Former Moderator Rev Angus Howat reflects on what the Bible says about Christmas
‘What is the Free Church’s position on Christmas?’
I was asked this recently by a friend who is a newcomer to our midst and still coming to terms with our funny ways.
This question, along with Shona Maguire’s interesting article in the December Record, started me thinking, not for the first time, on this subject.
In public perception Christmas is the most readily identifiable festival in the Christian calendar when we commemorate the birth of the Son of God.
Most people, though fewer than of old, see it as such.
And it has become the pretext for a general holiday, which at this time of year is very welcome, for family gatherings, for making contact with friends and relatives at a distance and catching up with the year’s news.
It also has a flip side – loneliness and bereavement are accentuated, family feuds spill over into the open, excessive sums of money are spent and drunkenness and self-indulgence flourish.
And why? Because, we are told, Jesus was born in Bethlehem.
It must be admitted that much that we associate with a ‘traditional Christmas’ has its roots in paganism and has little to do with the gospel.
For many it’s a time of make believe and magic – but Christians who claim to live in the real world, God’s world, should surely be more concerned with truth and reality, and not be carried away by the sentimental euphoria that is prevalent at this time of year.
Let’s look at two myths about Christmas that need to be dispelled.
First of all, 25th December was not Jesus’ birthday. The Bible does not tell us when he was born.
But it seems to be generally agreed that whenever it took place it was not on at this time of year.
Apparently this is not when shepherds live out in the fields watching their flocks at night in the Bethlehem area.
Secondly, Christmas is not, in the proper sense, a Christian festival. That may seem an extreme statement: is it not celebrated by Christians the world over?
But a Christian festival should be defined not by human practice but by Divine mandate. It is God’s word that should govern our thinking in this area.
And if we go to the Bible we find there is only one festival ordained for our permanent observance – the weekly Sabbath, as laid down in the Fourth Commandment.
There are a number of feasts and ceremonies in the Old Testament, but with the passing of the ceremonial law they have been abrogated.
We celebrate the Lord’s Day, not on the seventh day which was the Jewish Sabbath, but on the first day of the week, the day of Christ’s resurrection. It is a weekly reminder that our Saviour has risen from the dead.
We are also commanded to remember our Lord’s death which we do when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper (and hopefully at other times as well!).
Christ’s death and Christ’s resurrection – these are foundational to our salvation and to apostolic teaching.
Nowhere is there any indication of any instruction to remember our Lord’s birth. Indeed the New Testament says remarkably little on the whole subject.
His birth, wonderful as it was, is seen not as an end in itself but rather as the means by which he was given a real human body so that he could die a real human death, and thus make possible a real salvation for real sinners.
Jesus himself warns us against worship according to manmade rules.
‘You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men’, he said to the Pharisees [Mark 7: 8).
Here he makes an important distinction. We do well to pay heed to what he says. For all the veneration and practice of ages that’s what Christmas is – a human tradition.
This is the position of the reformed church in Scotland summed up in the Directory of Public Worship, There is no day commanded in scripture to be kept holy under the gospel but the Lord’s day, which is the Christian Sabbath.
‘But,’ you may say, ‘other churches all have Christmas services, they can’t all be wrong!’’. Of course they do: but that doesn’t close the argument.
If everyone is doing something from which we differ, then that should certainly challenge us to examine our position carefully in the light of Scripture but it doesn’t mean in itself our position is wrong.
After all, that was the argument used by the leaders of Israel when they asked Samuel to give them a king with disastrous results. [1 Samuel 8:5].
If this then is the case, we should be careful about holding Christmas services as such. We must not go beyond what is written.
Of course this doesn’t prevent ministers from preaching on aspects of the incarnation at this time of year.
Many, including myself, do take advantage of the opportunity popular interest in the birth of Christ provides.
Does that mean that the observance of Christmas is banned for us? Some certainly would take that view. Their position is quite logical and should be respected.
But these words of Jesus are not all the Bible has to say that is relevant to this subject.
The apostle Paul writing to the Romans says this: One man who considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each should be fully convinced in his own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. (14: 5f).
In the apostolic church it appears there were Jewish Christians who were unable or unwilling to abandon the observance of some of the special days of the Old Testament religious structure with which they had been brought up: the distance from Jewish to Christian practice was too great to take in one step.
Therefore they were observing some of the old ‘holy days’ as well as the Christian Sabbath. And Paul indicates this is not wrong for them.
Our circumstances are different: but surely the principle he enunciates still stands today and is applicable to Christmas.
Note that he is not referring here to keeping the Lord’s Day: that is a divine commandment we are all obliged to obey. Nor is he referring to the public services of the church.
This is something of which individual has to decide for himself, each convinced in his mind.
Our Christian liberty permits us to do so: without binding any others and certainly the whole church.
Therefore, if I want to celebrate Christmas and believe this is right I have the freedom to do so: but equally I may not impose the practice on others without encroaching on their liberty. And they have no right to impose it on me.
Most of us probably celebrate Christmas: I certainly do. I happily take part in the exchange of greetings and gifts. I have a Christmas tree in my house. I enjoy mince pies and Christmas pudding. I even like Brussels sprouts.
But I enjoy it because it we choose to do so not because God has commanded it: and I recognise there are many, more than perhaps we recognise who dread this time of year when loneliness and family problems and past are most and who long as someone said to me the other day ‘for when it will be all over’.
But if we do enjoy Christmas in our homes let us do so in a suitable manner: from personal conviction not because of convention, because everyone else is doing it; and to the Lord, in a way that is honouring to him.
If we seek to do this to the Lord, that will save us from the excesses which sadly mar the celebrations of so many people at this time of year.
Whatever way conviction leads you may God bless you richly and may his presence be your guiding light throughout the new year.
And whether we eat or drink or whatever we do, may we do it all for his glory.