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!

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