God Rest Ye Merry — by Douglas Wilson

Advent marks the beginning of the ecclesiastical year. As we approach yet another celebration of Christmas as a people, we need to recall how to celebrate such days as the people of God. If we are not careful, we will stumble–perhaps to the right and perhaps to the left.

For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds; casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and brinbing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor. 10:4-5).

As we seek to celebrate Christmas rightly, along with observing the entire year in a Christian fashion, some problems do arise. As Reformed believers, we have to proceed cautiously as we talk about any celebration of a Christian year.

Some appeal to the stance of some of our Puritan fathers on this question. Weren’t they against it? Well, yes and no, and what exactly was it that they were against? The Puritans were certainly against ecclesiastical corruption. A certain man once thought it good to pour used dishwater into the wine set aside for a feast. The master of the feast saw this and threw out the wine. He was then accused of ruining the feast. Much has been made of the Puritan opposition to Christmas, but more than a little of the problem was caused by how Christmas used to be celebrated. George Gillespie, a Scot at the Westminister Assembly, quoted Perkins, an English Puritan, on this, saying that the “feast of Christ’s nativity . . . is not spent in praising the name of God, but in rifling [raffling], dicing, carding, masking, mumming, and in all licentious liberty, for the most part, as though it were some heathen feast of Ceres or Bacchus.” The problem is comparable to us objecting to the drunkenness and fornication at Mardi Gras, only to be told that we have a problem with the resurrection because Lent is the preparation for Easter, and Mardi Gras is the last blowout before surrendering things for Lent. One of the central reasons Puritans were opposed to it was because of all the immorality that was going on in the name of Jesus.

There is another matter, that of binding the conscience. One of the great achievments of the Reformation was the doctrine of the liberty of conscience, rightly understood. On their own authority, men do not have the right to bind the conscience of another in areas not addressed by the Word of God (WCF xx/ii). What does this mean? The short form in this context is that there is a difference between holy days and holidays. And between both of them and civil “days off.” If someone’s conscience does not permit them to celebrate any day like Christmas, we should be senstive to that. Feeling sorry for their captivity to overdone scruples is one thing. But binding them, making them observe the day, or pressuring them to do so, is not permissible.

But the way I have construed this, the weaker brother is the one who does not observe Christmas. How do we answer the charge that it is actually the other way around, and that the “observer” is one who is guilty of syncretism. This charge of syncretism is often made–the Christian year is thought to be the residue of long-forgotten compromises with paganism. And in the overgrown, encrusted form this was frequently the case. But in certain notable instances, the reverse is true. For just one great example, according to the story, the Christmas wreath custom did not come from paganism, but from a remarkable defeat of paganism. Boniface (680-754), missionary to the Germans, had chopped down a great oak, sacred to Thor. Three days later, on the first Sunday of Advent, he prevented a human sacrifice and used the sacrificial knife of the Druid priest to cut fir boughs for the people to take home as a reminder of Calvary. And of course, the inventor of Christmas tree lights (non-electric) was Martin Luther. This is because Jesus is the light of the world.

When it comes to holy days, and a Christian year, there are excesses to be guarded against. But by the time of the Reformation the mentality of “if one’s good, two’s better” had taken over completely, and you couldn’t swing a cat without hitting some saint’s day or other. Confronted with this barnacle-encrusted church year, the Continental Reformers decided that the great points of the Gospel should still be celebrated, along with the rest of Christendom, but without getting entangled in a church year that was honestly over the top. Their “five evangelical” feast days were: Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost. Or, if you wish, Good Friday and Easter could be considered as one holiday, and Trinity Sunday added.

Even the English theologians at Westminster (who took a harder line than those on the Continent) saw that it was lawful for the church to establish days for “thanksgiving upon special occasions” (WCF xxi/v). The text they cited for this was Esther 9:22, which records the establishment of Purim, a Jewish festival not required by the law of Moses, and which an annual recurring celebration. And so we might want to add Thanksgiving, and Reformation Sunday.

We will define our time by some system. The year is an inescapable year. Who is the Lord over it? How do we mark our days? Because we live in time, the rhythms of that time will either be Christian or not. To reject the one is to embrace the other. Because Christians no longer honor the Lord’s Day on a weekly basis, the world has rushed to fill it with a frenetic 24-7 lifestyle woven around five days of work and two days of leisure. This is a marked difference from the one Christian day of rest, followed by six of work. In the same way, because we have not seen the passage of the year under the lordship of Christ, we now find ourselves marking time with dates like Labor Day, Memorial Day, 4th of July, MLK Day, and so forth. But Christians must define the year in an explicit Christian way, and face the objections, or they must acquiesce in the secularization of time. How then shall we live? We should leave our overly scrupulous brother alone. If God did not command something, then neither should we. We should walk in holiness, and not by corrupt behavior slander those holy days we are pretending to honor. And underneath it all, we should celebrate Christmas, and the rest of the church year, with a free (and clean) conscience. God rest ye merry, gentlemen.

From Blog & Mablog


~ by Michael on December 16, 2005.

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