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Leader comment: Holy holidays

25 August 2023

HOLIDAY romances are rightly treated with caution. The exhilarating abandon of a relationship unencumbered by day-to-day concerns typically wilts once those concerns are reimposed. In the same way, religious experiences at festivals, in large gatherings, or on holy days tend to be dismissed as distractions from the normal course of churchgoing. And, certainly, the cultivation of a religious habit (the practice, not the clothing) is more likely to get someone to church on a wet November morning than a propensity for thrill-seeking. There is another view, however: that the Church can be fully itself only when it shrugs off its weekly customs and habits and embraces the spirit of holiday.

The UK is not alone in allowing a gulf to appear between public holidays and the holy days that, for centuries, dictated how they were spent. But, on the continent of Europe, the usual outdoor fairs and circuses still have a mass or a religious procession as part of the proceedings. In the lifetime of most of our readers, we have seen the Good Friday and Easter bank holidays sliding away from their core meaning and purpose. Christmas might follow next, though at present it seems that material excess still prompts people to seek a spiritual antidote. As for the rest of the year, congregations have it within their power to nurture their own festival atmosphere.

At the very least, many can produce one big holiday event each year, in addition to the national holidays. Patronal festivals and feasts of title are an obvious choice, at least for the many churches dedicated in honour of the Virgin Mary, St Bartholomew, St James, the Holy Trinity, or saints with similarly summery feast days. Our sympathies to the people of St Andrew’s, St John’s, the Holy Innocents’, and suchlike. Whatever the occasion, careful planning and the generous donation of time has transformed many church fêtes around the country to whole-town events that rival those on the Continent. If this is beyond the resources of a church — and here we praise the thousands of people who work behind the scenes at such events — it is remarkable how welcoming secular events and festivals can be to an approach by churches willing to provide a large venue and, say, a festival eucharist.

And what is the faith that emerges from such events? That, of course, is for the Holy Spirit to know. But those who criticise festivals for feeding a need for sensation should remember that sensations of a more negative kind are readily associated with duller worship. Festivals might not be the best vehicles for making disciples, but perhaps their strength is in making people want to be disciples. Like many holiday romances, it might not be possible to sustain that level of joy; but it is good to be reminded periodically that this is what God wants for his people, and will give them all one day in abundance.

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