Taking a holiday is something most of us have become so accustomed to doing, that few of us examine the Scriptures to find out what God has to say on the matter. Most of us would presumably accept that a holiday spent in the nightclubs of Kavos, Magalluf or Ibiza is not one that Christians ought to be considering. But whilst it’s relatively easy to see at least some things that we ought not be doing, let’s be more positive. What’s the best way that we can spend a holiday?
The Short, Giving Holiday
In most English Bibles the word ‘holiday’ only in the book of Esther (8:17, 9:19 and 9:22). Holiday here is a translation of the Hebrew ywm ṭwb, which literally means “good day” (hence the NIV a “day of joy”). The Bible tells us that Mordecai wrote to the Jews, encouraging them “to observe the days as days of feasting and joy and giving presents of food to one another and gifts to the poor”. So maybe that’s one type of holiday – and for many of us, Christmas Day will unknowingly follow this pattern of a day of joy. It will be a day when we remember the incredible way that the Lord rescued us, and we celebrate that with feasting and joy and the giving of presents to one another. Many will also invite others into their home, or donate gifts to charity at Christmas time.
The Family Holiday to Worship God
It wasn’t just the festival of Purim that the Israelites celebrated. The Old Testament is full of festivals (see Leviticus 23 for a partial list). They were a time when God was worshipped and his goodness remembered. They were focussed either on a specific occasion where God had rescued them (e.g. Passover), or on reminders of God’s continuing goodness (e.g. a harvest).
There were many ingredients to an Israelite festival. The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery lists the six important ones: a break from work, lavish abundance, ritual and sacrifice, community, holiday spirit, and a focus on God. These factors make the Old Testament feasts a very helpful model for Christian holidays, particularly when you remember that the Jews frequently had to travel long distances to participate, and that at least one feast (of Tabernacles) involved camping out for a week!
Participation in the festivals always took place in a group setting, usually centred around families. But families were not to celebrate in any isolated way, but were to celebrate together, even if this meant a long journey. When Joseph and Mary celebrated Passover when Jesus was twelve years old, they travelled there with so many of the family and friends it took them a whole day to realise that Jesus was no longer with them (Luke 2:41-52). That’s exactly the pattern set in Exodus 12, where God tells the Israelites to eat the Passover meal with their family, and “if any household is too small for a whole lamb, they must share one with their nearest neighbour”. Clearly the Bible wants us to share our holidays with others, not simply withdraw ourselves.
So do these festivals help us to understand how Christian should enjoy a holiday? Clearly, in the New Testament context, a lot has changed. But we ought to be able to take the biblical principles from the Old Testament. Of the six ingredients to an Israelite festival, four are largely unchanged by the transition to the New Testament (a break from work, community, holiday spirit and a focus on God). But the two others do change, if subtly (lavish abundance and ritual and sacrifice). Clearly, sacrifice and ritual are replaced with dependence on Jesus and freedom in Christ. Lavish abundance is also changed significantly, as the New Testament teaches us that the material blessings in the Old Testament were pointers to spiritual blessings in the new (“He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty”). The New Testament equivalent of “lavish abundance” therefore is an abundance of spiritual food and the presence of Christ.
The ‘Christian’ Holiday
If the Old Testament festivals do serve as a model for Christian holidays then our holidays ought to be times when we break from work, gather together with our families and God’s people, and focus on God’s daily provision and redemption, with an expectation of receiving abundant blessings from Christ.
Sadly, the temptation today is that we model our holidays on the exact opposite. Rather than gathering together, a holiday is a time to “get away”. Rather than focussing on God, we use our holidays to release ourselves from Christian obligations, and spend less time worshipping God on holiday than we do when we’re at home. And rather than focussing on spiritual blessings, we spend our time seeking enjoyment in the best that the world has to offer.
But unless we’re sure that the principles behind the Old Testament festivals have no part in the New Testament, surely Christian conferences and holidays should still have a significant part to play in our lives. They may be organised by your church, a local group of churches, or draw Christians from a range of Churches (such as the EMW’s Aberystwyth Conference, the Carey Family Conference, or New Word Alive). But what a wonderful opportunity to have a holiday full of spiritual blessing!
Even if we don’t go to a Christian conference, we can at least ensure we worship in a local church both on a Sunday and midweek. My wife and I have been amazed to visit churches where we know no-one, yet have enjoyed rich teaching, met many godly Christians and even frequently been invited to wonderful Sunday lunches – a real blessing if you’re self-catering!
A Busman’s holiday
A few years ago I was at a meeting for over a hundred volunteers who were going to be serving on EMW camps later that year. During a sermon, the preacher said that he had spoken to one family who weren’t going to go to camp that year, because they were going to Disney World instead. Without any trace of irony, he responded, “Disney World?! Disney World?! How can Disney World be better than Bala? There’s nowhere I’d rather be!”. He was absolutely right. Acts 20:35 reminds us that it is more blessed to give than to receive. So if it’s a blessing to receive at Christian conferences and festivals, how much more of a blessing to serve at one. Conferences are always in need of stewards, children’s workers, even administrative help. Camps are in need of cooks, officers and others. Beach Missions need team members of all sorts. There is no disguising that all are incredibly hard work, but all can be a time of wonderful spiritual refreshment. Why miss out on that opportunity?
What about rest?
If you’re anything like me, one of the reasons you go on holiday is to rest. You may be thinking that the holidays I’ve been describing don’t sound very restful. But I’m sure like me you’ve come back from apparently restful holidays feeling more tired than when you were at the beginning of the week! It is important that we do rest properly. But we must never forget that the human being is body and soul. If we rest our bodies whilst starving our souls, we will never feel rested. It is true that some Christians experience ‘burn-out’ through overwork. But usually the answer to burn-out is not a long holiday, but proper use of the weekly rest – the one day in seven which God has given us. Abusing that weekly gift, then over-compensating through long lazy holidays is not honouring to God.
With the daily pressures that most of us face, we simply wouldn’t have the energy to spend every week of every holiday in Christian service. If we tried, we’d probably end up nervous wrecks, or at least biting everyone’s heads off rather than exhibiting Christian grace! As everything else in life, Scripture calls us to exercise spiritual wisdom. So when booking your next holiday, rather than poring over the glossy brochures, or searching the web, why not spend the time reading the scriptures and praying: “Lord, what would you have me do?”.
What about tourism?
So far we’ve said nothing at all about tourism. What about the sites and attractions, museums and castles that many of us visit whilst we’re on holiday? Truthfully, I struggled to think of any reference in Scripture to activities like these. The best I could manage was 1 Kings 10 where the Queen of Sheba visits Jerusalem to see the temple and riches of the city, and Acts 17 Paul walks around Athens looking carefully at objects of worship.
Scripture’s silence on tourism doesn’t automatically make it wrong. But it does mean that we should tread carefully and look to learn from other biblical principles. One lesson is that both the Queen of Sheba and Paul were God-centred in their ‘tourism’. Psalm 48:12-14 (ESV) captures this wonderfully: “Walk about Zion, go around her, number her towers, consider well her ramparts, through her citadels, that you may tell the next generation that this is God, our God forever and ever.”
Many people visit places mentioned in the Bible and find that it brings to life lessons found in Scripture. Those on a tighter budget visit the British Museum (free entrance!) with one of several travel guides for the Christian published by Day One. Still others find a variety of places help them to reflect on God and on humanity in useful ways. The Imperial War Museum is a reminder of both the glory of man and the tragedy of the fall. The Louvre may you better understand both the human mind and the creativity of the Creator and those made in His image. A visit to Snowdonia may open your eyes once more to the glory of the creation. These ‘lessons’ are not just for adults, but children can also benefit from them, and from other attractions more aimed at their age. Wise parents will find ways of turning many situations into gospel lessons – even in an adventure park or swimming pool!
Whatever we choose to do on holiday, it should be God-centred. If you have three holidays a year, why not make one of them a visit to a Christian festival, another a week of service, and the third a God-centred trip to somewhere that will help you to think about and speak about God? Each one can be a time of spiritual and physical rest, where your family and the family of God are honoured and valued, and where your love for God and His people grows even stronger.