Hi, @Lauri! I’ve really been appreciating the questions you’ve been asking. They’ve been challenging me to really examine the ways our local churches have become syncretised to the surrounding culture, so thank you! As humans, we can’t help but be affected by the cultures we inhabit, so it can be quite tricky to get a handle on things, and certain things will continue to be massive blind spots.
I was intrigued by your last post and the article attached to it on the apostolic church, as I am often sad that in the evangelical traditions I’ve been a part of, we don’t keep the Jewish holy days. I think recognising and celebrating their fulfilment in Christ would be a visceral and powerful act of worship. By not understanding and recognising them, I think we do ourselves a great disservice.
I had the privilege of celebrating the Passover feast with some Messianic Jews for a couple of years, and it made the whole Easter story come alive! I am unfamiliar with how a Jew keeps the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) nowadays, but I believe the evangelical church could do with at least one dedicated day to prayer, repentance and fasting. (I’m sure I’m not the only one who thinks that!) I even worshipped in Scotland for several years among some Free Churchers who revolutionised my shallow view of the Sabbath! I am so thankful for those opportunities! Which other ones have I missed?
…Unleavened Bread - Yes! Celebrating God’s provision in the wilderness.
…First Fruits - kind of like Thanksgiving…without the emphasis on gluttony and consumerism and more about giving away (sacrificing) the best that He has provided for us
…Weeks, Trumpets, Tabernacles - don’t quite understand these off hand, but it looks like it has something to do with thanksgiving for and dedication of the rest of the harvest… Will have to go back and look at the diagram @Jimmy_Sellers posted.
But I wanted to go back and engage a bit with your initial question:
At the risk of going all philosophical (to many, that means ‘nonsensical’!) on your question, I wanted to throw out there that, when dealing with symbols, the concept of ‘true meaning’ can be a bit slippery, as objects often have multiple symbolic meanings…all of which are subjectively true. For example, you mentioned the rainbow…
In our Judeo-Christian tradition, God attaches significance to the rainbow (an object/thing) by declaring to Noah (and to humanity) that it a sign of His covenant with the inhabitants of earth to never flood the earth to that proportion again. Therefore, when we see a rainbow, we, as Christians, can (among other things) be filled with deep gratitude that God will not judge us in that same manner ever again. Yet to other cultures who would not have heard/grown up with this story, the rainbow may mean other things.
Yet, despite it’s many symbolic meanings, what is true is that the rainbow is an arch of colours visible in the sky, caused by the refraction and dispersion of the sun’s light by rain or other water droplets in the atmosphere. The LGBTI+ community can if they want to attach meaning to the rainbow (for them, a symbol of diversity), but that does not (like you said) take away from the meaning we attach to it as Christians. However, because the rainbow flag of the LGBTI+ movement has such a presence in our modern western culture and less people are ‘Biblically-literate’, the rainbow is more often associated nowadays with that movement rather than God’s covenant.
Now, applying that same principle to the celebration of ‘holy days’, with the day being the object, the question is: Is there an actual, objective, overall ‘true meaning’ to the day? That is, is there something going on that is ultimately true despite what symbolic meaning is attached to it?
My short answer: no. A day is a day, and meaning (and customs) are attached to it by different people. That doesn’t mean that any certain day has an ultimate meaning. As @CarsonWeitnauer asked earlier…
Similarly, a tree is a tree. If a culture at one point in history attached meaning to a certain tree (let’s say, a fir tree), that meaning does not hold true for every person. A tree is a tree and it only holds meaning if you attach meaning to it.
Just as I do not believe that when the LGBTI+ community flies the rainbow flag that they are, unbeknownst to them, worshipping and glorifying the God of the Bible, I do not believe that when I am celebrating with a feast on Christmas Day, that I am, unbeknownst to me, worshipping some god of the sun.
However, I do very much understand your concern with syncretism, and I am now hearing your question as: Can the Christian community adapt pagan customs and change the meaning of them without it being syncretism? Or, Are Christmas and Easter essentially pagan celebrations blended with a little Jesus?
To the first question: yes, I believe it is possible to adapt a custom and change it’s meaning to point to Christ without it being syncretism, but it does greatly depend on what that custom is! I imagine there are many customs one wouldn’t want to adapt. However, syncretism is still happening even in the western world where ‘paganism’ isn’t as big anymore. I am thankful that I have never seen easter eggs or the easter bunny in my church on Easter Sunday, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it has been done! (One can insert other cultural equivalents in other parts of world…)
But my understanding is that, though the Christian ‘holy day’ celebration and the pagan ‘holy day’ celebration may have similar symbolic meanings (and may even be, by design, in close proximity on the calendar!), what they are celebrating is distinct. Syncretism may be (or have been) a temptation, but it is not inevitable.
This is such a good question to ask, and it’s made me reflect on a number of different things! Thank you! Need to think some more…
What most worries you about syncretism?