Not long ago, I was asked this question by a caller on Catholic Answers Live:
St. Paul tells us in Romans 14:5:
“One man esteems one day as better than another, while another man esteems all days alike. Let everyone be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. He also who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God; while he who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.”
Doesn’t that exclude the possibility of Holy Days in the Church?
It’s a great question, and as always is the case with Sacred Scripture, context is everything. St. Paul, especially in his letters to the Galatians and to the Romans, is dealing with the infamous “Judaizers,” described in Acts 15:1-2:
But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question.
These Judaizers were teaching, in effect, “It’s great that you believe in Jesus. We do too! But if you want to be saved, you also need to go back to the Temple, the Old Covenant Sacrifices, the Law, and especially circumcision.” Hence, we had the first Church council in Jerusalem, where the truth of the matter was declared definitively by St. Peter.
Well, as would be the case for virtually every Church council for the next 2,000 years, the matter persisted in the Church, and in various ways. Some left the Church over the matter. Such was the case with the infamous “Nicolaitans” we read about in Revelation 2. According to St. Irenaeus, Nicolas, one of the original seven deacons ordained by the apostles in Acts 6, led a rebellion against the council held in Jerusalem that would later be named after him (Against Heresies, Bk. 1, ch. 26). But there were also more skirmishes within the Church—even legitimate skirmishes among faithful Catholics—trying to hammer out in more detail the relationship between the Gentiles and Jews, New Covenant and Old Covenant. In particular, the faithful sought to determine if Jewish converts could still practice some of their Jewish rituals without breaking communion with Jesus in his Church. The answer was generally in the affirmative, as long as what was being practiced was not taught to be necessary for salvation and binding on other Christians.
That is what St. Paul was dealing with in Romans 14:5. To those who still wanted to honor certain feast days, Kosher laws, and the like, Paul basically says “Yes, but don’t get dogmatic about it!”
This in no way means, however, the Church could not establish her own holy days. That was not even on the radar screen for St. Paul in his Letter to the Romans. In fact, we know the Church already had made clear by divine law two things. First, as St. Paul tells us in Col. 2:16, the Church had definitively declared all of the Old Testament feasts to be abolished:
Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a sabbath. These are only a shadow (Greek: skia) of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.
That word “shadow” (skia) is very important. It is the same word used by the inspired writer of Hebrews 10:1, when he speaks of “the law” and its sacrifices. They are a mere skia (shadow) of their fulfillment in Jesus Christ and the New Covenant.
Second, we know the Church, by her apostolic authority, established “the Lord’s Day” to be Sunday, according to Acts 20:7, I Cor. 16:1-2 and Rev. 1:10 (Cf. CCC 2175-2179). This is the spiritual fulfillment of the Sabbath and is binding on Christians. But does this contradict Romans 14:5? Absolutely not! Again, that is not what St. Paul was talking about.
The truth is, the reason we do not keep the Passover, the Day of Atonement, and all of the other Jewish feasts and holy days and Kosher laws is that they have been fulfilled by Christ and thereby abolished. But only God has the authority to do this—and this authority extends to his Church. The Church participates in prerogatives that are, strictly speaking, God’s alone. Consider Daniel 2:20-21: “Blessed be the name of God for ever and ever, to whom belong wisdom and might. He changes times and seasons…”
God alone has the authority to “change times and seasons.” In fact, in Daniel 7:25, we see Antiochus IV as a type of the antichrist who would cause the daily sacrifice to cease for three and a half years:
He shall speak words against the Most High, and shall wear out the saints of the Most High, and shall think to change the times and the law; and they shall be given into his hand for a time, two times, and half a time (three and a half years).
Again, something analogous will be done in the end times by the antichrist, but notice, he “shall think to change the times and the law,” but he doesn’t have the authority to actually do it. Only God does!
Well, God did change times and seasons in the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and by establishing the Church. In Jesus Christ we have a new priesthood, a new law (Heb. 7:11-12), a new calendar (Col. 2:16)—indeed, we have a new creation, “a new heavens and a new earth” as Revelation 21:1 has it. Thus, “if any man be in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17) in Jesus Christ, the beginning of the new creation!
And very importantly, because the Church is, as St. Paul describes her, the body of Christ, “the fullness of him who fills all in all,” so it is that each time the Church establishes a new feast day it is exercising God’s divine authority. Such proclamations really do bind because the Church participates in the divine authority that God alone possesses in a strict sense.