Friday of week 17 of Ordinary Time – First Reading


Commentary on Lev 23:1, 4-11, 15-16, 27, 34-37

Today we move on to the third book of the Pentateuch – the Book of Leviticus. It gets its name from the Levites who were responsible for worship and ritual among the Israelites. The content of the book is almost entirely concerned with rules and regulations concerning worship and ritual.

Although we seem to be starting a new ‘book’, it is a continuation of the priestly tradition we saw at the end of Exodus (chaps 25-31; 35-40). And this tradition continues on into the first 10 chapters of the next book, Numbers. The emphasis is on the continuing presence of God among his people. This heightens their sense of sin and also to honour him with sacrifices of worship. These are the means by which a sinful people can be reconciled in their relationship with Yahweh.

We will only be taking two readings from the book, both coming from well into the second half, from chaps. 23 and 25. Today’s reading, which consists of snippets taken from a whole chapter, touches on the observance of certain important feasts which are to be celebrated “at their proper time with a sacred assembly”.

The Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread

The two festivals are linked together, occurring on consecutive days.

The first of these is the Passover of the Lord which falls at the evening twilight on the 14th day of the first month (Nisan).

The 15th day of the same month is the beginning of the feast of the Unleavened Bread. For seven days unleavened bread is to be eaten. (We saw earlier that this feast may be connected with the fact that the Israelites during their flight from Egypt only had unleavened bread with them.) On the first day of this feast there is to be a sacred assembly and no work is to be done. And on each day an offering is to be made to the Lord. Finally, on the seventh and last day, there is again a sacred assembly and no work is to be done.

The First Sheaf

When they arrive in the land which the Lord is giving them, immediately after the harvest, a sheaf of the first fruits of the harvest is to be brought to the priest. He will wave it before the Lord so that it may be acceptable for the offerer. This will be done on the day following the nearest Sabbath.

The Feast of Weeks

On the day after that Sabbath, there shall follow a period of seven full weeks, and on the day after, the 50th day, the offering of cereal made from the new grain will be made to the Lord. Between the feast of Unleavened Bread and the feast of Weeks, the Law of Holiness introduces an offering of the first sheaf (of the barley harvest) at the appropriate place in the agricultural cycle. This is a new formulation of the ancient offering of the first fruits.

From the Greek word for ‘fifty’ (hendeka, ‘endeka) we have the name ‘Pentecost’. It was also called ‘the feast of the Seven Weeks’. Pentecost was the thanksgiving feast at the end of the grain harvest, which began after Passover. Later tradition made it a commemoration of the giving of the law at Sinai.

The Day of Atonement

The 10th day of the seventh month is the Day of Atonement, when there is a sacred assembly, penance is to be done and an oblation is made to the Lord. On this day, too, no work is to be done.

We know this feast more commonly as Yom Kippur. Part of the observance was the slaughtering of two goats. One was offered in holocaust and the other was driven out into the desert to die, bearing with it the sins of the whole community. It is from this that we get our term ‘scapegoat’.

The Feast of Booths or Shelters

The 15th day of the seventh month begins the feast of the Booths, which lasts for seven days. The Hebrew name is Sukkoth. On the first day, there is a sacred assembly and no work is to be done. On each of the seven days an oblation will be made to the Lord. On the eighth day there will again be a sacred assembly, an oblation made to the Lord and no work will be done.

This feast was the joyful observance of the grape and fruit harvest. During the seven days of the feast the Israelites camped in booths of branches erected on the flat roofs of their houses or in the streets in commemoration of their wanderings in the desert, where they had dwelt in booths.

These are festivals which are to be observed – during each one there will be a sacred assembly, and when holocausts and cereal offerings, sacrifices and libations, as prescribed for each day, will be offered to the Lord

We find a number of these feasts mentioned in the New Testament and some of them have been incorporated into our Christian faith:

– The feasts of the Passover and the Unleavened Bread are mentioned during the narrative of Holy Week. The Passover was transformed into a new Passover with Christ as the sacrificial Lamb. In every Eucharist, the host is made of unleavened bread.

– The end of the Feast of Weeks is Pentecost which, in our Christian faith, is described by Luke in the Acts of the Apostles as the day on which the Holy Spirit came down on the Jesus’ disciples. (In the gospels, the Spirit is described as being given under different circumstances, e.g. John 20.)

– The Feast of Booths is mentioned in John’s gospel (7:2).

Every community – whether secular or religious – needs its regular celebrations as a reminder and affirmation of its identity and purpose. And our Christian communities are no exception. The important thing is that we remain faithful to the meaning of these celebrations and not reduce them to an occasion for ‘having a good time’. We are often reminded to put Christ back into X-mas, which is in constant danger of being taken over by commercial interests.

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