The Christian Calendar, Part 4: How the Grinch Stole Christmas (and How We Got It Back)

For my friends raised in other Christian traditions, Christmas Eve for them means a dinner with family members, maybe some gifts, and then a late night trip to the church to celebrate the end of Advent and to welcome the Christ child again into the world. They enter a beautiful candle-lit room, enjoy the music of the choir and congregation as the mood of the music finally turns from the longing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” to the triumphant “Joy to the World, the Lord is Come!” After readings that rehearse the story of Christmas, not unlike Charlie Brown’s Christmas, the church prays, sings and often celebrates the first communion of the new church year. They go home to enjoy each other’s company until early in the morning, sleep in late, and enjoy the Christmas Day together.

In my Church of Christ family, we did none of this. Christmas Eve was my favorite day of the year as a child, and I still very much enjoy gathering around the tree with my extended family and enjoying a night of great food and lots of gifts. These are very meaningful family times, and the prayer we say over our meal each year is always filled with emotion as we think of those who have passed from our presence. But Jesus really isn’t too much of a part of our celebration unless Christmas Eve falls on a Sunday. So while we are engaging in the habits of consumerism, our friends are celebrating the Savior. Is there not something wrong with that picture? All of my family are Christians, and yet our Christmas Eve is more secular than that of many who gather in the presence of Christ that night. How did this come to be?

In the first two entries I posted in this series, I made the case that Churches of Christ should adopt the Christian Calendar for systematizing and bringing order to congregational worship and life. I made the case that the New Testament does not forbid the celebration of festivals and days – it merely does not require them as a condition of salvation. The author of Colossians in fact says that festivals and days are “a shadow of things to come.” I’m not sure how you see it, but it seems to me that all of worship is a shadow of things to come. That is exactly what the Lord’s Supper is – a shadow of the great banquet we will experience with the Lord when He comes. So, I’m not opposed to shadows – they can help us to experience something of the past and future in the present. Furthermore, the observance of the church calendar redeems the time as belonging to Jesus Christ and not to the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus, it reminds us that God always has acted in history for our salvation, and it unifies our faith with past and present as we participate in these days with all the saints of the ages. I also made the case that the observance of the Christian calendar would renew our worship by anchoring it in the Gospel itself, would reawaken our evangelistic opportunity, and would shape us into Christians formed by the ethic and character of the gospel.

WHAT IS THE CHRISTIAN YEAR?

The Christian calendar is organized around two major centers of Sacred Time: Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany; and Lent, Holy Week, and Easter, concluding at Pentecost. The rest of the year following Pentecost is known as Ordinary Time, from the word ordo which simply means counted time (First Sunday after Pentecost, etc.). Ordinary Time is used to focus on various aspects of the Faith, especially the mission of the church in the world. Some church traditions break up ordinary time into a Pentecost Season, (Pentecost until the next to last Sunday of August) and Kingdomtide (last Sunday of August until the beginning of Advent).

Some Protestant churches also celebrate other days not specifically tied to these cycles, such as Reformation Sunday and All Saints Sunday. These are becoming increasingly popular ways to flesh out the themes of the Church in the World during Ordinary Time by focusing on heritage and the faithfulness of those in the past. Thanks to the effort of a few members of my former church at Camarillo, I learned the celebration of All Saints Day, and it remains one of my favorite days in the church calendar. See my entries on All Saints here under the links for “Liturgical Calendar”.

We know that by the time Paul writes to the Corinthians in I Corinthians 11 that a certain order or ritual for the celebration of the Eucharist was in place. Paul repeats the words of Jesus from the Last Supper in I Corinthians 11:23, “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you . . . .” By the time of the assembly of the saints “upon the first day of the week” in Acts 20:7 and by the time of the writing of Revelation, presumably around the end of the first century, there already is a tradition of “the Lord’s Day” in the churches scattered throughout the Empire. Christians met on the first day of the week because this was the day which marked the historical intervention of God to raise Jesus from the dead. In other words, the early Christians found meaning in time and history, and there was a great importance in observing this act of God in time and space. The second day of the week is not as good as the first – there is an ordo or meaningful order to why we celebrate upon the first day of the week.

By the second century we know that Christians began to celebrate the Passover and Easter. By the end of the fourth century there are indications of more extended celebrations including that of Advent and saints days.

The Churches of Christ and the Christian Calendar

The tradition of the Churches of Christ largely has ignored or opposed the observation of the Christian calendar. In my somewhat limited research, I have found no written instances of opposition to the Christian calendar in the Restoration tradition of the 19th century. In fact, Alexander Campbell wrote on December 25, 1844 an article called “Musings on Christmas Morning” which was published in the January edition of the Millennial Harbinger. Campbell reflects deeply on the Christmas story in this article, attempting to “put the Christ back in Christmas.” Campbell writes:

This morning being Christmas, and as the Roman superstition would have it, the nativity of man’s Redeemer; assuming it as true, my thoughts naturally lead me to Bethlehem, Calvary and the sepulchre of Joseph. . . . Eight short miles measured the whole space from the manger to the cross . . . This blest child of a thousand hopes and promises – this wonderful offspring of Divinity and human – this Son of God and Son of Man, was born to be a light of all nations, and of all ages – to scatter night away from all eyes within the realms of mercy – to break forever its dark sceptre and annihilate its power . . . .

In characteristic Restoration fashion, Campbell is careful to mention the whole of Jesus’ ministry and redemption in the article and not merely the birth of Christ. However, he shows no reluctance to remember the birth of Jesus on Christmas simply because we do not know if that is the time when Christ was born. That is an argument for a later period. Campbell in fact says clearly, “This morning being Christmas . . . the nativity of man’s Redeemer.”

Four years later in the January 1848 issue of the Harbinger, W.K. Pendleton, twice a son-in-law to Alexander Campbell, and the editor of the Harbinger during Campbell’s absence in Europe, wrote an article with the title “Christmas Day.” The article reflects upon the origin and observance of the Christmas feast. He introduces the discussion with the statement that, although universally observed, Christmas belongs first to the post-Nicene period of the fourth century and locates the first mention of its practice with Augustine. He then acknowledges the uncertainty of dating and the identification of the Christian calendar with pagan holidays. After observing some change in custom among Protestants he writes that our society has turned Christmas into a day of celebration and consumerism not unlike the pagan festivals of the Roman Empire. He writes:

We have transferred to it many of the follies which prevailed at the Pagan Saturnalia, such as adorning fantastically the churches, mingling puppet shows and dramas with worship, wild and licentious feasting and merry-making, Christmas jocularity, revelry, and drunkenness.

In the end, however, Pendleton leaves it to the individual Christian to decide how she or he will regard Christmas. He goes on to say:

Human in its origin, arbitrary and irrelevant in its time, and pagan in its ceremonies, it clearly has no claims whatever upon the true Christian. He is at perfect liberty to disregard it at pleasure, and to demean himself without any further reference to it than his own feelings may incline him to.

Yet, Pendleton confronts the fact that most Christians will choose to celebrate Christmas, so he suggests how the Christian ought to observe it. He suggests,

Certainly, to the Lord. If we observe it at all, it is because it is called the birth-day of our Saviour, and our rejoicing should be in Him. The good tidings of great joy, brought by the angel, should be our theme; and with the multitude of the heavenly host should we praise God saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace and good will amongst men; for today was born to us, in the City of David, a Saviour, who is the Lord Messiah!

Despite Pendleton’s reservations about the celebration of Christmas, he believed that if Christians were going to celebrate it, that it should be celebrated with a recognition of its spiritual significance rather than with the mixed bag of cultural meanings and practices. That is just the opposite of what most people in our tradition have done: put up a tree but avoid the manger. The reflections of Campbell and Pendleton are quite far removed from those of our tradition in the early 20th century who stirred up opposition to Christmas and Easter from the pulpit and even went so far as to preach a resurrection sermon on Christmas Sunday.

It was not until the rise of fundamentalism and with the break with the Christian churches that someone, probably E.G. Sewell and David Lipscomb, published in writing their opposition to any observation of Christmas at all. In the Gospel Advocate in 1921 Sewell and Lipscomb both argued that the Bible never authorized the celebration of the birth of Christ, and that to engage in worship “not ordained by God” is to sin. The argument rested on the hermeneutic of silence. Sewell wrote, We do not believe there is any harm in a social gathering and the interchange of presents and kindly offices among members of the church; but I would never make the impression it was done on the birthday of the Savior.”

Of course, this was an hermeneutic inconsistently applied to other practices and worship observances, but Sewell and Lipscomb’s arguments held sway in the Churches of Christ until the 1990’s when a few progressive Churches of Christ began to celebrate the Christmas holiday with nativity dramas for children or “Christmas” songs in the worship service.

With a few exceptions, our churches largely seem to have drawn the liturgical line at Christmas. A few churches have observed all 27 days of Advent – a time of preparation, longing and anticipation before Christmas (not a time for “Joy to the World”). Even more have now initiated some celebration of Good Friday and Easter. It is the rare Church of Christ that does not mention the resurrection on Easter or sing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” along with all of our “denominational friends”. More and more of our churches are embarking on the journey of Lent, and I applaud those church leaders who have gently and patiently led us in this direction. I hope that these articles and the efforts of others can be the catalyst for many more observances and celebrations as we begin to live and worship in the rhythm of the gospel story.

Tomorrow: What is Lent?

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