More feasting and less advent?

There are many odd twists of history in which opponents become supporters.  Historically, Presbyterians (and most protestants) were opposed to Christmas as a Christian Holy Day.  There does seem to be some recognition though, of it’s role as a day of rest from labor with significance  in secular society as a reprieve for workers.  Currently, Christians can tend to push back against the secular nature and associated materialism of the holiday, emphasizing the day’s spiritual nature.  Both perspectives would seem foreign to the other and yet they both make sense in their own historical setting.  This isn’t merely a curiosity though for me, but incredibly practical as we begin a church.  How do we as a church understand and relate to days like Christmas and Easter or “church seasons” like advent or lent.

The basic rational for not observing Christmas is twofold.  First, is the rejection of the Catholic understanding of worship as a “Mass” in which Christ is again crucified as the eucharist is celebrated.  The second part of the rational is that humans can’t come up with Holy Days.  Check out this quote from Samuel Davies, a theologian and pastor, (from his Christmas Day sermon in 1758)

I think it proper to inform you, that I may guard against this danger, that I do not set apart this day for public worship, as though it had any peculiar sanctity, or we were under any obligations to keep it religiously. I know no human authority, that has power to make one day more holy than another, or that can bind the conscience in such cases. And as for divine authority, to which alone the sanctifying of days and things belongs, it has thought it sufficient to consecrate one day in seven to a religious use, for the commemoration both of the birth of this world, and the resurrection of its great Author, or of the works of creation and redemption. This I would religiously observe; and inculcate the religious observance of it upon all. But as to other days, consecrated by the mistaken piety or superstition of men, and conveyed down to us as holy, through the corrupt medium of human tradition, I think myself free to observe them or not, according to conveniency, and the prospect of usefulness; like other common days, on which I may lawfully carry on public worship or not, as circumstances require.   

I find the logic of this argument compelling.  Since there is no biblical warrant for celebrating Christ’s birth (or evening knowing when it was) there is freedom to observe or not.  Practically, I think there are two tensions as we think about Christmas, Easter, and other such days in the life of the church.

First, we are not to make too much of it.  Every single day the Christian is meant to remember all that Jesus has done for his people.  We are to think on his entrance into this world, his suffering on our behalf, his resurrection from the dead, and ascension to God’s right hand.  Furthermore, we need to dispel superstition as if going to church, serving others, or contemplating Christ this one day is more significant than any other.  We should be thankful for the opportunity to rest from work, spend time with loved ones, and simply celebrate the good gifts that God has given.  We should strive to avoid materialism, greed, self-indulgence, and anger on Christmas just like every other day.  Should Christians push for a more “spiritual” observance of Christmas in the broader culture, more fully acknowledging the Christian roots of the holiday?  Not necessarily.  I’m glad that Christmas is a time of year when people who are not Christians or those with some tangential connection to the Christian faith may be more open to spirituality or attend a church, but if Christians are free to observe this day, or not observe, I’d have a hard time pushing the “spiritual significance” of the day for the nation as a whole.

While I would not make to much of Christmas, and such holidays, I think we should use these days for all they are worth.  There are all sorts of unique opportunities due to the historical presence of Christianity in our country.  There is the opportunity to talk informally about spiritual matters, welcome many to church who do not normally attend, pool extra resources to care for the needy, and simply rest.  It is a time when Christians are open to attending extra worship services, are willing to engage in more focused meditation on scripture or prayer, and are often looking for something to anchor them amidst busyness, challenging family dynamics, and the pull of materialism.  Thus offering extra church services, service opportunities and devotional materials makes complete sense.  None of this should be commanded or implied that it is necessary.  This is even an opportunity to warn against man made rules, the burdens of religion, and superstition.

Furthermore, I find that the “advent season” leading up to Christmas and “lent” which leads up to the celebration of Easter can add a helpful rhythm to the disordered and scattered lives the many of us lead.  So many in our communities live away from family without a sense of rootedness or belonging.  Other than an annual vacation or the beginning the school year few families have rhythms that give continuity and shape to the year.  With the above caveats about “holy days” in mind, I believe that the church can serve her people through these historical rhythms.  In practice churches often take on annual rhythms, whether they are related to conferences, a preaching schedule, or the flow of the seasons.  If you are going to have a rhythm as a church it might as well cycle along with the life of Christ.  I think it is challenging to take advantage of the opportunities that “Christian holidays” provide without falling into the dangers but it is an effort we’re going to make.

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