We are almost to the end of the “Holidays” as we celebrate them in our American culture. Typically, this season begins with Thanksgiving, moves through Christmas Eve/Day and culminates in New Year’s Eve/Day. Yes, I know the holiday season seems to be expanding faster than Santa’s belt after all those Christmas Eve cookies, but let’s just keep it simple for the moment. The inspiration for this article came a couple years ago as I was reading about the spiritual discipline of Celebration. Because I tend to be a fairly task-oriented, forward-looking person, I am someone who needs times to stop and celebrate the ways God has blessed me. The discipline of Celebration really resonated with me. And I thought to myself, “It would be great to have some people over for a meal and time of sharing with each other and thanking God for the ways he has blessed us over the past year.” I started to think that this idea sounded rather familiar. If you’re a little quicker than me, you’re already shouting at your computer screen, “That’s Thanksgiving!” Well just calm down! Because eventually I got there too. But here’s my question: Is that what we really do on Thanksgiving?
“Holiday” is such a common word that we don’t often consider what it literally means. Not surprisingly, it is a mash-up of “Holy Day.” “Holy,” most basically, indicates something or someone “set apart,” usually for a specific purpose. So, a holiday is essentially a day set apart for some specific purpose. Thanksgiving is certainly a different day, a day set apart for a specific purpose. But what is it that we have set it apart for? In my mind, I wanted a day or meal set apart for conversation about God’s blessings, the ways God has moved in our lives in material, emotional, relational, and spiritual ways. What we typically mean when we talk about the Thanksgiving “Holiday” is a day set apart for family and lots of food. Certainly those are not bad things, but it is not what I was yearning for as I learned about the discipline of Celebration.
Or take Christmas: a day “set apart” for remembering the wonder and beauty of God’s Incarnation, that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Yet, when people asked me, “How was your Christmas?” my first reaction was to tell them about spending time with my family, how my daughter enjoyed opening her presents, and about our travels over the past weekend (and I’m a pastor!). Yes, perhaps we set apart an hour or so on Christmas Eve to worship, but that’s not quite a holy DAY. Rather, the big setting apart was–again–for family and food, mostly engaged in without much thought to worship, Jesus, Incarnation, or God saving the world.
And then there’s the New Year. While this is not normally considered a religious holiday, it is another day we “set apart.” I think that many of us actually use the New Year holiday better than we do Thanksgiving and Christmas. It is a transition day, a time to look back at the previous year and ahead to a new year. If you read blogs, scan the newspaper, or watch tv, you will find lots of people looking back. There are lots of “Best/Biggest _____ of 2011″ specials and articles. This can be really valuable stuff: wrapping up a year, summarizing it to learn where we have come. In Ordering Your Private World, Gordon MacDonald speaks of the importance of “closing the loop.“ We need closure, and the New Year holiday is a natural time to do that. We are also famous for making (and breaking) New Year’s Resolutions. While we obviously don’t do this well, at least we are taking time to think ahead and envision a different future for ourselves. We all need time to reflect and imagine. That is what the New Year holiday can be set apart for.
This blog is not intended to bemoan anything, but rather to encourage us to take the idea of a “Holy Day” seriously. God commanded Israel to set apart days, weeks, and even years for specific purposes. We like the idea of having “Christmas in our hearts all year,” but as human beings, God knows that we need specific times to focus and return to him and to the life to which he has called us. Israel had days set apart to remember God’s deliverance (Passover), celebrate God’s mercy (Yom Kippur), thank God for his provision (similar to our Thanksgiving), and even a day to lament (see Lamentations), not to mention Sabbath and Jubilee days and years.
Maybe for you, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year are all lost to other purposes and traditions. Regardless, we Christians need the practices of remembrance, reflection, celebration, thanksgiving, and envisioning that these days represent. So whether it is on January 1st or January 4th, I encourage you to take time to think about what 2011 was for you, where you saw God moving, how his Good News came alive in your life or the lives of others around you. And I encourage you to ask God to help you imagine what 2012 might be: ways God might be moving to transform your character, open up opportunities for you to use your gifts, or live out God’s peace, love, hope, and joy more fully. And then ask God to do it with you and guide you to a community that can support, encourage, and challenge you in that vision.
I hope you enjoy the end of your “Holidays” and discover the value of Holy Days in 2012.