Friday, December 14, 2007

Is Christmas Christian? - Part XIII

Continued from Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV,, Part V, Part VI, Part VII, Part VIII, Part IX, Part X, Part XI, and Part XII.

Q. 14. But don't these annual festivals smack of Old Testament religion?

Answer. Well, is "Old Testament religion" a bad thing? We are, after all, whole-Bible Christians and the Hebrew Scriptures have been given for our instruction (Rom. 15:4; 1 Cor. 10:1-11).

As I have said in previous posts, if you are looking for a direct commandment or a law establishing the practice of an annual commemoration of Christ's birth, you won't find it in the Bible. Nevertheless, what we do have is plenty of biblical warrant for the post-Pentecost church's freedom to establish annual festivals to commemorate the great redemptive events accomplished in Christ's birth, death, resurrection, ascension, and the pouring out the Spirit on Pentecost. And is it not conceivable that the annual festivals of Israel might function as wise instruction for the church in the new age?

Unfortunately, this perspective barely gets a hearing in most contemporary Reformed circles. Consider Terry Johnson's otherwise good work on Reformed worship Leading in Worship. He has this advice for those considering the church year: "While the revival of the liturgical calendar has become popular in some circles, we recommend moderation or abstinence for several reasons" (p. 103). Four reasons are given, all of which are very weak.
1. Scripture doesn't warrant the creation of a church year calendar.
2. A calendar of special days deemphasizes the Lord's Day
3. Observing a church year calendar threatens the Reformed tradition of preaching through books of the Bible (lectio continua).
4. The church year has a dubious origin in church history.
Even though I am about to critique Johnson's four arguments against the use of a church year, I do not put him or his arguments in the same category as those that we have been considering thus far in these posts. Johnson advances his arguments with evident hesitation. He is not an anti-Christmas radical. In the end, as we shall see, he recommends a simplified church year calendar!

Johnson's first argument is that
. . . Scripture does not warrant the creation of a "church year," but instead warns against the observing of "days and months and seasons and years" (Gal. 4:10) (Leading in Worship, p. 103).
This first argument proves too much. Galatians 4:10 is quoted as warning Christians against the observance of "days and months and seasons and years." But what does this mean in Paul's argument with the Galatians? As we have seen above in my answer to Question #7, the "days, months, and years" refer to the Jewish festival calendar consisting of weekly, monthly, and annual feasts commanded by Yahweh (Lev. 23).

The Apostle Paul's point is that 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. After all, an abstract prohibition against observing "days and months and seasons and years" would rule out a great deal more than the traditional church year festivals.

Confusion arises with statements like the following: "Our heritage is rightly suspicious of the creation of ceremonies and rituals not authorized in Scripture" (Leading in Worship, p.103). The problem with this is that technically the church year does not introduce new ceremonies or rituals; rather, it organizes and directs our Scripture readings, prayers, hymns, and sermons according to the life of Christ.

As I have said over and over again in this essay, I don't see how a church that celebrates Christmas, remembering Christ's birth by singing, praying, and learning more about this particular event in the life of Christ is introducing new "ceremonies and rituals." Now, there are a few traditional rituals associated with Christmas and Lent, like Advent candles and ashes applied to the foreheads of worshipers; but these need not enter into the discussion at this point, since they are not part of the essence of the celebration of the church year.

Johnson also warns "churches may not mandate or require such [annual observances] without destroying liberty of conscience" (p. 103). The question of liberty of conscience need not enter into the discussion at all. Why? Because members of the church promise to submit to their leaders in the area of worship.

Are pastors guilty of an "abuse of church power" when they regularly choose the hymns for the congregation, select prayers and Scripture readings, and arrange the order of their Sunday services according to their own preaching schedule? This is all that happens in most Presbyterian churches that observe Christmas--select biblical passages are read, seasonal prayers are prayed, and hymns about Jesus' birth are sung.

If the "imposition" of these is a violation of "liberty of conscience," then so is every worship service that is planned by church officers and "forced" on the people. Do church officers pick "themes" for various Sundays? Of course. Does this destroy liberty of conscience? If not, then what's the problem with choosing to highlight the theme of Christ's coming once a year? What's the difference? Do the Scriptures mandate or authorize pastors to force such an order on their congregations? For example, why should the congregation have to submit to worship services where the singing, praying, and Bible readings are correlated to five years of sermons through the book of Romans and yet be free to reject a year of prayers, readings, and songs organized around the life of Christ? I don't see any substantial difference between the two practices.

Johnson's second argument concerns the danger of diminishing the importance of the weekly Lord's Day. "Christian piety is better nurtured in the weekly Sabbath cycle of penitence and celebration than in periodic penitential seasons of Lent and Advent and occasional holy days. Fifty-two holy days is better than a dozen or so" (p. 103). First of all, if it's about counting up the number of feasts, then Johnson needs a refresher course in math. If fifty-two holy days is better than a dozen, then sixty-four is better than fifty-two! Why can't we have both the Lord's Day celebrations and a dozen or so more days?

The real question, however, is must the Lord's Day necessarily be "replaced" or "diminished" by the addition of an annual cycle? Might not the annual cycle support and enrich the foundational weekly cycle of worship? Why must this be an either/or proposition? Why can't we have both?

The third argument against the church year is that it would surely interfere with the Reformed tradition of lectio continua preaching! But, now, surely we must ask the Reformed liturgical question: where is the lectio continua method of preaching and ordering Scripture reading sequences for the Lord's Day services commanded or mandated in Scripture? What happens to the regulative principle of worship when Reformed authors begin to talk about preaching? There is no biblical command that mandates the method of continuous preaching through books of the Bible. Indeed, one might argue that there's more biblical warrant for celebrating annual feasts than there is for the lectio continua method of preaching so popular with Reformed pastors! Bringing Reformed tradition into the argument doesn't really help.

Furthermore, I am compelled to ask why everything the people of God do when they are gathered for worship must revolve around the texts that the preacher has selected for the day? Why must this concern for sequential preaching through books of the Bible be given such a large place in ordering our worship services?

I believe that the traditional method of preaching through books of the Bible is indeed the best method of preaching. I also agree that this is a wonderful tradition in the Reformed churches. But it is just that—a tradition. I see nowhere in Scripture where it is mandated or even exemplified! Furthermore, a moderate observance of the major festivals of the church need not threaten a pastor's regular preaching through books of the Bible. In fact, in my experience breaking in on a preaching series for Christmas often gives the congregation a needed and refreshing break.

Johnson's fourth argument is that "the church year is both of dubious historical origins and contemporary motivation" (p. 103). I think I have already dealt with this objection in my responses to earlier questions on the origin of Christmas.

It is rather telling that notwithstanding all of these arguments against the celebration of church year feasts Johnson recommends following the example
. . . of the Continental Reformed churches in limiting their church year to what has been called the ‘five evangelical feast days': Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost. Some might add Trinity Sunday to this list as well. In this way, the high points of the Gospel message would be commemorated in Reformed churches annually along with most of Christendom, without becoming entangled in the full calendar cycle (p. 104).
In the pages that follow this comment Johnson offers five sample services for Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost!

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