Friday, November 23, 2007

Christmas Time is Here Again

Every year about this time I revise and repost my essay defending the celebration of Christmas. I do it because there's so much confusion about the whole thing. A friend of mine just got a nasty letter from someone who read one of his essays on this subject. The correspondent was livid, accusing him of having
the audacity to proclaim Christmas as being okay even though every tradition related to Christmas right down to the last pine needle is historically documented as being of Pagan origin. Except the part about Jesus being born. Oh wait. Yeah, that's right. The Roman Catholics changed the original estimated time of the birth of Christ date to coincide with the Pagan holiday of Noel.
Historically documented? Hmm. We'll have to see about that.

For some Christians this is not the season to be jolly; rather, it's open season on churches and Christians that celebrate Christmas. Almost every year about this time I get handed or emailed the same anti-Christmas essays. Well-meaning brothers are "concerned" that our church puts up a Christmas tree in the foyer of our church, light Advent candles in December, and decorate the church with garland and holly for the season.

Yes, we do these things. We also arrange our Scripture readings to highlight the themes of Advent, use prayers and hymns that focus the church's petitions on the coming of the Lord, and actually encourage our members to rejoice and feast during the holiday season to commemorate our Lord's incarnation and birth. All of this, I have been solemnly warned, is either blatant anti-Christian paganism or quite un-Reformed and therefore an offense to God.

Consider this author's summary judgment:
This may be a shocking thought to some: but . . . I have come to the conclusion that there is nothing Christian about Christmas; that in its present observance, as well as in its origin, Christmas is basically and essentially pagan.
Another Christian, in an article called Tis the Season for Pagan Worship, intensifies this indictment:
What many in Christendom have been celebrating--Christmas--is a thoroughly pagan holiday--in its origin, in its trappings, and in all its traditions . . . . The modern conservative cry to put Christ back into Christmas is absurd. Jesus Christ was never in Christmas.
I'll admit upfront that I am angered by this kind of rhetoric. Let me be clear. I'm not angry with people who don't celebrate Christmas. Individuals and churches have the liberty to celebrate or not. What is troubling is to hear those of us within the Reformed church that do commemorate the incarnation of the Son of God at Christmas labeled as compromisers, crypto-Romanists, idolaters, second-commandment breakers, and worse. Beyond the fact that the anti-Christmas rhetoric is inflammatory, what is worse is how pitiful the arguments are.

If we were bowing down to Christmas trees, praying to or lighting candles before icons of St. Nicholas, or adding some strange ceremonies to the Sunday morning service, I might understand these sorts of accusations. But as it is, all we are doing is ordering our Scripture readings to highlight the theme of Jesus' coming, focusing our prayers on the faithfulness of God and his covenant promises, meditating on the significance of the Son of God's incarnation, and decorating our homes and churches with symbolic reminders of these themes. Does an annual focus on the theme of the Lord's coming warrant the charge of idolatry?

I will do my best to refrain from impugning the motives of these anti-Christmas crusaders, but I honestly don't know what is gained by making such provocative accusations. Some of them, no doubt, actually believe that Christians who simply celebrate Christmas are "idolaters," that we violate the second commandment when we decorate Christmas trees, trim the house with holiday decorations, erect manger scenes, and exchange gifts. For them Christmas is a "monument to idolatry"!

Simple Christians who read these inflammatory accusations against Christmas and see their own churches enacting and encouraging these "idolatrous" activities are quite understandably bewildered. What faithful Christian wants to be called an idolater? It's only natural that an accusation of idolatry should cause the accused to pause and reflect on the practices that are labeled as such. But if the accusations turn out to be false, then a degree of righteous anger is surely justified.

Is there really nothing Christian about Christmas? Is it true that Christmas is essentially pagan? Should we believe that "God is offended" by Christians celebrating Christmas? That God commands loyal Christians to get rid of Christmas because it is a wicked "monument to idolatry?" Do the fiery warnings of the Old Testament prophets against compromise and religious syncretism apply to simple Christians who enjoy decorating their Christmas trees with lights and ornaments?

I believe the answer to all of these questions is a resounding "No!" I hope the reader will come to understand my reasons at the end this series of posts.

We can conveniently subsume most of the arguments against Christmas under the following 4 categories:
1. Arguments based on the supposed historic practice of Presbyterian and Reformed Churches.

2. Arguments based on the alleged Roman Catholic character of Christmas.

3. Arguments based on presumed pagan roots of Christmas symbols and ceremonies.

4. Arguments based on the so-called regulative principle of worship and the absence of a biblical commandment to celebrate Christmas.
The first three arguments, usually the most prominent with anti-Christmas crusaders, all turn on a proper understanding of history, both the history of Reformed worship and liturgy as well as the history of the development of Christmas celebrations in church history, especially the development of the church year in the early centuries of the post-apostolic church. The fourth depends on a proper understanding of how the Bible informs and regulates our worship and devotional practices.

I will work my way through the arguments using a question-and-answer format. Hopefully, this will allow the reader to navigate the whole debate with greater ease.

No comments: