. The festivals of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, and common time create a rhythm to see the world as it really is. In addition to the Christian calendar, but sacred annual activities just same, include our neighborhood firework display, annual pilgrimages to local farms to pick out pumpkins, and road trips to visit extended family. These types of annual events create touch points in time and space for us to reset our internal and external clocks. These are holidays that hold our memories, future hopes, and the very meaning of life seem to merge into a mighty river of reality as the symbols and activities marked with food, family, friends, lights, colors, and faith, fill us with such wonder they almost seem to happen TO us.

The weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s our calendars are filled with meaningful celebrations. Each festival with a slightly different story to live into, taken together they create an opportunity for serious and honest reflection. Holiday seasons are special because they carry the weight of well-practiced tradition, present reality, and future hope. There are few things in our world that can carry the burden of such work quit like a holiday.

What this season provides is an opportunity to look back and retell the stories of our lives and how we have celebrated in the past. This is why every holiday dinner we tend to tell similar stories year after year, before segueing into new stories that have happened since we last gathered at the table. We pull out the plastic tubs filled with decorations we have accumulated over generations setting the old treasures alongside the new ones we collected this year. We need these stories and these familiar settings. They help us remember how and when we first heard the sacred stories of gratitude, waiting, hope, renewal, and salvation. They help us track the gospel story through our shared lived experiences.  

The tricky thing about memory is that things were never as bad as we dramatize, and they were never as good as we romanticize. We cannot live on memory alone. We need something for the present. So, we gather at the table and in the sanctuary. We set out the decorations, make the special meals and snacks, binge watch the movies, and go through the liturgies. The work is sacred and life shaping. Holidays were so important that one of the first things God have his people alongside the laws was a sacred calendar that would shepherd them through the seasons of the year. Not just ethereal, pie in the sky, piety, but gritty everyday realities celebrated.

Through the annual festival cycles the people of Israel celebrated seasons of life and nature. Planting, harvesting, birth, marriage, death, lament, mercy, salvation, and atonement. Agriculture is earthy stuff and so were the festivals and the cultic activity of the Tabernacle and later the Temple. Grains and blood, fire and stone, water and mud, labor and rest, bread and cup, all merge in holy celebration. Nothing has changed, we have only sought to sanitize it beneath a veneer of commercialized nostalgia.

Holidays are gritty things and are not for the faint of heart. We bring the chaos and uncertainty of life to every holiday. Holidays tell the story us that God is with us and for us and loves us. We reenact these stories in our present so we can have hope for our future.

If holidays are a bridge, then they must lead somewhere. You cannot stay on the bridge trapped between what was and what will be like Bill Murray’s brilliant movie Groundhog Day. They all end eventually. We need hope to faithfully live into “black” Friday, December 26, January 2, January 7, and the Monday after Easter. Our holidays are to be practiced in a posture of anticipating what comes next. Like the disciples in Acts 2 who through the holiday of Pentecost, were able to connect the stories of old with the resurrection of Jesus, giving them the hope they needed to walk into an unknowable future in the life of the Spirit.

We celebrate holidays because they are a sign and a foretaste of a future realities marked by resurrection, love, and the New Heavens and the New Earth. But that leaves us needing to live into those future promises here and now. We can live lives of joy, tending to the small plants of hope planted during our holiday festivities. This is the work between celebrations. Living into the realities of the present by nurturing lives and communities that bear fruit we will harvest, ferment, and drink in celebration the next time the holiday season comes round.

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