QUESTION: I have a friend who's conscience was offended when we sang traditional Christmas hymns during our Sunday p.m. service at church, and now plans to be absent from this Sunday's Christmas Cantata. She is an avid Internet user and has seen the sites that speak against it because of its pagan or Catholic origins. I would appreciate any Scriptural counsel you could give.
ANSWER: What a good question–and a timely one! I’m sorry to hear that your friend is depriving herself of the joys of the Christmas season. I always find it to be a wonderful time of personal blessing and ministry to others.
Since I don’t know in detail the basis for your friend’s conclusions, but since she sent you the article mentioned [in her questioner's fuller e-mail], I’ll assume that it represents her views, and will try to respond to the strange logic therein. (And an aside here: Be cautious of what you find on the Internet. Almost any point of view imaginable can be found there.)
Is it true that Christmas is not in the Bible, and that therefore we shouldn’t be celebrating it? Leaving aside the name of the day, “Christmas,” (I’ll get to that in a moment) the record of the birth of Christ is certainly in the Bible, and His coming was definitely celebrated. This is the day when “the Word [Christ] became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn. 1:14). It’s a momentous and history-altering event, worthy of remembrance.
After Jesus’ miraculous conception in the womb of Mary, but before His actual birth, John the Baptist celebrated His coming, even while in the womb of Elizabeth (Lk. 1:44), Mary celebrated it (Lk. 1:46-47), Zacharias celebrated it, saying, “The Dayspring [Dawning] from on high has visited us” (Lk. 1:68-69, 78). Later, the angels celebrated His birth (Lk. 2:13-14), the shepherds celebrated it (Lk. 2:20), Simeon celebrated it (Lk. 2:28-30, and Anna celebrated it (Lk. 2:38). The wise men, also, some weeks or months afterwards, celebrated Christ’s birth, and gave gifts to Him (Matt. 2:1, 9-11).
Should we not do so too? And is it not helpful to set aside a special day or season of the year to do this–even though we can also rejoice in His coming at any time of year? Thanksgiving is similar in that regard. We should be thankful all the time (I Thess. 5:18). But it seems to me quite appropriate that we designate a Thanksgiving Day when that is given special emphasis. (Even though we, in Canada, have chosen a different day from you Americans.)
It’s quite true that we don’t know for certain the exact date of Jesus’ birth–not even the year of the event. It likely occurred in late September, in 5 BC, but that is only an educated guess. There is some disagreement about the year of the crucifixion as well, and even of the day of the week–though most take it to have been a Friday. And what about the exact date of Pentecost and the birth of the church? That is the day when “the stone which the builders rejected [Christ, became] the chief cornerstone.” It’s “the day the Lord has made, and we will rejoice and be glad in it” (Ps. 118:22-24; cf. Acts 4:11). Many evangelical churches don’t celebrate Pentecost, but it would be quite appropriate to do so if they chose to.
The author quotes the Lord’s condemnation of the Pharisees for their addition of man-made rules to what God had ordained in His Word (Mk. 7:6-8). Does he not realize that is exactly what he is doing? He is adding his own rule: “Thou shalt not celebrate Christmas,” and giving it the force of a divine command. This he does, largely on the basis of silence–that since the Lord does not say we should celebrate the birth of Christ, this is his proof that we should not.
Something Mr. Frye doesn’t mention in his article is that even keeping Sunday in a special way as the Lord’s Day is not commanded in Scripture. In the beginning, the Christians seem to have met daily (Acts 2:46). Sunday seems to have been chosen by consensus in the early church, because it was the day of Christ’s resurrection, and of the birth of the church. But there is scant evidence in the Bible for it being kept as a special day. It’s a tradition. So, should we abandon Sunday worship as a result? Or go back to keeping Israel’s Sabbath?
Churches didn’t begin to have buildings to meet in until the second or third century. Should we therefore reject having facilities to meet in too? This is nonsense. If we abandon anything not mentioned in the Bible we’d better stop using Sunday School curricula, church bulletins, tracts, video projectors, sound systems, offering plates, hymn books–the list is endless. Many things are not mentioned as being part of first century church life simply because believers hadn’t got to them yet. To condemn anything not specifically found in the Bible makes no sense at all.
It smacks of the kind of rigid rule-keeping that plagued the Pharisees–and later the Puritans. To take a verse only slightly out of context, “Why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?” (Acts 15:10). This is the kind of logic that declares we must only sing the Bible’s psalms, no hymns or gospel songs written since Bible times. Where is the liberty of life under grace? Where is the freedom to set new precedents that will honour the Lord? The woman who anointed Jesus did that. Rather than condemning her, the Lord commended her (Mk. 14:3-9).
The church our family attended in my youth had an annual Candlelight Carol Service. It was beautiful and inspiring, something looked forward to every year. But there were always a few who complained that to use candles was Catholic. How foolish. The Church of Rome didn’t invent candles–nor did our church light them as prayer candles, appealing to Mary on behalf of the dead. They were simply an alternate means of illumination. Let’s get real.
Mr. Frye surely knows he’s using religious slight of hand, and not being fully honest, when he tries to condemn us for having Christmas trees by quoting the Old Testament law about carving trees into idols (e.g. Jer. 10:2-4). No one that I know worships his Christmas tree! It’s a decoration that we enjoy, not an idol we adore. Blame Luther, if you like–who seems to have thought of the idea. As for me and my family–and the church we attend–we enjoy our trees. “God...gives us richly all things to enjoy” (I Tim. 6:17--a verse which, in the context, deals with using but not abusing material wealth.
As to the word “Christmas” itself, yes, it seems to be a contraction of Christ’s Mass. But there are millions of people who don’t know that, nor are they Catholic, nor do they celebrate a Mass at Christmas time. The days of the week are named after false gods (Wednesday is Woden’s day, Thursday is Thor’s day, etc.) Would Frye have us change the names of the days on that account? “Christmas” is what you make of it, which is not necessarily the same as what some people in the distant past erroneously made of it.
The Bible says, “Let no one judge you...regarding a festival” (Col. 2:16). “One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind” (Rom. 14:5). If Mr. Frye, or others like him, prefer not to celebrate Christmas, they have the freedom to take that stance. But it is not right for them to condemn others who find great joy in the season. As Augustine put it, “In majors unity; in minors liberty; in all things charity.”
It is easy to find a list of those who didn’t agree with celebrating Christmas, as the author does. But we could compile another list–likely far longer–of those who did–and do. I’m so glad many hymn writers have given us songs to express our worship and praise for Christ’s coming. Charles Wesley’s words lift our souls and unite us in worship as we sing: “Hark! The herald angels sing, ‘Glory to the newborn King; / Peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!’ Joyful, all ye nations rise, / Join the triumph of the skies; / With th’angelic host proclaim, / ‘Christ is born in Bethlehem!’”
Merry Christmas to you! And God bless us, every one!