Saturday, December 1, 2007

Is Christmas Christian? - Part VI

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

This is the last question to answer in this second level of anti-Christmas rhetoric:

Arguments Based on the Alleged Roman Catholic Character of Christmas

Q. 7. But why do Presbyterians celebrate "holy days" at all? Why should we adopt the Roman Catholic practice of observing holy days?

Answer. We don't and we shouldn't. Reformed and Presbyterian churches do not observe Christmas as a "holy day." Celebrating Christmas is one thing; treating it as a "holy day" is something entirely different—unless by "holy" one simply means set apart or special. But that's not the way the Roman church uses the term. Holy days are known as "holy days of obligation." What this means is "these are the days on which it is required that members of the Catholic faith who have attained the age of reason rest from servile work and attend Holy Mass" (Robert C. Broderick, ed., The Catholic Encyclopedia: Revised and Updated Edition [Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1987], p. 267). According to the Apostolic See, Christmas is one of these holy days.

Failure to attend a mass held on a "holy day" is a mortal sin, given, of course, that there are no extenuating circumstances. If a Catholic transgresses with "full knowledge and free consent" of his will the result is the loss of sanctifying grace, the loss of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, remorse, and the punitive effect of eternal separation from God. If the Catholic wishes to avoid these consequences after a mortal sin is committed, he or she must make use of the Sacrament of Penance in order to return to the love of God. (I've tried to stick to the language that the RC church uses to describe matters like this. See the Code of Canon Law, Canons 1244-1253, and the new Catechism, para. 2180-2183).

This is not our understanding or practice. This is why it is so ridiculous when some of our more radical Presbyterian brothers accuse those of us who celebrate Christmas of keeping "holy days." There's nothing meritorious about attending a Christmas Eve vespers service. Neither is it a sin to fail to attend. For Presbyterians, Christmas services, unless they fall on the Lord's Day, are entirely optional. We believe it is beneficial for people to gather to celebrate and remember our Lord's birth, but it's certainly not mandatory.

Furthermore, not only do individual Christians have liberty in this matter, but we believe particular churches also have freedom to observe or not observe Christmas. I think churches that don't observe Advent and Christmas and don't follow a simplified church year calendar are missing out on a wonderful opportunity to instruct their people in the life of Christ. But I don't believe that they are in violation of any commandment or obligation from God. God has given us freedom in these matters.

Moreover, quoting Galatians 4:9-11 is beside the point. The author of Is Christmas Christian? gets it all wrong:
Paul wrote to the Galatians in dismay, "Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years! I am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed upon you labor in vain" (Gal. 4:10-11). He wasn't condemning them for observing those institutions commanded by God, but for observing those of man's making, contrary to God's law.
Paul most certainly was condemning the Galatian Christians for observing institutions commanded by God! The "days, months, and years" refer to the Jewish festival calendar consisting of weekly, monthly, and annual feasts commanded by Yahweh (Lev. 23). But these festivals have been made obsolete with the coming of Christ. The Christians of Galatia were being seduced by erring Christian Missionaries from Jerusalem who taught them that faith in Jesus Christ was not sufficient to be justified before God. Only observing the distinctives of the Torah (circumcision, Sabbaths, feasts days, food laws, etc.) would guarantee their justification.

The problem was not that the Galatians were observing their own special festival days (like Christmas and Easter) not commanded by God, but that they were acting as if the old law was still in force and that Jesus had not yet come to fulfill it. Paul's words must not be taken out of context and made into some sort of abstract prohibition against all extra-biblical celebrations.


Anonymous said...

I certainly agree with your understanding of Galatians 4:9-11 above.

What I would add by way of observation is that note how Paul was condemning the keeping of those days that God himself had instituted. These were keeping those days that God had set up but now were now fulfilled in Christ and so had passed away.

Note also that if God did not allow those days that he himself established to be kept, then there is absolutely no warrant to invent days for us to keep which God himself has not established.

By the term "holy Day" I simply mean set apart or special.

Jeff Meyers said...

So God does not allow us to have any "special" days? Every Lord's Day celebration has to be exactly like the others? Nobody can emphasize one thing on one Sunday and something different on another Sunday? No church is allowed to take one Sunday every year and remember the birth of Christ, another to remember the resurrection of Jesus?

Do you or your church do anything special for Reformation day? Do you sing Reformation era hymns, preach on classic Reformation biblical texts, etc.?