No (Biblical) Reason for the Season
In recent days the usual routine in Scotland and other parts of the UK has been disrupted. The situation may last for a while yet. Some of those affected have said they will be glad when it’s all over and we may well agree.
No, we are not talking about the severe gales and rainstorms which have swept the country, bringing down power lines, causing flooding and making journeys impossible. We could be talking about that, for the weather has been remarkable even for wintertime. However we are actually talking about something which happens every year and which many people eagerly look forward to. We are talking about Christmas.
It seems that increasing attention is being given to Christmas, even within the church. The trappings of the festival have penetrated various aspects of Scottish life over recent decades but now the thing has entered some of the Presbyterian churches which once stood against it. We hear of special services, often at special times, with a content which purports to celebrate the birth of Christ. There are also socials, concerts and the like, often involving children.
In the not-too-distant past ordinary activities would have continued during this end-of-year period, with everyone going about their regular business. In the various churches the Sabbath services and prayer meetings would have been held as usual with no concessions made to the season we are supposed to be in. But now there is an annual hiatus where the normal pattern in the church and the community ceases.
Obviously there is nothing wrong in giving attention to our Lord’s birth: far from it. It is a fact of history – and a most wonderful and blessed one. Without it there could be no redemption, no gospel and no forgiveness for sinners. Christ’s nativity is recorded in great detail in the Scriptures and it should be preached, along with every other truth contained in the Word of God. And yet we cannot agree with the idea of a day – or even a whole season – set apart to remember the birth of Christ. There are several reasons for this.
In the first place, we do not know on what day Jesus was born. Eastern Christianity originally celebrated Christ’s birth on 6th January and this date is still kept by the Armenian Orthodox Church. Because some churches (such as the Orthodox Churches of Russia, Ukraine and Serbia) continue to follow the older Julian calendar rather than the modern Gregorian one the day which according to their reckoning is 25th December is for the majority of the world 7th January. The result is that there are some Armenian churches which actually celebrate the birth of Christ on what is for us 19th January!
It appears that some time in the fourth century Western Christianity opted for the date of 25th December to mark the birth of Christ, a date later adopted generally in the East. But why was this particular date chosen? It is hardly taken from the Bible. What we do know is that the cult of the sun god, Sol Invictus (‘Invincible Sun’) was popular in the later Roman Empire and that 25th December, which is round about the time of the winter solstice, was regarded as his ‘birthday’. Christmas looks suspiciously like an attempt to ‘christianise’ a pagan festival.
Secondly, Christmas clearly has a popish connection. The name literally means ‘Christ’s mass’: a mass to mark the birth of Christ. What is the mass? The answer is provided by a Roman Catholic catechism: “The Holy Mass is one and the same sacrifice with that of the Cross, inasmuch as Christ, who offered himself, a bleeding victim, on the Cross to his heavenly Father, continues to offer himself in an unbloody manner on the altar, through the ministry of his priests.”
What true Christian would want to be associated with that? We believe that the sacrifice of Christ at Calvary accomplished what the triune God intended by it: a full atonement for guilty, hell-deserving sinners. Redemption was complete when the Lord Jesus cried from the cross, “It is finished” (John 19:30). Having offered “one sacrifice for sins for ever” Christ sat down on God’s right hand. His sacrifice cannot and need not be repeated or re-presented to God and it is blasphemous to suggest otherwise.
Some Christians will say, “You’re being too narrow. ‘Christmas’ is merely a name. We don’t have to agree with everything concerning its origin or its history or the way the world treats it. It’s just good to remember how our Saviour came into the world.” We ought to be a little more careful in our thinking than that. Can it be really be right to embrace something which has such a dubious pedigree, such a questionable link and is so loved by the world? Should we not give heed to the warning signs?
Finally – and this is the clinching argument – we have no biblical warrant to observe a day or a season in honour of Christ’s birth. We require such a warrant for every element of our worship of God. A day or a season during which a service or services are held and which the Lord’s people are expected to attend is not a mere ‘circumstance’ concerning worship: it is something of substance and if it is not of divine institution, whether by specific precept or good example, then it is an imposition upon the church and is sinful.
It will not do either to make the observance of Christmas an indifferent matter – something which may be done but which equally may not be done, depending on the choice of the individual Christian. There are no parts of public worship which are ‘optional’ in that way: they are all obligatory for the believer because they all have divine authority behind them.
The same holds good for private and family worship. Sometimes Paul’s words to the Christians in Rome – “One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind” (Rom. 14:5) – are referred to as though they provide a justification for the observance of Christmas, Easter and other so-called Christian festivals. Yet that is surely a misuse of Scripture.
In this verse and elsewhere the apostle is alluding to the difficulty which believers from a Jewish background had in relinquishing some of the observances required by the Mosaic law. He challenges them to consider whether their position is really one of true faith, grounded upon the Word of God.
It is one thing for believers who were living at the outset of the New Testament age to have struggled on account of their weakness to let go of the divinely-instituted festivals of the old economy which had now been superseded. It is quite another thing however for believers today to engage in observances which were never ordained by God and which are associated instead with paganism and popery – Christmas day itself, the tree, crib, carols and so on. If asked why they are doing these things they can only reply, “It’s Christmas!” But that begs the further question, What exactly is Christmas? – a question which is usually followed by silence.
We are not to mark the birth of Christ by a specific act of worship. Rather by Christ’s own appointment we are to remember His death by partaking of the Lord’s supper and His resurrection by keeping the Lord’s day. It is noticeable that as an increasing emphasis has been given to Christmas and other ‘festal’ days there has been a decreasing emphasis on communion seasons and the Sabbath.
It is especially sad to see evangelical Christians observing Christmas. We affirm a belief in the Bible as the inspired Word of God and claim that it is the only rule for our faith and life. What is the world to make of that claim when they see the Lord’s people indulging in something which is manifestly not scriptural? It is surely time to cleanse God’s house of Christmas.