The Muslims have many celebrations throughout the year with significant meanings. Between the different sects of Islam, there are 18 different celebrations that show that faith and are held publicly.
In the OT, people of God learned to express their relatedness to God, on a national level, in the context of festivals as well. The weekly ‘Sabbath day of complete rest, an official day for holy assembly’ (Leviticus 23:3) was to show among human beings the pattern of activity and rest belonging to their Creator —
“Remember that you were once slaves in Egypt, but the Lord your God brought you out with his strong hand and powerful arm. That is why the Lord your God has commanded you to rest on the Sabbath day.” – Deuteronomy 5:15
The OT Sabbath was far removed from the later Islamic concept of yawm al-juma (Friday) when, once prayers said, business may resume. The Sabbath was primarily a feast day, focused on the Lord.
Six major festivals defined Israelites – offerings brought to the Lord – and different aspects of Yahweh’s dealings with them remembered.
The OT insists that such festival devotion only has validity if it expresses a continuing relationship with the living God. Yahweh shouted His opposition to the very festivals He had inaugurated —
“I hate all your show and pretense—
the hypocrisy of your religious festivals and solemn assemblies.
I will not accept your burnt offerings and grain offerings.
I won’t even notice all your choice peace offerings.” – Amos 5:21-22
The festivals were part of a cycle of ritual, expressing relationship between Yahweh and His people. when those people lost their relatedness to God, the rituals became farcical, meaningless and even sinful.
The Church emerging in the NT certainly knew some ritual festivals. The four Gospel writers recorded that Jesus as crucified and rose again from the dead on the first day of the week. Consequently, the believers felt it important to gather for worship on the first day of every week. The aged John on Patmos distinguished the Lord’s Day from other days in his imprisonment there.
The Jewish Christian churches maintained and observance of the Torah and the Sabbath, while the Gentile Christian churches ignored the Sabbath commandment, considering it no longer binding. Their case for dropping the Sabbath celebration – argued by Paul himself and eventually the Christian community parted – on a large-scale – from the synagogue on this very question.
Worship on the Lord’s Day focused in unity and joy on Jesus’ resurrection. It sometimes involved a love feast, as well as a sharing of bread and cup remembering Jesus’ death.
Early on, the apostles invested some of the traditional Jewish feasts with new meaning. The Feast of Passover and Pentecost especially gave new significance as memorials of the death of Jesus and of the giving of the Holy Spirit.
As the gospel message carried with power among the pagans, Christian rites widely replaced pre-Christian rites. Unfortunately, that also opened the way for pagan meanings and functions to infiltrate faith and become part of the official devotional rituals of Christendom.
An equal adulteration has perhaps affected development of the Islamic faith. Naturally, it is with the immediate needs of their everyday lives that concern many Muslims, and festivals offer opportunities for seeking answers to those needs.
Contemporary Orthodox Christian witness among Muslim neighbours is important to note here. The annual festival in which Middle-Eastern Christians invest the most significance is not the December or January Christmas rite, but Holy Week. For them, Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday are the peak of the yearly cycle. In some situations, it is those days that command a holiday for Christians even in majority Muslim societies. The concentrations upon risen life, linked often to a church lectionary that proceeds through a martyrs’ year, points to a relationship with God that looks at neither special birth nor special death as the last word, but a resurrection. In renewed festival devotion, centred on a living Christ, there exists a channel for exciting witness to those who affirm, in their own religious festivals, their need of powerful help in life.
By contrast, Western Christianity’s concentration upon Christmas as the major religious festival of the year (significant though the Incarnation was) has tended to minimise the distinctiveness of that festival’s witness to Muslims. The Western celebration of Christmas is so largely compromised by incorporation of many irrelevant pagan elements that the wonder of the Incarnation is all but lost. Are Western missionaries to Muslims willing to forego many of the traditional embellishments of their Christmas celebration in an agreement to their Eastern brothers and sisters that ‘resurrection’ must become the last word?
Where Easter and Pentecost find dynamic expression in everyday community living, there is found a possibility to introducing ordinary, needy Muslims to the divine subject of Easter and Pentecost. Christ the risen King, giver of the Spirit, is the Lord who is present in His people. Festival devotion that celebrates such presence holds forth a message of hope in its own very rejoicing.