District Fellowship News
November, December 2012
In the next few months we will be celebrating some major holidays; Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years. For the United States, these are some of the biggest days of the year, but throughout the world this has not always been the case. Actually, the word holiday comes from Holy Day, and most holidays throughout the centuries were tied to the church. Although we have now included all of our various celebrations or remembrances in the holiday category it would be good for us to go back to look at some of the most important holy days.
None of the days mentioned above (Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Years) were part of the early church’s celebration. Before the late 4th century there were only two feast days or festivals besides the weekly Lord’s Day, Easter and Pentecost. That’s right, there was not an official Christmas festival or feast. One of the church fathers wrote that “sinners alone, not saints, celebrate their birthdays.” Somewhere in the late 300’s AD two new feasts became of importance Christmas and Epiphany. Christmas (or Christ Mass) celebrated the arrival of Jesus, God’s son, here with us. Let us look at some interesting points about this holiday as it developed over the years.
DATE - The first few hundred years of the church, Christians were not overly concerned with the exact day of the birth of Christ. They were however concerned with his death and resurrection, and in their effort to establish a date they eventually chose the 25th of March AD 29 (which is unlikely to be exact) as the date of his death. With the Jewish belief that a prophet’s life started and ended on the same date they assumed that Jesus was conceived of the Holy Spirit on March 25th, and extrapolated from that (nine months later), that his birth would fall on December 25th. (The eastern church chose the date April 6th which would translate to January 6th for His birth). Although it may seem to us to be simplistic, the most important thing about this celebration is not that we hit the date right on the head, but that Jesus was born, he did die, and He is risen. If my grandmother’s birth certificate was destroyed and we didn’t know the exact day she was born on, that wouldn’t mean she never existed or that just picking a day to celebrate would somehow lessen the truth of her life.
CELEBRATION - In the Roman church, by the end of the 4th century, the Mass of Christ was being celebrated on December 25th. This was a holy day not to be confused with our secular interpretations. In 425 AD, the gladiatorial games were forbidden on Christmas, in 529 it became a work holiday and at the Second Council of Tours, the sanctity of the 12 days between Christmas and Epiphany (which we discuss in our next issue) were declared. Advent, which originally was a period like Lent in preparation for the commemoration of the birth of Jesus, included fasting, and the prohibition of marriage during that time. The focus was on the incarnation and birth of Jesus, not on gift giving and merriment.
Those “Twelve Days of Christmas” referred to in the song began on Christmas day and continued until Twelfth Night which was the night before Epiphany. Though the song talks about what one would receive from their true love, it had little to do with the reality of what was originally intended. Again, the church would gather every day for mass. The idea was to turn their attention to spiritual matters and the importance of Christ’s arrival.
WHAT SHOULD WE DO - For Christians, Christmas is not just a secular holiday of parties, gifts, and food. In the world’s view, the trappings, greed, commercialism, and secular characters have become the focus of this event. This is not just a recent occurrence. In 1647, the English parliament (under the Puritans) banned Christmas celebrations. They wanted to remove the “pagan” elements and stop the wasteful and immoral behavior. So they replaced it with a day of fasting instead. Although this law only lasted for 13 years, the Puritans who came to Massachusetts followed the same course, and outlawed the celebration of Christmas in 1659. Although the ban was removed in 1681, it was almost two centuries before celebrating Christmas became fashionable again in Boston. Maybe then this is the answer, we should stop participating in this holiday. Although we do not have to go as far as the Puritans did, we should adjust our priorities this Christmas. Ultimately, Christmas is about celebrating God’s son appearance on earth, becoming man, living among us. We as Christ followers need to focus on the real reason behind the celebration. If we were honoring a man on this day, would we be giving each other gifts while ignoring the one we should be honoring? Would we hold parties and gatherings never mentioning or thinking of the person in whose honor the event was to be held? Would we use these same events to participate in the very behavior that would be diametrically opposed to the values of the one we were to honor? Spend more time this Christmas season honoring and serving Jesus. Gather with fellow believers in worship, and share with others the true reason we celebrate. With everything you do, respect the one whose name you invoke every time you speak of this day.
(Next Time: Epiphany)