Why Holidays Are More Christian Than Holy Days
A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.
21st March 2014
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There are Holy Days and there are holidays and Christians support both, though they prefer holidays.
The word ‘holiday’ comes from Holy Day, but has been secularised. The Holy Day celebrates something of eternal, supernatural or religious significance. The holiday is just taking time off work. Holy Days are not always celebrated by taking time off - sometimes they are marked by fasting or feasting or wearing special clothing. However, some Holy Day celebrations do involve taking time off from work.
Good Friday, Christmas and Easter are Holy Days, when we stop other occupations to remember or celebrate the events of Jesus birth, death or resurrection. Prior to the Reformation the number of such Holy Days was legion. While we continue to note Saint’s Days and seasons (e.g. Lent, Advent) they are no longer holidays.
The church year has not been observed by our society for generations, and now most Christians pay it scant attention. Sydney University terms in the 1960’s were called Lent, Trinity and Michaelmas - but that kind of romantic nod to our past traditions has long been overtaken by the prosaic and pedestrian ‘first semester’ and ‘second semester’, just as the ‘Sabbath’ or ‘Lord’s Day’ has been overtaken by the ‘weekend’.
Certain minority groups in our society celebrate Holy Days. The Jews have special days when they do not work, as well as celebrating the Sabbath on Saturdays. The Muslims follow seasons, such as Ramadan and will down tools for Friday prayers.
As a society which is historically Christian and whose majority continues to be nominally Christian, Australia celebrates Easter and Christmas with Holy Day holidays, and with Sunday as the weekly holiday. The other public holidays do not appear religious in nature as they mark the arrival of the first fleet on Australia Day, the sacrifice of our soldiers in war on Anzac Day, the Queen’s conventional birthday, and the 40 hour struggle on Labour Day. Other very popular celebrations like Mother’s Day and Father’s Day fall on Sundays and require no additional time off work.
However, as the society is in the grip of materialists - both philosophical materialists and their children, the economic materialists - both Holy Days and holidays are under persistent attack. The political leaders who govern public celebrations are continually ‘lobbied’ by the retail, gaming and alcohol industries, to reduce the number of public holidays and/or to remove penalty rates for those working on such days or Sundays. Having weakly conceded to retailers in tourist areas they are now losing all sense and moral fibre by proposing the ‘level playing field’ of all retailers having the same opportunity to trade. If the level playing field is so important it would be better to cancel the previous concession given for tourist areas!
The debate is often couched in terms of the priority of individual freedom versus religious practices. However, this is a failure to understand our Christian, especially Protestant, heritage. For Bible believers know that Holy Days are a matter of Christian freedom: some consider one day more important than another, others count all days as the same (Romans 14:5-6). The food and drink, the festival, new moon or Sabbaths are but shadows of the things to come not the reality (Colossians 2:16). By all means, when we have a day set aside for a holy reason, e.g. Good Friday, we could and should use it to spend time remembering and celebrating our Lord. Don’t miss our Cathedral Good Friday Celebrations this year (10am Lord’s Supper, 2pm Convention, 7pm Handel’s Messiah). If we didn’t have such a day, our lives would be poorer but our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ’s death would be undiminished.
Yet reducing public holidays, be they the special annual days or the weekly cycle of the weekend, is quite antagonistic to Christianity. For Christians believe there is more to life than work, more to society than wealth, more to government than finance. Christians believe in relationships. We know that God is three persons in one and has made humanity in relationship with him and each other. He has not made us to work all the time but to take time for rest as well as labour. He has made us like himself, taking care and responsibility for others, especially those who are vulnerable and less able to look after themselves: the poor, the widows, the aliens and the orphans.
Like most people, I love the convenience of being able to shop whenever I like. However, it comes at a great cost to other people, for it is the poor who have to work at inconvenient, uncivilised and unpleasant times. The worker has to open the shop and work when told, the owners of the shopping mall, the shareholders of the retail giant – they don’t have to work on Sundays or public holidays or late at night. It is the poor who have no choice but to leave their family celebrations or the weekends when their children are home from school, to work for my lazy convenience. We shareholders are oblivious to the inconvenience of the worker while we rejoice in the increased dividends that they win for us. The community as a whole - wider families as well as immediate families - cannot get time off together to enjoy life with each other. There is hardly any more cringe worthy hypocrisy than the politicians talking of supporting “working families”. Their policies are all for work and not at all for families. Why does one of the wealthiest nations in the world and in history need shops open all the time to keep the economy afloat! Somebody is lying somewhere.
Holy Days are not central to Christianity - we can take them or leave them. But holidays (weekly and occasional celebrations) are central to Christianity for they are the Sabbath - the rest God has created for us and they are for relationships especially family and friends celebrating together.