Richard Hooker on Festival Days


Richard Hooker on Festival Days

Translated/modernized by W. Bradford Littlejohn from the text of Book V of Richard Hooker’s Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie. See original here.

This is an article from the sixth issue of our journal Ad Fontes. If you’d like to receive the full issue, subscribe here.

Book V.69: Of festival days and the natural causes of their convenient institution.

. . .  [3.] Although there is a time for everything, the works of God always have that time that is most fitting for them. Some of His works are ordinary, and some more rare; all are deserving of recognition, but all do not need to be marked out for remembrance in the same way. For just as God, although He is everywhere, does not make all places equally holy with his presence, neither does God give the same honor to all times. For if God treated all times or places alike, why did He say to Moses, “This very place wherein thou standest is holy ground?” Why did the prophet David say of one particular festival day, “This is the day which the Lord hath made?” No doubt, just as God’s extraordinary presence has hallowed and sanctified certain places, so his extraordinary works have set apart certain times, so that all God-fearing men should regard them as more holy than other days.

. . . Thus, there is natural and necessary reason why we should single out some days for solemn observance, in order to declare our gratitude to God for his great redeeming works. It remains to be considered what kinds of duties and services are involved in honoring such days.

  1. The manner of celebrating festival days.

The sanctification of days and times is a mark of the thankfulness and public honor which we owe to God for His great blessings. Therefore it is not sufficient for us to keep a private calendar, taking time whenever it suits us individually to reflect on how much God has done for all men. Rather, the days which are chosen to serve as public memorials of his mercies should be clothed with outward robes of holiness whereby their difference from other days may be made visible. But since we cannot honor such days by slowing down or changing time itself, we honor festival days by the sorts of actions with which we mark them.

[2.]“This is the day which the Lord hath made,” says the prophet David; “let us rejoice and be glad in it.” So it is clear that one general duty for honoring festival days is to celebrate them with solemn joy. There are three natural ways of displaying such joy: first, to praise the Lord with cheerful enthusiasm; second, to express our delight by lavish and charitable displays of conviviality; third, to cease from our ordinary labors and toils, which are not fit companions of such gladness. Festival solemnity therefore is nothing but the union of these three elements, Praise, and Bounty, and Rest, in due proportion.

[5.]Even nature itself taught the heathens, just as God taught the Jews and Christ taught us, both that festival solemnities are an important part of the public practice of religion, and that the three natural elements of such solemnities are praise, bounty, and rest. Unfortunately, the heathens used these ceremonies for the worship of their false gods, and not only directed them to a wrong end but also corrupted the form and measure of their observance. Thus, when the Israelites impiously followed their corrupt example, they are condemned at every point: their hymns or songs of praise were idolatry, their bounty excess, and their rest sloth. Accordingly, the law of God which appointed their festival days also taught them how they should be celebrated. Following this pattern, King David ordained praise to be given unto God in the Sabbaths, months, and appointed times, as their custom had always been before the Lord.

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[9.] If it be asked whether we observe these times as a binding requirement of divine law, or only as a human institution in the Church, I would say this: the very law of nature itself, which all admit to be a form of God’s own law, requires as a general principle that we should sanctify certain times to God’s service just as we do certain places, persons, and things. Thus it has pleased God to require us to set aside for all time some days to show devotion, never to be done away with; some other days required just as strictly but not for all time; and, for still others, to leave the choice of holidays to the voluntary discretion of the Church. An example of the first was the appointment of the Sabbath day; of the second, the feasts prescribed by the law of Moses; and of the third, the feast of Jesus’ dedication invented by the Church.

The moral law itself requires a seventh part of the time throughout the age of the whole world to always be spent in the service of God. Even though for us the specific day has been changed to honor the new revolution begun by our Saviour Christ, still, the same proportion of time continues, because, in recognition of the gift of creation (and now much more of the new creation added by the Prince of the world to come), we are bound to consider the sanctification of one day in seven a duty which God’s unchanging law requires forever. Our opponents, however, say that we ought to abolish all other festival days, since their continuance nourishes wicked superstition in the minds of men. Besides, they object, such days are all abused by Papists the enemies of God, and some, such as Easter and Pentecost, even by the Jews.

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  1. Objections to our keeping any festival days besides the Sabbath

[3.] Not only do they complain that church holidays limit the praises of God unto certain times, but also, in the other direction, that they restrict men from working at their ordinary trades on those days. They object that it is not in the power of the Church to command rest when God has not, since God has left all men the liberty to work six whole days if they desire, and it is no more lawful for the Church to remove this liberty to work six days than to abrogate God’s command  to rest one day of the week.

They do grant that in times of public calamity, it may be appropriate—indeed it can be required—for the Church to proclaim special days for fasting and prayer (and thus cessation of work), as the Jews did in Babylon, for, they say, the Church “has received commandment” from God for this practice. But without some express commandment from God, they charge, there is no power under heaven that may presume by any decree to restrain the liberty that God has given.

[4.] This opinion, even if applied no further than to this particular issue, shakes the universal fabric of government; leads to anarchy and confusion; dissolves families; dissipates colleges, corporations, and armies; overthrows kingdoms, churches, and anything that is now, according to God’s providence, upheld by power and authority. For God has prescribed ahead of time only the weightiest matters, precisely defining those things everyone must do and those things no one should do. But in all other matters He has left all men either to be guided by their own good discretion, if they are free from subjection to others, or else to be ordered by such commandments and laws as proceed from those superiors under whom they live. However, our modern patrons of liberty have here made solemn proclamation that all such laws and commandments are void, since our opponents leave every man to the freedom of his own mind in all matters that are neither required nor prohibited by the Law of God. But it is only in such matters, mind you, that the laws of human governments have authority, and such laws cannot possibly be established without in some way limiting the liberty of their subordinates. According to our opponents, then, if the father commands the son, or the husband the wife, or the master the servant, or the leader the soldier, or the prince the subject to go or stand, to sleep or wake at such times as God himself has not specifically commanded, then the subordinates are to stand in defense of the freedom which God has granted and to act however they wish, insisting that it is just as wicked for men to command them where God has left them free, as to command them what God has forbidden.

But the precise contrary of this is undeniably the case! Rather, anything the law of God leaves undetermined and to human discretion is potentially subject to the laws of human authority, laws that, for the sake of the common good, must limit individuals’ liberty in such matters as far as justice permits. This principle we must maintain, or else overturn the whole world and make every man his own ruler. Therefore, since labor and rest on any day besides the Sabbath are left free by the law of God, how could we forbid ecclesiastical laws from addressing such things without depriving the world of power to make any ordinance or law at all?