Thanksgivings on Special Occasions - Third in a series
Christmas originated as a way of lifting up God's Son as the Light of the world, to counter pagan celebrations. In 320 AD Pope Julius set December 25 as the official date of Jesus' birth; then the Emperor Constantine proclaimed it as an ‘immovable feast’ in 325 AD —so it does not change in date from year to year as Easter does. Constantine also decreed that Sunday would be the Roman day of rest.
Not all Christians today nor across the centuries have seen Constantine’s proclamations as binding, yet even after 17 centuries some still are honored. The U.S. established Dec. 25th as a federal holiday in 1887 after 14 states had made it a legal holiday. All non-essential government offices, schools, banks and many businesses close, giving families an opportunity to travel and have reunions. A good thing!
Nevertheless, in Daniel, we read: And he shall speak great words against the most High, and shall wear out the saints of the most High, and think to change times and laws: and they shall be given into his hand… (Dan 7:25) This prophecy seems to say that the Antichrist will have the power to change or to erase ‘immovable’ dates.
U.S. law notwithstanding, some still object to celebrating Christmas. They object to the mention of the “mass” in the word Christmas. Mass is the Roman Catholic term for communion. Yet we all understand that Christmas celebrates Christ's birth. We use common terms such as ‘baptism’ with other denominations despite each having specific connotations. We also accept and use the word Sunday which has reference to the sun god's day, associated originally with pagan worship, as Monday was the ‘moon's day’ and Tuesday was named for the god of war, and so on.
Many festivals were celebrated at the time of the 16th century Reformation such as the feasts of the apostles, of Mary and others, and practices had been added to church life that encouraged superstitions and heresy. It was time for purification and revival; the Catholics agree here.
The church has re-formed and evolved over time in its understanding and practices. For example, the Trinity was defined in the third century, definitions of heresies were added at various junctures, the "full humanity and full divinity" of Jesus was established in the 5th century, and some things that were not part of the New Testament church have become usual, such as church buildings, creeds and confessions, tiny cups and miniature crackers for communion, baptistries, Sanctity of Life Sunday, handbells, and thanksgivings on special occasions.
Many of us object to the debauchery—the “extravagant merriment… bacchanalian lasciviousness” in the season of Christmas. Merchandising and retail mayhem, puddings and candies, liquors, parties, jingle bells, ho-ho-ho, Secret Santas, gaudy decorations and blending the secular with the holy. Yet, there is also the divine joy of Christmas hymns, caroling, special decor, worship and family gatherings.
Objections are sounded against “adding to the Bible”– which Scripture forbids – (Deut 4:2; Prov 30:5-6; Rev 22:18) and degrading the worship of God:
- “All modes of worship must be expressly sanctioned by God's word, if they are to be considered legitimate. Since Christmas observances, and other ecclesiastical festivals, are not commanded in the scriptures, they fail to meet divine approval, even if there were no additional objections to them." (Presbyterian Heritage Publications)
- “The sons of Aaron are … condemned for bringing strange, or ordinary fire to God's worship; as doing that which God had not commanded, and yet had not otherwise forbidden... And this is the very plea which we make against ceremonies of human institution, in God's worship." (William Ames (1576-1633), prominent English Puritan)
- “The strange fire of Nadab and Abihu was fire that did not come from the brazen altar; therefore, it is a type of failing to worship God on the ground of the shed blood of Christ." (ref)
Celebrating the birth and incarnation of the Lord at a special time of year as a tradition does not add “strange fire” that is, a different definition of what it means to be saved. Rather, it focuses us even more on Jesus Christ as Lord, born of a virgin, the Word made flesh.
Despite the commercialization, Christmas offers opportunities for evangelism that don't exist otherwise, and helps to teach church history and important facts about Jesus. Any special church service such as on Christmas Eve or Day can become a time for outreach.
Not all Christians celebrate Christmas, and no one should be forced to. Each year I look forward to Christmas, and celebrating it does help me to worship.
This blog series will continue some time in the New Year, DV, Deo Volente, God willing. Merry Christmas!