Diwali: A Christian Response
3 November 2021 Hits:824
I received an email a while back asking, “How do you think we should respond as Christians to Diwali? This is a typical work dilemma for me. It’s politically correct to attend an event, but I don’t celebrate Diwali, of course. I think Jesus may have attended, but He certainly would have spoken up whereas I feel I can’t.”
It’s a great question and one I’ll do my best to answer in this blog.
What is Diwali?
Diwali is a Hindu celebration (November 4 this year) and part of the 5-day festival of lights. Hindus follow a lunar calendar, like the ancient Hebrews, and so the date changes each year, much like Easter.
Diwali is a festival that celebrates the beginning of the Hindu New Year. Also called the Festival of Lights or Deepavali, it takes place on the 15th day of the Hindu month of Kartika. The festival lasts five days and is most commonly celebrated in India and other locations with Hindu communities. With Melbourne’s growing Hindu community, Diwali is something that we are increasingly aware of, especially in the workplace.
A Christian Response
Christians will respond in different ways, usually in line with the teaching and attitudes displayed by their church community. Some will tend to be dogmatic, while others are more flexible and inclusive.
I believe this is a time for followers of Jesus to take the narrow road that Jesus taught, carefully walking a line between compromise and respect.
On the one hand, Christians do not worship idols or foreign gods (Ex. 20:4). On the other, we must not disrespect others’ faith or act like a wet blanket. The Golden Rule springs to mind, “Treat others the way you’d want them to treat you.” People will remember how you treated them, far more than what you told them. Selah!
The apostle Paul gives us an excellent pattern to follow. While he was awaiting Silas and Timothy to arrive in Athens, “he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols” (Acts 17:16). To make a short story even shorter, let’s read verses 22 and 23 of that chapter, “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So, you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.”
I find his choice of words fascinating. Remember that he was troubled by their idolatry, but he didn’t communicate that to them. He was highly considerate in addressing the people, complimenting them on their spiritual devotion and referring to idols as “objects of worship” rather than their images! There’s a lesson here for all Christians. Are we courteous or judgmental when interacting with others, whether it’s Diwali or Halloween or Ramadan? Paul had learned to place a filter between his feelings and his words. We would do well to emulate his example.
Filling in the Blanks
As well as being respectful, Paul was also wise. As he walked around Athens, he spotted an altar with this inscription: “to an unknown god.” He realised that his audience was unaware of what this meant, so he filled in the blanks. In Acts 17, Paul twice quotes the Greek philosopher and poet, Epimenides, and for a good reason.
In the 6th century BCE, there was a plague that went throughout all of Greece. The Greeks thought that they must have offended one of their gods, so they began offering sacrifices on altars to all their various gods. When nothing worked, they figured there must be a God who they didn’t know about whom they must somehow appease.
So Epimenides came up with a plan. He released hungry sheep into the countryside and instructed men to follow them to see where they would lie down. He believed that since hungry sheep would not naturally lie down but continue to graze; if they were to lie down, it would be a sign from the god that this place was sacred. The Athenians built an altar and sacrificed a lamb on each spot where the sheep were tired and laid down. Afterwards, the plague stopped, which they attributed to this unknown god accepting the sacrifice.
Note that Paul didn’t just “read his Bible”. He also read philosophy, history, and poetry and used these to communicate the gospel. By finding common ground with his audience, he connected the dots and introduced them to Jesus.
The Bible is replete with examples like this. Consider what God used to lead the Magi (astronomers) to Jesus. Jesus’ parables revolved around the interests and industries of first-century people. God established common ground with people by becoming one of us.
Diwali is a festival of new beginnings, the triumph of good over evil, and light over darkness. You don’t need me to point out the apparent common ground between the Christian message and those themes.
I’ll finish by addressing the last line of the question I was asked, “I think Jesus may have attended, but He certainly would have spoken up whereas I feel I can’t.” I agree that Jesus would attend a Diwali celebration. The Jesus we read of in the gospels frequented weddings, dinners, and other celebrations. He ate food with tax collectors and sinners and got into trouble with the religious elite.
But would he have spoken up? I don’t know what Jesus would have said, but I do know it would have been words of love and life rather than judgement and rebuke. He saved that for the people who pretended to be holy. He seemed totally at home with people celebrating and even turned water into wine to ensure the party was successful. And so, courageously love and be like Jesus!