I want to briefly spell out why we at Solihull Presbyterian Church pay attention to Christmas, and have done every year since the church’s inception. There are three main reasons.
Firstly, we give focussed attention to the doctrine of the incarnation. It is one of two doctrines I believe evangelical and reformed Christians understand poorly in our day. (The other is the Trinity.) It is a stupendous idea that the eternal Son of God, God the Son, should be united to human “flesh” (nature) in one person, “two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation” (Definition of Chalcedon, A.D.451). It is a mystery which is hard for us to grasp, to be sure, but it is a doctrine for which the church has suffered because it is so important to the faith and to our salvation. So to give 4-8 sermons (out of over 150 teaching occasions in our church) each year, as we have, to such an important doctrine seems pretty important to me.
Secondly, it helps Christians think about the right things when all around is madness. Yes, we live in a culture in the UK now which has turned the season into a commercial whirlwind, now habitually kicked off by “Black Friday” (why??) at the end of November. Add to that the constant advertising, the sentimentality of “love and family”, the weird liturgy of Christmas pop tunes wheeled out every year all conspiring to create a pseudo-atmosphere of “the Christmas spirit”, with a bit of Nativity sprinkled on top. Pastorally, as a church, what are we to do? Ignore it and plough on? That scenario makes me think of a school teacher who hasn’t noticed or doesn’t care that a bird has come in to the classroom through an open window and every student is distracted. Surely ploughing on is foolishness. Pastorally we need to address the matter in hand and teach our people about the incarnation, and do it well. Our ministry of the word must equip our people for living in the world they encounter day by day.
Thirdly, it is an opportunity for evangelism. More than any other time of the year, this is a time when people are open to the idea of coming to church. That’s certainly our experience. Sure, they might come only because they like the idea of singing carols at this time of year. Christians do as well because they want to offer worship to God. Our neighbours may not have that desire and their motives fall far short of the desire for worship. But having arrived at a service, they are willing to listen to the gospel preached. They may not have heard it before; they may never hear it again. But the opportunity must not be missed. When our Master returns we do not want him to find that we have hidden what he has given us when it could have been used for him.
There are some people who raise objections to Christians paying attention to Christmas, and I understand the disquiet some people feel. But I believe it to be unfounded. There are two objections I want to consider.
First, that “Christmas has its roots in a pagan festival.” It is true that the Romans celebrated Saturnalia from 17th to 23rd of December in the Julian calendar where offerings were made to Saturn and there was feasting, partying, gambling and all sorts of merrymaking. It is also true that the church started marking the nativity on the 25th of December some time in the 4th century, not because this was determined to be the date of Christ’s birth, but particularly because it helped Christians live an alternative lifestyle – in the world, not of it, concerned about God’s purposes in salvation, not in the world’s excesses. So it is false to say Christmas has its “roots” in a pagan festival. It has its roots in Scripture, and the desire to live a countercultural life in a pagan world. One could make the same argument today.
The second objection is that “The Westminster Directory of Publick Worship rules it out.” To quote a line in the appendix to the DPW: “Festival days, vulgarly called Holy-days, having no warrant in the word of God, are not to be continued.” Seems like a killer blow to Christmas! I could duck this one and say that my denomination, the EPCEW, does not consider the DPW one of its subordinate standards, so I could ignore it. But that would be unfair. We should honour the divines of the past and listen carefully to what they say. However, we need to understand their context and think about our own. What were the Westminster divines against in this line? The excesses of the Roman Catholic Church. The church sanctioned many festival days through the year. These came to rival if not surpass the Lord’s Day in importance. They took people away from work for periods of time and encouraged Christians to indulge in excesses reminiscent of the pagan fastivals. The Westminster divines rightly stood against these things. And so do we. But in the Christmas period today, indulging in “festival days” is not the same as remembering the incarnation or even in having a worship service on Dec 25th (certainly not in SPC!). We are teaching and pastorally guiding believers, worshipping God with thankfulness for his gift and evangelising the lost. This Great Commission activity trumps any misapplication of a DPW prohibition.
The doctrine of the incarnation is too good to miss! We should take the opportunity to meditate on its wonderful truth, take a stand against the world by marching to the tune of the gospel, and reach out to our neighbours with the good news of Jesus Christ.
Have a happy Christmas!