Friday, November 18, 2011

Bah!? Humbug!?

To Christmas or Not?

“Christmas is a comin’!” How could we not know? In the stores it began to look a lot like Christmas just after Labor Day, and with the passing of Halloween they began to assault our ears with Christmas music. All this assures that by Christmas week most of us are pretty well sick of it. (You can only stand so much fudge and eggnog.) And, soon as the Christmas Eve push is over, it will be time to put out the Valentine’s cards and candy. No way in the world anyone but a few liturgical sticks-in-the-mud will be giving 12 drummers or anything else associated with Christmas on January 6.

And, of course, it is another season of cultural warfare. Not a few Christians will once again ring their hands about the commercialization and secularization of the holiday.  As secularization of the culture spreads they will bemoan the removal of reference to Christmas vin public schools and civic observances. (When we lived in Pittsburgh the city tried “Sparkle Season.”) They may not say it, but, while the might not want grandma run over by a reindeer, they would not mind if it happened to a few secularists.  

Where there is still come cultural nod given to Christmas, Christian soldiers will march into pulpits and urge “putting Christ back in Christmas” for “Jesus is the reason for the season.” No “Happy Holidays” for them; only “Merry Christmas!”

 When I was a student at my fundamentalist Christian school (which I affectionately call the Big House), my teacher thought she had discovered the evil of taking Christ out of Christmas among her 3rd and 4th graders. A small group was assigned to put together the December bulletin board for our classroom. We ran into a space problem, and one boy suggested spelling Christmas with an “X” which we did. When the poor teacher saw what we had done she experienced a case of the vapors and immediately rebuked us for joining those who would take Christ out of Christmas.

As the story reveals there are a lot of Christians who are pretty ignorant about Christmas, pervasive as the observance is in culture and church. The teacher, who did not study Greek during her days at BJU, did not know “Xmas’ is an abbreviation using the first letter of Christ’s name. Then many Christians have no idea and would be shocked to know that the word Christmas itself is a contraction of “Christ’s Mass”. (The word “mass” by itself does not imply the sacrifice of the mass but is taken from the final clergy spoken words of the ancient liturgy.) Others would be surprised to learn that, though earlier there was the sincere belief that Christ was born on December 25 (even Alfred Edersheim concluded it was the likely date), very few today think Jesus was born in the winter (there goes “in the bleak mid-winter”) much less on December 25.

And some Christians would be surprised that within the church there is disagreement and controversy about the propriety of the whole observance. While sitting in church one Sunday I began to turn over in my mind the various ways ministers approach the observance. Here is what I came up with:

(1)         Some, as a matter of duty, observe Christmas. They believe the church has authority to set a calendar of observances. If the church determines that Christmas is one such observance, then they are conscience bound to follow the instruction of the church. Christmas is a holy day established by the discretionary authority of the Church. Christians should keep it. Generally the Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran churches fit this category.

(2)         Others, as a matter of duty, do not observe Christmas. They believe that Christ has established one weekly holy day, the Lord’s Day, and has given no authority to the church to establish any other observances. Authority not specifically granted to the church is denied to the church. For the church to the observe Christmas is to usurp the authority of Christ and deprive his people of liberty of conscience. Hence for them it is a matter of conscience not to keep Christmas. This is the Puritan position.

(3)         Others, not as a matter of duty, observe Christmas and other parts of the “Christian year”. Their approach is that they may (in contrast to “must” or “must not”) celebrate it. Often such Christians choose to celebrate what some call the “evangelical feast days”: the incarnation (Christmas), death (Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday),  resurrection (Easter), and ascension (Ascension) of our Lord and his giving of the Spirit (Pentecost), because they believe it is useful and permitted to remember and celebrate the great acts of redemption on an annual and cyclical basis. Usually one finds among these a certain amount of “liturgical discipline” in that, having determined to follow these observances, they do it according to the accepted liturgical calendar, rather than haphazardly. My guess is that this is the practice of those Reformed who consciously make the decision to celebrate Christmas.

(4)         Other ministers, most for reasons of conscience, do not believe in the observance of Christmas, but they give it notice as a concession to their people. Most people like Christmas, and they want their church to take some notice of it, as well as Easter. The minister would like to have the freedom and the courage to say: “We should not have these observances; they are contrary to our theological tradition; we will not celebrate them.” But, understandably, there are practical exigencies these ministers face, so they give Christmas some notice. However, it is hard not to let it show that you are tolerating rather than approving something. (If you would like to get an idea what this “looks” like, watch me singing a gospel hymn or P&W song.) With this approach the minister may preach on almost anything on Christmas Sunday and Easter so long as in some way he can say something that “ties it into” the day that is on people’s minds. Not wanting anything to do with a liturgical calendar, he practices no liturgical discipline.

(5)         Others observe all sorts of days but with little thought and no principle. They observe Christmas and Easter, and they also observe Mother’s Day and Independence Day. They may not have a clue, or, if they do, may not care. They just do what they do guided by personal or congregational whim, and, perhaps, by evangelistic concerns of what will attract the “unchurched.” Forgive me if I am too harsh, but it seems to me that this approach not only has no liturgical discipline; it has not liturgical sense of any sort and is not infrequently characterized by tackiness. It is not just that their practice offends ecclesiastical principles of all sorts, but that it offends good taste.   

I, like the transformed Scrooge, like to keep Christmas. (Whether I do so well is for others to judge – I can’t dance the way Alistar Sim’s Scrooge did on Christmas morning). I respect highly those who do keep it. But, whatever you do, please do it with thought and intention seasoned with good sense and taste. Otherwise I hope Marley will pay you a visit.  

Annul Light Up Night in Pittsburgh

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