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When Festivals Collide

What would you think if everyone in your street set up Christmas decorations this Easter?

I ask the question because we read of something similar in the Gospels. After the Exodus from Egypt, God appointed an annual cycle of festivals for Israel, each of which had its unique features and to which, over the centuries, certain customs and traditions became attached
The waving of palm branches and the singing of the Hoshanna Rabbah, the “Great Hosanna”, were not a feature of Passover, the first of the biblical feasts, they were associated with the feast of Tabernacles, the last of the festivals. Then why did the crowds that lined the road into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday act as though they were celebrating Tabernacles?

The answer, I think, lies in the festival of Hanukkah. Two hundred years before the events of Palm Sunday, Judea had been occupied by the Syrians. The Jews were forbidden on pain of death to observe their national festivals and the Syrian king Antiochus defiled the temple in Jerusalem by sacrificing a pig on the altar. In December 165 BC Judas Maccabaeus liberated Jerusalem and purified the temple, making it fit for the service of God. The Judeans celebrated his victory in the manner of the most recent of the festivals they had been unable to observe. Chapter 10 of the apocryphal second book of Maccabees records that “the Jews celebrated joyfully for eight days as on the feast of Tabernacles . . . Carrying rods entwined with leaves, green branches and palms, they sang hymns of grateful praise to him who had brought about the purification of his own Place” (emphasis added).

In first-century Judea, messianic expectation was running high. The book of Daniel had foretold that in the days of the kingdoms featured in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, the God of heaven would “set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed; and the kingdom shall not be left to other people; it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand forever” (Daniel 2:44). Rome was the fourth and last of the kingdoms spoken of by Daniel, and devout Jews were eagerly anticipating the establishment of God’s kingdom.

Most Jews, when Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, would have been expecting the kingdom of heaven to be established by the violent overthrow of the occupying Roman power, in much the same way as the third of Daniel’s four kingdoms had been defeated by Judas 200 years earlier. No doubt the crowds that welcomed Jesus hoped he was the new Judas.

The “Great Hosanna” of Psalm 118, which the crowds chanted on Palm Sunday, concludes in verse 27 with the words: “With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession up to the horns of the altar”. On entering the city, Jesus and “the festal procession” advanced to the temple, the place of the sacrificial altar. When Jesus arrived at the temple he proceeded to purge it not of paganism but of priestly corruption.

A shiver must have run down the collective spine of the religious authorities. They had to get rid of Jesus. But how? The people loved him. After they failed by their questions to trick Jesus into either alienating the crowds or falling foul of the Romans, the priestly hierarchy arrested him, tried him in secret and condemned him to death. But by doing so they unwittingly fulfilled an alternate reading of Psalm 118 for, by crucifying their Messiah, they bound “the sacrifice with cords to the horns of the altar”.

There are a number of lessons we can learn from this. First, Messiah came at the time prophesied by Daniel; therefore we should not be ashamed to proclaim Jesus to the Jewish people. Secondly, we can boldly declare that all the festivals – including the inter-testamental festival of Hanukkah – find their fulfilment in Messiah. Thirdly, living in a culture that groans under the occupying power of a worldview that is intrinsically hostile to evangelical Christianity, we may be assured that God is sovereign and will use even the plans and schemes of godless men to hasten the day when the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of our God and his Messiah.

Mike Moore

This article first appeared in the March 2007 edition of the Herald


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