Dashing through the snow….a Yuletide ramble.
Yes, I had to write about another holiday I don't keep….
Originally I had intended to bring up the issue of Christmas within a larger discussion of the structure and practice of the Church. This would and hopefully will be a long series of articles, but many other factors have limited my ability and time to write over the course of the last month or so. Being that it is now mid-December, I wanted to at least try and write something pertaining to the looming day of 25 December, a day hallowed by so many.
I think it's safe to say most wouldn't have any problem acknowledging the pagan origins of the Christmas celebration. We know that it entered the practice of the Church during the fourth century, but I'm not sure many have connected the dots as to why.
As the Church grew and ultimately joined itself to the political state of Rome, the issues surrounding the Church took on more of a cultural/civilizational tone. If the state was to be "Christian," then it was the duty of the state to enforce this Christianity. However, Roman society was large, complex, and very diverse and so it was no easy task for the architects of Constantinianism. They couldn't punish people en masse, so it was much easier to accommodate and allow for a certain degree of syncretism.
The Donatists of the 4th century are usually criticized for their lack of charity in their unwillingness to re-admit those who had temporarily apostatized under the threat of Roman persecution. This is only part of the story. In the larger context they were upset over the general state of a Christianity which they believed had embraced a nominal ethic, one of compromise.
Far from monolithic, the movement went through several stages of development and like many other topics, its one I hope to delve into at some point. The Donatists actually appealed to the Roman Emperor for help in dealing with their schism and they were forced to re-think the whole issue of Imperial Christianity when the ruling powers decided against them and began to persecute them when they did not comply.
In time Donatism split into different factions, but for one of them at least they found their identity in resisting a politically and culturally compromised Church. Donatism is usually caricatured as a belief that the Sacraments weren't valid in the hands of an impure Presbyter. That may have been true at the onset, but really was only a symptom of a much larger question, one that is a main focus of this project.
What are some of the ways this compromise came about? One need only to read the history of the Church during this period. Once the persecutions stopped and the Church made peace with the state, and then turned to state patronage…the floodgates were opened. Greco-Roman culture slowly became synonymous with the Christian Church and many things that had been pagan were re-cast and transformed and brought into the practice and polity of the Church.
This is not to say that the Church had already entered a path of deviation prior to this. It most certainly had. Start with Ignatius of Antioch and read on through the Early Church Fathers. While still relatively pure and solid, there's a steady slide at work, so that by the year 300 the Church is started to look somewhat unlike the picture presented in the New Testament. By the year 400, things are looking very bad, as the Church is very different from what we find in Paul, Peter, and the Gospels. There are a few voices of protest, but it would have to get far worse before people began to really sit up and take notice. But by then, not only was it too late, for many the means by which they could 'take notice' had been removed.
The Romans and for that matter most pagan peoples celebrated the time of the Winter Solstice. Though in some ways they seem primitive to us today, the Ancients were very skilled when it came to examining the night sky. For many of them of course, Astrology was the goal, not Astronomy. The stars while certainly wonderful, awe inspiring, and a source of General Revelation were for the Ancients a source of Special Revelation, a window into the workings of the Fates.
They recognized the period of late December as being the period of the shortest days of the year, and that after this period of a couple of weeks (12 Days) had passed, the days would grow longer and the march toward Spring and Summer was underway. Saturnalia was the Roman feast which corresponded with time period, and it was very easy for the Constantinian mind to simply switch Saturnalia with another feast which they created to serve the purpose. That way there would not be too much in the way of societal upheaval, and yet the people (who were all supposed to be Christians) wouldn't be engaging in pagan rites.
So the Christ-Mass was introduced and later throughout the medieval period various Celtic and Germanic traditions were added to it. And by the way, the original idea was the Twelve Days of Christmas, the period from 25 December, to 6 January. That's why the whole period is referred to as the holy days, or holidays. I laugh at all these Evangelicals who just come undone when people say Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas. They wear their ignorance on their sleeves!
So what?, the Transformationalist declares. That's the job of the Church, to conquer and transform. Christmas is a perfect example of the Church conquering the pagan ideal.
This assumes several principles which I believe are contrary to the New Testament.
First, that it is the duty of the Church to transform elements of the common culture and make them holy. They would appeal to:
2 Corinthians 10:5- Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ;
Yet I find it more than a little of a stretch to say that bringing every thought into captivity means appropriating pagan practices and putting a Christian stamp on them.
I often will ask them for other verses to support this notion and they struggle to find any. They often appeal to the Great Commission, that we are to make disciples of the nations, but again this hardly proves their case. In fact, I could just as easily argue that the early Church should have taught their neighbours to abandon Saturnalia entirely, rather than merely replace it with a so-called Christian substitute. Transformationalism is a philosophical concept derived from a Constantinian/Sacralist impulse…which is actually pagan, and is false supported by some very bad Old Testament hermeneutics. This has been discussed elsewhere.
Saturnalia aside, what about the idea, that we should celebrate the Incarnation and thus it is entirely proper for us to develop a feast, a holy-day to correspond with this desire? Well, what does the Bible say?
Certainly in the Old Testament the people of God were not allowed to innovate and develop ideas of their own. Time and time again they are exhorted to carefully follow God's commands which he gives to them in exhaustive detail. When they build an altar, they're not to shape the stones…God doesn't want their craftsmanship as part of their offering. We can bring nothing to God and when people like Nadab and Abihu, or Jeroboam try and do so, they are condemned.
In the New Testament, we are presented with a very basic picture of the life of the Church but Paul declares the Scriptures sufficient for the life and practice of the Church. We're told in 2 Timothy 3:
16 All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:
17 That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.
Does this leave open a window wherein the Scriptures fail to teach us what we need to be perfect, (complete) or are they somehow lacking in that we need further traditions in order to be thoroughly furnished?
The answer is an obvious 'no.' What about when Paul says in 2 Thessalonians 2, to hold the traditions you have been taught? I ask…what traditions would Paul be talking about? They must be recorded for us in the Scriptures or else his statement to Timothy, some of his very last written words I might add, would have no meaning.
This is the core of this issue surrounding Christmas. Don't get hung up on the Pagan argument or the commercialism. These arguments are also certainly true, but the core issue for Biblical Christians is….what does the Bible say?
Paul clearly speaks against the idea of innovation when it comes to the life of the Church. In 1 Timothy 4 we read:
1 Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils;
2 Speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron;
3 Forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth.
4 For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving:
5 For it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer.
These would be innovations/traditions introduced by those who think abstaining means piety. Don't misunderstand. If the Scriptures tell us not to do something, that's fine, the Scriptures are our authority. But what about when man says it? Can we please God by man-made directives?
Nowhere do the Scriptures teach that we are more holy if we remain celibate, nor do they teach that we please God by abstaining from certain foods or drinks. In fact, we need not be superstitious and we can eat meat offered to Zeus or Odin because we know that they are nothing and in the end, it's just meat. We can partake of it, but as we learn elsewhere it must be done in love and with our brethren in mind. This is why, even though I categorically reject Christmas as unbiblical, I'm not afraid of it. I don't have to flee every time I see a candy cane or a gingerbread man. If someone is attaching meaning to those things, even if indirectly, they mean nothing to me. Now, if someone says come to our Christmas party and eat those things….no, that I won't do because that has a clear meaning being attached to it.
But aren't I forbidding things, the very thing Paul condemns? I'm not forbidding things that God has commanded or permitted. God has said it's fine to be married and you can eat what you want. Where did God say to make holy days for the Church to follow?
"Well, it's not a holy day," I hear many say. I'm sorry, but your actions prove otherwise and by attaching the name of Christ to a specific day….you've sanctified or set apart the day….you've made it holy. Maybe you treat holy things in a trivial manner which could be another matter. But you can't celebrate the Christ-Mass and then try and say you don't regard the day.
So Paul condemns this one type of traditionalism as demonic, but he also speaks of another type of innovation in Colossians:
16 Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days:
17 Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ.
18 Let no man beguile you of your reward in a voluntary humility and worshipping of angels, intruding into those things which he hath not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind,
19 And not holding the Head, from which all the body by joints and bands having nourishment ministered, and knit together, increaseth with the increase of God.
20 Wherefore if ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances,
21 (Touch not; taste not; handle not;
22 Which all are to perish with the using;) after the commandments and doctrines of men?
23 Which things have indeed a shew of wisdom in will worship, and humility, and neglecting of the body; not in any honour to the satisfying of the flesh.
Now is he saying that we can keep holy days and we need not worry about others judging us? Hardly. Here he is speaking of those who would try and bind Jewish practices on the shoulders of these Gentile Christians. They were being told that in order to be a good Christian, you need to keep the Sabbath and the other Jewish feasts. You need to keep Passover and Pentecost, etc….
Paul is constantly battling the Judaizers and what I call the Paganizers. These are the two destructive influences trying to take over the Church. The Judaizers are trying to drag it back into the shadows and types which Christ has fulfilled, and the Paganizers are trying to bring in Pagan philosophy and sometimes overt pagan theology and ethics. Apparently the Colossians were being taught to probe into the Angelic hierarchy, worshipping them, or perhaps asking them to intercede…a voluntary humility akin to the Roman practice of praying to so-called saints.
Paul is declaring to the Colossians that they're free from having to keep the Jewish law and any of these systems which teach piety is based on a touch not/taste not ethic.
He calls it will-worship or as it is put in the New King James…self-imposed religion.
But wait, someone says…isn't that what I'm doing? By saying we shouldn't keep Christmas, aren't I falling into the touch not/taste not category that Paul is condemning?
I would argue that those who keep Christmas fall into that category. Adherents of Christmas are saying this day is something the Church ought to keep. This is something we ought to do in order to honour God, and thus by implication if you don't do it, you're guilty of dishonouring God. This is precisely the type of will-worship Paul is talking about. With this holy day comes an ethic…one that would say for example I'm a bad Christian, a bad father if I go to work that day, or do ordinary things on that day and fail to regard it. I'm impious unless I follow these practices…these commandments of men.
Paul tells me that I'm free, not under bondage to either the Jewish law or those who try and force me follow commandments they have dreamed up.
What about Romans 14?
1 Him that is weak in the faith receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations.
2 For one believeth that he may eat all things: another, who is weak, eateth herbs.
3 Let not him that eateth despise him that eateth not; and let not him which eateth not judge him that eateth: for God hath received him.
4 Who art thou that judgest another man's servant? to his own master he standeth or falleth. Yea, he shall be holden up: for God is able to make him stand.
5 One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.
6 He that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord; and he that regardeth not the day, to the Lord he doth not regard it. He that eateth, eateth to the Lord, for he giveth God thanks; and he that eateth not, to the Lord he eateth not, and giveth God thanks.
7 For none of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself.
8 For whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord: whether we live therefore, or die, we are the Lord's.
9 For to this end Christ both died, and rose, and revived, that he might be Lord both of the dead and living.
10 But why dost thou judge thy brother? or why dost thou set at nought thy brother? for we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ.
11 For it is written, As I live, saith the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.
12 So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God.
13 Let us not therefore judge one another any more: but judge this rather, that no man put a stumblingblock or an occasion to fall in his brother's way.
14 I know, and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus, that there is nothing unclean of itself: but to him that esteemeth any thing to be unclean, to him it is unclean.
15 But if thy brother be grieved with thy meat, now walkest thou not charitably. Destroy not him with thy meat, for whom Christ died.
16 Let not then your good be evil spoken of:
17 For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.
18 For he that in these things serveth Christ is acceptable to God, and approved of men.
19 Let us therefore follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another.
20 For meat destroy not the work of God. All things indeed are pure; but it is evil for that man who eateth with offence.
21 It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor any thing whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak.
22 Hast thou faith? have it to thyself before God. Happy is he that condemneth not himself in that thing which he alloweth.
23 And he that doubteth is damned if he eat, because he eateth not of faith: for whatsoever is not of faith is sin.
This passage is often used to give me a sort of patronizing pat on the head. What they don't realize is, that Paul would call them the weaker brother. I'm not the one with my conscience bound. I'm quite free in Christ to declare…I will not be bound to keep traditions that God has not instituted. I don't have to keep a day in order to worship God properly. I only have to follow the dictates of His Word.
Paul is saying we need to be charitable to the weaker brother who thinks he HAS to keep the day, that he's BOUND to these conventions. Just one problem for the pro-Christmas argument. Paul is talking about those who believe they need to keep Jewish days, like the Passover and the Sabbath as well as those who believe they need to keep the dietary laws.
So as the stronger brother…I can eat the lobster or whatever, but I should do it alone if it's going to make my weaker brother stumble. I'm not being a hypocrite, I'm partaking of what is legitimate, but I'm also loving my brother.
For him, if he thinks he's ethically bound to keep those laws, he had better do it, because in v.23 we read that whatsoever is not of faith, is sin. So for him if he eats something that he couldn't in faith…he's sinning. He wasn't actually sinning to eat it, but he violated his conscience and was thus guilty.
The stronger brother can indeed eat it 'in faith,' knowing as per Acts 10, there's nothing unclean in and of itself and the earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof.
Can we keep Christmas in faith? Can we say…okay I need to do this and if I don't I'm sinning?
Can you bind someone else's conscience and say to them….you're wrong (sinning) if you don't keep this day? Well, certainly many do. Many grow very violent when you refuse to keep the day.
This is an ancient argument within the Church….what place hath tradition?
If tradition is valid, I would argue that the sky is the limit. If the Scriptures aren't sufficient, and we need traditions to enhance and round out the Christian experience, if the Church needs tradition/innovation to function properly, then where do we stop?
Well, it must be reined in by Scripture I can hear someone say. How? You've abandoned Scripture as an authority, you can only say it contributes to the argument. What is the ultimate authority? Well, whatever you want, a council, a pope. Certainly you're making it up as you go.
Historically, this has been the Lutheran and Anglican position. If the Scriptures don't forbid it, then it's allowed. So for the adherents of this position…they really don't have a problem with Rome per se. The Lutherans were upset over Justification by Faith Alone, but all the other trappings of Rome….they were essentially okay. My problem has always been….if the Church has authority to innovate and add on to the practices of piety, the life of the Christian, then is it really a problem if Justification by Faith is added on to? Not at all, I would say.
As I've argued elsewhere, the issue of Justification by Faith Alone, is a symptom of the underlying issue….maybe THE issue of all Church History- Authority.
I will say this. If I really believed tradition needed to be placed on par with Scripture then I would want to know of, and diligently keep all the traditions of the Church going back to antiquity. Who would I be to say, "Oh, I'll keep these couple of traditions, but I won't keep those?" That would be pretty proud and assuming on my part. So for me if I'm going to keep Christmas, I would certainly also feel the need to keep the entire liturgical calendar. Certainly we should consecrate Lent, keep Ascension and Pentecost, and on and on it goes.
Hey, I have a great idea. When we pray, we should take some beads and put them on a string and then we can slide them along as we work our way through these prayers that have also been handed down to us by tradition. I know the Scriptures don't quite venerate Mary the way the Early Church did, but certainly they must have been maintaining traditions which hadn't been recorded. It's no problem, we're not trying to say the Scriptures have to sanction what we do….right?
Oh, and we need a buildings. They had a temple in the Old Testament, so we should have one as well. And, we can develop a whole theory of architecture about the shape of the building, what direction it's oriented. And in time, if you don't have one of these buildings, people won't think you're legitimate. As you drive into a town and see the steeples or bell-towers standing tall over the landscape, everyone will know, this town is a Christian one. They didn't build temples in the New Testament, but they certainly would have if they could, and it's not against the Bible right?
Am I saying it's wrong to have buildings? Not exactly….but I do marvel at the emphasis that's placed upon it. And if you're trying to create an experience by arranging it a certain way….whether it be with big screens or a nave with a stained glass rose window, it's all the same. You're looking to tradition to enhance the Church, which is not a building, but the Body. The building is a prop in a stage show. The Puritans were conscious of this and deliberately called their buildings Meeting Houses. It was simply a building that could serve any function that required a large group of people to gather.
For that matter those who want to keep Christmas…why don't your ministers wear the corresponding robes? The clerical vestments change with the season. You've already admitted to keeping the season, you've already validated the traditions of the Church, why don't you follow all of them? I know many Churches would be horrified if their ministers showed up in robes, but they have no problem with Advent Wreaths, candles, and whatever else. It makes no sense.
Now, I will admit I love all the trappings of Christmas. Like many Americans my ancestors came from the British Isles and from Germany. But here's the problem…when you attach the name of Christ, you're turning it into something Christian, whether you admit it or not, you're making these items part of the life of the Church….and it is at that point that I must judge them differently. I can't find them in Scripture, so I can't employ them 'in faith,' and I won't be bound to them, nor will I bind others.
But if Christ was taken out of Christmas….that would be something different. If we simply had a winter custom of bringing trees into our houses, drinking Egg nog, giving gifts, even kissing under mistletoe…that's fine. But that's not what's happening. It might be for the many pagans who surround us, but among Christians, they're doing this as something specifically Christian.
Who told them to do it?
But could we do that and bring every thought captive? We can, if we understand that we're keeping a cultural fest…as Christians. But as Christians can we keep made up Christian fests? No. By trying to live with a renewed mind and bring my thoughts into captivity to Christ, I need to think through what I'm doing. And with Christmas, I'm back to….
Who told me to do it?
But what about the Incarnation?
God has provided a means to celebrate the Incarnation. We partake of His Body and Blood every time the Church meets…or at least we should. Sadly, many have a wrong view of the Lord's Supper and take it only monthly or quarterly, but that's another issue.
The Supper reminds us on a regular basis of the wonder and glory of the Incarnation. God has already provided a means to show this and remind us that he is coming again.
What about being relevant to our culture?
This is a common argument that often leaves me speechless. First, if you want to stand out, if you want to provide a testimony to others, let me assure you that by rejecting Christmas you will have opportunities to discuss Christ with others. Why does Salt and Light mean relevant? Sometimes Salt and Light means standing firm and rejecting the culture demands and enticements.
As far as relevancy. Where do you go with that? Do I have to buy my daughter a cell phone because everyone else does it? Should I let her listen to Lady Gaga because it’s the thing to do? It's really a dumb question. I know of a local Church that sings Carrie Underwood songs in Church. That's relevant right? Would Paul have us sing 'Jesus Take the Wheel?'
I walked away from Christmas 15 years ago and have not once regretted it. Do you upset family members? Sure. Do people think you're strange? Sure. Do your kids feel cheated? No. We teach them who we are and what the Bible says, and they like us have come to marvel as we watch all the people scurrying about every year, trapped in a terrible bondage. We see people at their worst, our culture at its most disgusting…all in the name of Christ? It is sad to see so many people completely enslaved to this whole thing. I'm free.
So what do we do on THE day? If I don't go to work, which I don't sometimes if the weather is bad…we go get Chinese food.
But please, don't get hung up the arguments concerning whether or not Christ was born on that day, or whether or not we should celebrate it because of American consumerism.
That's not the issue.
Our children know that when they go over to the houses of family and friends, they will have a Christmas tree up in their living room. No big deal. They know it's wrong, but they also know that we are to love the brethren. We don't have to be afraid or superstitious, but I'm not going to be made to feel guilty because I don't conform to some tradition.
But what's wrong with it all? It's just fun and family right? That's fine. Get Christ out of it…and I'll be right there. I love the smell of a Christmas tree, but I'm not going to put one up in my house in order to celebrate a holy day that God has not commandment….and thus is no holy day at all.
I find it very ironic that Christmas has such a grip on the life of the Church. Though the holiday is ancient, the modern Christmas…the Christmas that we all know is really no older than the Victorian era. In this country it was not until after the Civil War that people began to pay much attention to it. What used to be a day of Church-going, and a few festivities became the massive commercial enterprise it is today. And, how blessed the rest of the world is, that they too are now learning to experience the disgusting spectacle of American excess. You're welcome.
The Christmas that came about in the late 1800's was a result of you guessed it…marketing. How beautiful, and how beautiful it has become.
Though the Reformers rejected, it has become very popular in modern 'Reformed' Churches. I suspect this has more to do with 'Culture' considerations than with studying their Bibles. It also has to do with the abandonment of the old Hermeneutic which understand the Old Testament in terms of Unity/Disunity. Today, most Reformed Churches want to emulate Ancient Israel both in the life of the Church and the social structure.
The Puritans rejected it. The Mayflower Pilgrims rejected it and outlawed it in Plymouth Colony. You might recall that not everyone who came over on the Mayflower shared the vision of the Pilgrims. Now, I don't agree with the notion of trying to set up a holy society and then forcing others to conform with sacred standards, but to the Puritans and Pilgrims it was a most odious holiday belonging to the Papists.
Spurgeon rejected it:
Treasury of David, Psalm 81, verse 4.
Ver. 4. For this was a statute for Israel, and a law of the God of Jacob. It was a precept binding upon all the tribes that a sacred season should be set apart to commemorate the Lord's mercy; and truly it was but the Lord's due, he had a right and a claim to such special homage. When it can be proved that the observance of Christmas, Whitsuntide, and other Popish festivals was ever instituted by a divine statute, we also will attend to them, but not till then. It is as much our duty to reject the traditions of men, as to observe the ordinances of the Lord. We ask concerning every rite and rubric, "Is this a law of the God of Jacob?" and if it be not clearly so, it is of no authority with us, who walk in Christian liberty
Pink rejected it as well. Presbyterian churches universally rejected it until the late 1800's and some in the South rejected it into the 20th century. Of course, some of the smaller groups reject it still.
My point is not to identify with these groups, but to show that many others…even with Constantinian sympathies have rejected for the theological reasons I have mentioned. There is also some evidence to indicate that some, but not all, of the proto-protestant groups rejected it as well.
Now in the end, I'm not going to say someone is not a Christian because they celebrate Christmas, but I am going to say that they're either very inconsistent in their application of the Bible, or they're stubbornly refusing to think things through. Like Pink, I will declare that I'm the Lord's free man….I won't be brought into bondage.
Am I binding you by saying you shouldn't celebrate it? Well, you decide. I'm simply saying that the Scriptures give us what we need to for the life of the Church, for the Church to function. God didn't mean for us to innovate and bring tradition into the Church.
No one is trying to argue Christmas keeping is found in the New Testament. They might try to erroneously argue that we can and should have Holy Days based on Old Testament precedent. The New Testaments condemns the keeping of Old Testament Holy Days in this era of fulfillment, and also condemns religious practices that promote holiness and worship based on refusing things God has allowed, and/or making up things God has not commanded.
The Pharisees did this, and Christ told them in Matthew 15, their worship was in vain for they taught for doctrine….the commandments of men.
Can you in faith say…I know God wants me to do this? I'm pleasing God by keeping these traditions that are found nowhere in His Word?
On that note….have yourself a merry little Solstice and remember, Constantine, he's the reason for the season.