Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Is Christmas Christian? - Part IV

Continued from Part I, Part II, and Part III.

We move now to a second level of argumentation:

Arguments Based on the Alleged Roman Catholic Character of Christmas

Q. 5. Doesn't the very word "Christmas" prove that the holiday is a Roman Catholic holy day?

Answer. Well, I guess I better surrender and admit that the word "Christmas" is a combination of the words "Christ" and "mass." Aha! That settles it. Christmas is about celebrating the mass! What more proof do we need? So says one Presbyterian pastor:
Think about the name Christmas itself. What does it mean? Many people do not even know that it is a combination of Christ and mass. Christmas is the Roman Catholic celebration of a particular mass in honor of the birth of Christ. Perhaps it would impress on our minds the real meaning of Christmas if we would refer to it as Christmass. What is the significance of the mass? At the heart of the Roman Catholic mass is a denial of the sufficiency of Christ's atonement. It professes to be a reenactment of the sacrifice of Christ for sin. It is a denial of the gospel. The Roman Catholic Church has many other masses, such as Michaelmass, but it is their Christmass that Protestants have singled out for observance.
Where do I begin with this? First, this kind of argument assumes that the meaning of a word can be defined by analyzing its constituent parts. This is almost too easy to refute. Does "Thursday" mean Thor's day? Is Wednesday really, truly, actually Woden's Day because that's what the words mean?

This kind of analysis is erroneous. The meaning of words is found in their usage. Let me illustrate this with the word "Chapel." What does this word really mean? And why do Reformed Christians continue to use it? Presbyterian day schools even have "chapels." Well, don't they know the original meaning of the word "chapel"? It comes from the Latin word capella, and refers to a "cape." And, oh, what a cape it was.

According to legend, St. Martin of Tours once saw a cold beggar shivering at the city gate. Wanting to help the man, Martin ripped his military cloak (cappa) in two, giving one half to the beggar and draping the other half around his shoulders, making it into a capella or a cape. (The letter "c" in this Latin word should be spoken as "ch," according to its usage in ecclesiastical Latin).

St. Martin's cape was then preserved by the medieval church as a relic. French kings would take this cape with them in their military campaigns to insure their success. They transported it in a small, portable tent-like structure that they called a capella, because it housed the cape of St. Martin of Tours. And so, in time, the word capella or chapel came to describe a small building housing a relic or used for religious worship.

So, therefore, chapels are obviously Roman Catholic in origin. Protestants that have chapel services must be secretly venerating some relic. We must write letters to our Christian schools, seminaries, and churches that use the name "chapel" in order to warn them of their Romanism. Maybe some of these places are surreptitiously hiding sacred capes as relics.

What's the point? One cannot simply ignore how these words are used today and then point to some primitive meaning to accuse people of being pagan and idolatrous or Romanists. This is not the meaning of the word "chapel" today. To determine the meaning of the word today, one examines the way the word is used—what happens in chapels—and not the origin of the word. The same is true for the word "Christmas." The genesis of the word itself tells us little or nothing about the meaning of the word today. To know what Christmas means to Protestants we have to ask what they do on this day. The answer is not that they "celebrate a mass in honor of Jesus." Rather, Christmas means reading Scripture, praying, singing, feasting, and fellowship—all of which is tied together by a focus on remembering our Savior's birth.

(This chapel illustration comes from Ralph Woodrow's helpful little book Christmas Reconsidered. What is fascinating about Woodrow's defense of Christmas is that he changed his mind. His earlier book Babylon Mystery Religion: Ancient and Modern has been a favorite citation of the anti-Christmas crusaders for many years. In this new book he confesses his error and tries to correct the damage he did with his silly arguments in his earlier work. I commend him for his honesty. Although he is writing for independents and fundamentalists, his book is still worth reading.)

Simply put, in the 21st-century the word Christmas does not mean "a Roman Catholic mass celebrated to honor the birth of Jesus." Rather, it refers to the time of year when Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus. Of course, for some it is just a holiday when people exchange gifts and pretend to believe in the Santa Claus fairy tale. Even so, the most common meaning of the word today relates to the commemoration of Jesus' birth. Yes, Roman Catholics perform a mass on Christmas. But Protestants who observe Christmas do not do so.

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