Friday, November 30, 2007

Is Christmas Christian? - Part V

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

In this post I continue to critique this second level of anti-Christmas rhetoric:

Arguments Based on the Alleged Roman Catholic Character of Christmas

Q. 6. But what about the word "mass" in Christmas? Surely the presence of that word is enough to alert us to the tainted Papist origin of the celebration of Christmas.

Answer. I won't give an inch here. Anti-Christmas radicals don't even get the meaning of the word "mass" right, according to their own methodology. Those who argue against Christmas, because it contains the word "mass" might want to go back a little farther in history, back to the original use of the word "mass" in the early church. Christmas did not originate as a Roman Catholic holy day.

In their zeal to be "historical" our anti-Christmas crusaders don't go far enough back in history. Two can play at this game. Sure, the term "mass" was used in the pre-Reformation, medieval church to refer to the sacrifice of the mass. But what was the earliest meaning of the word "mass" in the Christian church? As it turns out, the word was not originally used this way.

Initially, the word "mass" had no connection with the doctrine of transubstantiation or the so-called repeated sacrifice of Christ on the altar by the priest. Before A.D. 1000, the theory of transubstantiation was unknown and the word mass was used as a simple shorthand description of the Christian worship service.

The English word "mass" is an Anglicized way of writing the Latin word misse. From our earliest records of Christian worship, the service ended with this dismissal: Ite misse est. Translated somewhat woodenly this means: "Go, it is the dismissal" or possibly "the sending"—from the Latin verb mittere, "to send." And the word missa also seems to have been connected with the word missio (mission) in the 4th century. For early Christians, the service concluded, even culminated, with a missa as the worshipers departed. In time the Christian worship service as a whole came to be designated from its final act of blessing the congregation as she leaves the church to perform her mission in the world. Misse. Missa. Mass. Go forth into the world with the blessing of God and make disciples of all nations.

Even at the time of the Reformation, to designate a Christian worship service as a "mass" was not necessarily to give away the farm to the distortions of late Medieval Roman Catholicism. Luther called his liturgies the Formula Missae (1523) and the German Mass, Deutche Messe (1526). This illustrates that the word mass, in Latin and German, only gradually came to be associated exclusively with Roman Catholic worship over against Protestant services.

So at the time when the church began to celebrate Christmas—in the fourth century A.D.—the word mass simply referred to a Christian worship service. The doctrine of transubstantiation and notion of the re-sacrificing of Christ on the altar by the priest were still six centuries or more in the future. Christ-mass meant a worship service that celebrated Christ's incarnation and birth.

Did I miss something? Whatever word we use to describe the celebration of Jesus' birth, what actually happens in Protestant Christmas services is determinative. Do we perform a Roman Catholic sacrificial mass on Christmas in honor of Jesus in our churches at Christmas? No. For Presbyterian and Protestant Christians Christmas certainly does not mean a Roman Catholic mass celebrated in honor of Christ. We perform no mass—as this is understood by the modern Roman church. This kind of argumentation is not only fallacious; it is irresponsible and misleading.

We do nothing distinctively Roman Catholic when we celebrate Christmas. Unless, of course, we are condemned simply because we do something similar to what the Roman Catholics do. Catholics celebrate Christmas, and so do we. But then where will this end? Shall we stop reciting the Nicene and Apostles' Creeds, catechizing, praying the Lord's Prayer, reading Scripture, and calling the sky "blue" because Roman Catholics do these things?

This anti-Roman posture is strong in American Protestantism, especially in Baptist and Independent traditions. If Roman churches baptize babies, it must be wrong. If Rome builds beautiful sanctuaries for worship, we have to build ugly, white-washed auditoriums to be different. If Catholics pray using litanies and pre-composed prayers, all our prayers must be extemporaneous. Where will it end? Think about it. If you haven't thought about it much, then maybe a good place to start is chapter 8 of my book The Lord's Service.

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