We all have them. The “together” moments. The ecstasy of experiencing something in a large number. Whether you’re a music festival junkie, or whatever makes you want to travel to be with others, there’s no doubt something special occurs when we’re in big crowds.
It’s why many people plan their travel to coincide with the big festivals. Whether catching New Year in Edinburgh, the beach parties of the Festival de San Juan in Spain or the raves all night long on Thai beaches with the sun setting. Ireland has learnt fast that festivals mean money, whether tourist money or local money. There’s barely a single weekend of the calendar that Cork doesn’t have a festival (the Irish Times does a breakdown of the bigger ones here) of some sort.
And it’s not just those liberal twenty-something-year-olds who do festival and “group experiences”. No, head up in the tranquility of the Western Isles of Scotland and you’ll find a completely different, yet still spine-tingling experience in the religious community.
The Free Church of Scotland hold their eucharist/communion/celebration of Jesus’ death and resurrection in particular a couple of times a year. And to prepare themselves and to remember the importance of this event, they meet for one week, every night of the week to still their hearts and confess their shamefulness before the God they serve, both as individuals and as a community. In seeing more of their shame and imperfection, they rejoice more in the perfect solution at the end of the week that removes this shame forever.
On a cold winter evening you’ll find them packing into rooms of local believers, that weren’t meant to host that number. And you won’t be there long before haunting a-capella melodies will start of some of the Bible’s songbook (The Psalms) that point them to humanity’s persistent shame, and to the solution. Three part harmonies, or four will not be out of place, and all are welcomed singing, regardless of ability. It’s beautiful! The tears welled in my eyes. The memories will last a long time.
But what are these songs they’re singing? Ancient songs from many thousand years ago, preserved (but re-arranged close to the time) in historical records to give us a glimpse of the festival tunes that would have been known by everyone – the hits that lasted down the years.
And some of them I’ve been studying recently are songs that would have been put together for the road. Songs for travel. For when Jewish people were setting out to the big religious festivals in Jerusalem where their temple was. They felt the buzz of the festival coming and being with likeminded people for a change (Ps. 120). Everyone was on the road, but the roads weren’t just as easy as ours. I could imagine they’d have been something like this at points:
The hills were something to be afraid of, when the songwriter turns his eyes to them (Ps. 121). They were like the Jericho road that the good Samaritan walked – are there gangs lurking behind the next rock?
What will walking in the heat of the sun do to us?
Or what about when the sun sets and leaves chilling shadows over the hills? (Ps 121.)
Together when they get to the festival they will glimpse what they long for – true peace between people that they are united to! (Ps 122) That’ll be fully known in a future, in a “Jerusalem” that won’t be an Israeli capital city. In a “Zion” that will be as if God is the towering mountains of safety (not of fear) around them (Ps 125) who’ll protect them from evil people (Ps. 124).
This festival will help us send postcards to home, reminding everyone across the world what God has done, even when it’s hard to see that (Ps 126). These festivals will remind us there’s something bigger than ourselves! Something that we should give even our very offspring to honour (Ps 127).
And I could go on. Psalm 133 and 134 nearly seem to speak into an arrival into the ecstasy of the festival – no longer being on the road.
They’re marked in the ancient manuscripts as the “Songs of Ascent” (121-134) and they come to life when you remember their context of the traveller on the hard road up to the festival! Enjoy!