There are two types of festivals when it comes to their occurrence. The first of these are fixed days that take place on a particular date. For example, the United States always has its Independence Day on July 4th, even if the day off of work can shift based on when July 4th takes place on a given year. The second type of festival is a movable one, whose observance varies on the calendar. A great many of our civil festivals are movable feasts that take place on a particular Monday (or other day of the week) within a given month. Today I would like to talk about the two movable feasts that the Bible has, and give some sort of reason as to why these festivals, and not other ones, are movable ones when compared to others.
The Bible’s Feasts are found in Leviticus 23. There are some optional, historical festivals that are not included there, most notably Purim (as well as Hanukkah), but these two are set on a particular day of a particular month and are fixed festivals, and so we do not need to discuss them here as they follow the usual method. Leviticus 23:9-21 tells us about these two connected festivals: ”
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: ‘When you come into the land which I give to you, and reap its harvest, then you shall bring a sheaf of the firstfruits of your harvest to the priest. He shall wave the sheaf before the Lord, to be accepted on your behalf; on the day after the Sabbath the priest shall wave it. And you shall offer on that day, when you wave the sheaf, a male lamb of the first year, without blemish, as a burnt offering to the Lord. Its grain offering shall be two-tenths of an ephah of fine flour mixed with oil, an offering made by fire to the Lord, for a sweet aroma; and its drink offering shall be of wine, one-fourth of a hin. You shall eat neither bread nor parched grain nor fresh grain until the same day that you have brought an offering to your God; it shall be a statute forever throughout your generations in all your dwellings. ‘And you shall count for yourselves from the day after the Sabbath, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the wave offering: seven Sabbaths shall be completed. Count fifty days to the day after the seventh Sabbath; then you shall offer a new grain offering to the Lord. You shall bring from your dwellings two wave loaves of two-tenths of an ephah. They shall be of fine flour; they shall be baked with leaven. They are the firstfruits to the Lord. And you shall offer with the bread seven lambs of the first year, without blemish, one young bull, and two rams. They shall be as a burnt offering to the Lord, with their grain offering and their drink offerings, an offering made by fire for a sweet aroma to the Lord. Then you shall sacrifice one kid of the goats as a sin offering, and two male lambs of the first year as a sacrifice of a peace offering. The priest shall wave them with the bread of the firstfruits as a wave offering before the Lord, with the two lambs. They shall be holy to the Lord for the priest. And you shall proclaim on the same day that it is a holy convocation to you. You shall do no customary work on it. It shall be a statute forever in all your dwellings throughout your generations.”
What makes these festivals movable feasts is that they are both to occur on the same day of the week, and that connects them to the Sabbath rather than to the fixed pattern of days (in the Hebrew calendar, not on our own contemporary solar calendar). And not surprisingly, these festivals are connected with each other. The festival of the firstfruits takes place on the first day of the week after the Passover and it provided the beginning of the barley harvest and the moment when the harvest could be enjoyed. It is also symbolic of the first of the firstfruits having been presented to God, thus opening the harvest of believers. Exactly seven weeks later the Feast of Weeks or Pentecost takes place, and here too we have a deep symbolic language about the giving of the law as well as the Holy Spirit, beginning the institutional history that inevitably follows the harvest of believers and their deliverance from slavery to sin and oppression. As a result of their existence as movable feasts, no day of the month is specified for their observance, a case where we can learn a great deal from absence.
It is perhaps unsurprising that the Pharisees and their successors have been slow to understand and appreciate the nature of the movable feasts, as these relate very closely both to the history of the Church as well as to the prophecies of Jesus Christ. It is also unsurprising that the Bible would make these Sabbaths such an important point in the Gospels, where the Sabbaths are counted in ways that are often obscure to contemporary readers who do not realize the importance of this counting. Having completely neglected the importance of the counting of Sabbaths or the fact that both the Feast of the Firstfruits and then the Feast of Weeks would take place on the day after the weekly Sabbath, contemporary Jewish practice does not view these feasts, where it pays attention to them at all, as movable feasts and thus fails to understand some of their importance.
The existence of movable feasts has, it should be noted, had an important impact on the part of the world that considers itself Christian. For one, the fact that such festivals existed required the maintenance of some degree of mathematical skill so that calendars could be managed properly. Even in the darkest of the supposed dark ages it was still necessary for people to calculate when such festivals were kept, and this need to calculate for sacred positions made some degree of knowledge of the utmost importance. This does not mean that the connection between such festivals and the seventh-day Sabbath, or the relationship of the 50 days of the Feast of Weeks and the corresponding cycle of Sabbath and Jubilee years, was something that was recognized by very many. As we know, Sabbath observance was not something that Christendom has ever taken seriously, given that to even acknowledge it is enough for one to be considered a Judaizer and thus beyond the pale of respect. In a world where both Jews and Christians deliberately avoid following what the Bible says when it comes to commanded religious observances, it requires a great deal of moxie to obey without the sort of institutional solidarity that one would wish.