Q. 17. But aren't we giving in to paganism when we start talking about the symbolism of the seasons and all that? Isn't this nature worship?
Answer. No. It's not nature worship. And it's not pagan to recognize and utilize the symbolism associated with the seasons of the year.
According to I Timothy 4:4, "Everything that God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is sanctified by the Word of God and prayer." God has created both us and the rest of his creation responsive to temporal rhythmic patterns (Gen. 1:14). There are certain temporal rhythms of life that are built-in to his creation and into us. Daily: Sun up, Sun Down. Monthly: the cycle of the moon. And yearly: the march of the seasons and the alternating of darkness and light, cold and warmth associated with the movement of the earth and Sun. We ignore these patterns and we suffer the consequences!
The sun governs not only the day, but also the year (Gen. 1:14). The solar cycles are inescapable. Our own rhythms of life are influenced by the progression of the seasons. God has created us enmeshed in the creation. Human psychology is affected by the seasonal changes. For example, studies have indicated a significant increase in crimes of violence during times of a full moon. 17-25% more babies are born during the waxing period of the moon than during its waning. All you have to do is ask any OB nurse.
During the winter, the days are short, the rays of the sun are more slanted, and the weather is cold. In the winter everything dies or at least looks and feels dead--insects, animals, vegetation--the whole world seems to shut down. It affects us too. The relative absence of sunlight and the dominance of darkness make us melancholy or worse. We are psychosomatic beings. In the Spring, everything seems to come back to life--resurrected from the dead, as it were.
All of this is inherent in God's creation. The Bible recognizes this and builds on it. Of course, the pagans pervert it. They worship the sun and moon. They believe that fertility and life is somehow resident in nature. They deify the forces of nature. And if man would just manipulate nature correctly he can also gain life for himself. So you get pagan fertility cults and rites and other perversions.
The Bible does not completely set aside the calendar cycles because pagans pervert the meaning. No, rather, as we have seen, God has placed the Sun, moon, and stars in the firmament to indicate festival seasons (Gen. 1:14).
The Israelite calendar did not attempt to disregard the symbolism and experience of the seasons of the year just because gentile nations perverted them. God placed the major Israelite festivals precisely at points in the year that would correspond to their meaning!
Passover takes place in the Spring because it celebrates the Israelites' resurrection from the death of Egyptian bondage. God gave them new life. And this new life is only possible because of the death and resurrection of the Messiah, typified by the Passover lamb.
Pentecost was held at the beginning of the Summer harvest. Tabernacles was observed during the Autumn harvest to remind the people that the source of their blessings was Christ. God established the seasonal changes when he established the sun and moon as symbols (Gen. 1:14). The Bible indicates the value of arranging the worship of the people of God so that it is keyed into the seasonal changes (Song of Songs 2:10-12; Matt. 24:33-34; John 10:22-23; John 20:15). Recognizing these seasonal cycles and making use of them in the worship of the church is not "nature worship." If that is the case, then God was guilty of leading his people into idolatry when he ordered the feasts of Israel to coincide with the appropriate seasons of the year.
In John 10:22-23 Jesus attends the feast of Hanukkah. During this festival the Jews celebrated the restoration of the temple after the abomination of desecration by Antioches Epiphanes. It was celebrated at the time of the winter solstice; just as the sun begins its annual rising (the nights are longest, the days are shortest, but that all begins to change at this point). It was a feast of lights! Now in Jesus, according to the Gospel of John, the light is dawning and Jesus is the light of the world.
Moreover, it is interesting to note that Hanukkah is nowhere commanded in the Hebrew Scriptures. Yet Jesus attends and explains it in terms of himself. Jesus sets his seal of approval on a feast celebrated during the winter solstice, commemorating the rebuilding of the temple and the beginning of the dawn of new light for the people of Israel.
But, now, we know that Christ himself is the new temple (John 2:19) and his birth was the beginning of God's "tabernacling" with men (John 1:16-18). His work was the prophesied dawn of God's great work of temple building. His birth was the beginning of the dawning of the true light that comes into the world and that gives light to every man. Remember the Star of Bethlehem in the night sky. The early church recognized these truths and turned the Feast of Hanukah into the celebration of the nativity of our Lord, the True Temple.
Therefore, just as the great redemptive events recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures were keyed to the changes in the seasons--Passover in the Spring means life from the dead--so also the church ordered her Scripture readings and prayers so that the life of Christ would be correlated to the symbolic changes evident in the seasons of the year. Easter, for example, is celebrated in the Spring when the entire created order is symbolically restored from death to life.
Consider how this works for Christmas. Why is Christmas celebrated on December 25th? Not so much because it has much of anything to do with the date of his actual birth--although as we noted above, the early church suspected a winter birth. Nor is it the case that the church gullibly adopted a pagan Roman holiday, the festival of the Invincible Sun (Dies Natalis Dei Solis Invicti). The early church was not so naïve. The date was picked for symbolic reasons.
The winter solstice occurs around December 25th (solstice from the Latin: sol = sun, and sistere = to stand still). This is the time of the year when the Sun reaches its southern-most extremity (or to put it another way, it is the point on the Sun's ecliptic at which it is the farthest south). The longest night and the shortest day occur at this point and from this day onward the days get longer and the nights get shorter. The darkness of winter begins to give way to the light and warmth of Spring and Summer. This continues until the summer solstice when the other extreme is reached.
What does this have to do with Christmas? Much in every way. Just as death and darkness give way to life and light in the yearly cycle of seasons, so also the death and darkness brought on by sin gives way to the life and light realized in the work of Jesus. Jesus birth is celebrated when the darkness of night has reached its peak, and once he is born the light begins to wax and the darkness wanes. As the hymn reminds us:
Behold a branch is growingThe purpose of the church year, therefore, is to redeem the time, to consecrate the various seasons of the year by the word of God and by prayer (worship). This provides the people of God with amble opportunities to give thanks and rejoice in what God has done in Christ and through his saints throughout history. Used in this way it can be a great educational tool to teach the people the Bible (lectionary) and especially the life of Jesus Christ.
As of loveliest form and grace,
As prophets sung, foreknowing;
It springs from Jesse's race
And bears one little Flower
In midst of coldest winter,
At deepest midnight hour.
We need not fear the Christian calendar. It has great didactic significance. The Christian year is ordered according to the life of Jesus Christ, from his birth to his ascension and pouring out of the Holy Spirit. It reminds us that as Christians we are in Christ. Each year we are reminded that the yearly cycle of our lives finds its true meaning and significance in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It gives us occasion to celebrate the mighty acts of God in the person of Jesus Christ! The Christian year reminds us that we are "in Christ," our time is "in Christ," and our lives are not our own.
This is my last post in this series. Time to stop talking about Christmas and enjoy it!
I'll close with the words of the venerable Reformed theologian Francis Turretin (1623-1687), considered by most to have been one of the finest Reformed theologians in our tradition:
Hence we cannot approve of the rigid judgment of those who charge such churches with idolatry (in which those days are still kept, the names of the saints being retained), since they agree with us in doctrine concerning the worship of God alone and detest the idolatry of the papists (Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. 2, p. 104).