Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Celebrating Christmas

Last night with my immediate family, tonight with our Christmas Eve service, tomorrow with Melinda's family, Friday with mine, and Saturday with my mother-in-law's.

It's not quite twelve days of Christmas, but it seems like it's getting closer all the time!

It's a real treat to celebrate the birth of our Savior in so many different ways, with so many different people: worshiping, feasting, fellowshipping, giving, receiving, playing, sleeping.

It may surprise some of you to know that many of our Protestant fathers took a rather dim view of Christmas. Consider the following passage from William Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation.

Herewith I shall end this year--except to recall one more incident, rather amusing than serious. On Christmas Day, the Governor called the peole out to work as usual; but most of the new company excused themselves, and said it went against their consciences to work on that day. So the Governor told them, if they made it a matter of conscience, he would spare them till they were better informed. So he went with the rest, and left them; but on returning from work at noon he found them at play in the street, some pitching the bar, some at stool-ball, and such like sports. So he went to them and took away their games, and told them that it was against his conscience that they should play and others work. If they made the keeping of the day a matter of devotion, let them remain in their houses; but there should be no gaming and revelling in the streets. Since then, nothing has been attempted in that way, at least openly.
Though Bradford made allowances for those whose consciences led them to do otherwise, he clearly discouraged the residents of Plymouth to observe the holiday. A harder line was taken by in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, where the observance of Christmas was outlawed altogether. Offenders were fined.

Why would these devoted Christians object to the celebration of Christmas? Several reasons, but all of them having to do with thinking of Christmas as specifically a Roman Catholic holy day. Think about it...Christmas is short for Christ's Mass. And if there is anything a good solid Protestant doesn't want to do it is to give credence to Rome's doctrine of the Mass.

But this is not the only objection they urged against celebrating Christmas.

The Roman Catholic Church has in its liturgical calendar numerous "obligation days." These are days on which the faithful are obliged to attend Mass. Failure to do so is a sin. Protestants, however, especially of the Reformed variety, taught that only God's word can bind the conscience. Only what is specifically declared in Scripture (or what may be deduced therefrom "by good and necessary consequence") can be obligatory. Scripture does not command the observance of Christmas--in fact it doesn't even give us any light on what time of year Jesus was born. Therefore, Christians are under no obligation to attend services for worship on December 25 (unless of course it falls on a Sunday, in which case the obligation to attend public worship arises from the fact that it is the Lord's Day, or the Christian Sabbath).

That being said, some Protestants (e.g., Lutherans and Anglicans) saw no harm in observing December 25th as the date of our Lord's nativity, provided it was not regarded as an obligation, and that the customs and worship associated with its celebration were not inconsistent with the teaching of Scripture.

The Reformed or Calvinistic wing of the Reformation, to which the Pilgrims and the New England Puritans belonged, held to a form of the "regulative principle of worship." This principle states that whatever is not commanded in Scripture (with respect to worship) is forbidden. And since there is no express warrant in Scripture to observe the 25th day of December as a day of worship commemorating the birth of Jesus, then it ought not to be done.

I identify with the Reformed wing of the Reformation, but on this point I am in hearty agreement with my fellow Protestants in the Lutheran and Anglican churches. It seems as natural as can be as a Christian to rejoice and be glad at the thought of the incarnation of the Son of God and to hold services of worship and thanksgiving.

"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!" (Luke 2:14).

Amen and amen!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Story Behind December 25

It is well known that the Bible does not give us the date of Jesus' birth. This fact has led a good number of well-meaning people to question whether his birth should even be celebrated at all. Some have even made the claim that the date of December 25 was deliberately settled upon as the day to commemorate his birth because it was already kept as a holy day by pagans in the Roman Empire. In settling upon December 25, the church (we are told) made an ill-advised attempt to christianize a pagan festival in the hope of helping the pagans convert to Christianity. Therefore, celebrating Christmas, is an implicit participation in paganism.

So the story goes. But William Tighe sets the story straight in his article, "Calculating Christmas," which first appeared in 2003 in Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity.

Many Christians think that Christians celebrate Christ’s birth on December 25th because the church fathers appropriated the date of a pagan festival. Almost no one minds, except for a few groups on the fringes of American Evangelicalism, who seem to think that this makes Christmas itself a pagan festival. But it is perhaps interesting to know that the choice of December 25th is the result of attempts among the earliest Christians to figure out the date of Jesus’ birth based on calendrical calculations that had nothing to do with pagan festivals.

Rather, the pagan festival of the “Birth of the Unconquered Son” instituted by the Roman Emperor Aurelian on 25 December 274, was almost certainly an attempt to create a pagan alternative to a date that was already of some significance to Roman Christians. Thus the “pagan origins of Christmas” is a myth without historical substance... (read more)