/ Athanasius

Holidays and Holy Days

Christmas is just a few weeks off. Most churches have Christmas trees up by now, and many ministers started their Advent sermon series this past weekend. Christmas--like Easter and the other holy days of the Christian calendar--has been so widely embraced by protestant churches, that not to incorporate them into the church worship schedule seems either strange or downright block headed.

I am one of those pastors who still believes the church should not include these holidays in the worship calendar. But I also don’t want to maintain that distinction in stubbornness or merely out of fondness for “old style presbyterianism.” So, I thought I’d take a couple of paragraphs--speaking for myself at least--to explain why I still believe this is a matter of biblical conviction.

First of all, there is one religious calendar that goes all the way back to the creation: the weekly religious calendar. God appointed the sabbath day as a religious day to be observed weekly. The Ten Commandments reaffirm that this weekly day of worship sets the cadence of life for God’s people. The New Testament also continues to call us to weekly sabbath (or, Lord’s Day) worship (more on this, later). The weekly religious calendar is biblical, and continues in force.

The annual religious calendar is also biblical in its origin. The annual calendar was not instituted at creation, but it was added with the Levitical Laws at Sinai. There were seven holy days originally instituted in Israel’s yearly calendar (Lev. 23). Three of those festivals involved mandatory pilgrimages to the Temple: Passover, Pentecost, and Booths (Deut. 16).

All of these holy days--the weekly sabbath and the annual festivals--were anticipatory celebrations. Even though they each looked back to a day that demonstrated something about the saving work of God, they also looked forward to the fulfillment of that great work. The sabbath looked back to God’s rest after creation; it also looks forward to creation’s rest after consummation. The Passover looked back to the lambs slaughtered so that Israel could escape Egypt; it also looked forward to the Lamb of God who would, once and for all, truly deliver God’s people from the bondage of sin. The nature of holy days in Scripture is consistently to look back upon an event that demonstrated something about God’s saving work, in order to look forward to the fulfillment of the promise demonstrated.

What do we do with the festivals, then, when their fulfillment has come in Christ? The way I have laid out my case in the above paragraphs should make it obvious what I believe the answer should be. But let me try to be fair in how I explain both the answer I represent (i.e., the festivals are over) and that of another perspective (i.e., that the Levitical festivals continue, and what this has to do with Christmas).

The Gospel according to John is an important text in this discussion, because John wrote his story of Jesus following the outlines of the Levitical festival calendar. John gives frequent references to the various Temple festivals, and he shows Jesus fulfilling the promises symbolized in those festivals and their rituals. Many commentators unpack these connections; I won’t spend time doing so here. But there are two ways in which Christians have responded to those connections identified by John in his Gospel.

Some (including historic Reformed Churches) see those connections as indication that the Old Covenant festivals are fulfilled in Christ and are expired. They were festivals pointing ahead, and Jesus has fulfilled what they promised. The weekly sabbath is the only Old Testament religious day that continues to be observed in the New Testament church. John (like other Gospel writers) shows Jesus teaching his apostles to gather to worship and hear from him on a new weekly sabbath: the first day of the week (Jn. 20:1, 19-23, 26-29). The sabbath remains, thought it now looks back to Jesus’ resurrection on the first day of the week, and it points us forward to the fulfillment of what his resurrection demonstrates is coming (Rom. 6:8; Heb. 4:9). But all of the annual Levitical festivals are expired and are no longer to be observed (Heb. 8:13; cf., most of Paul’s epistles!)

However, to give the other side of the argument: some Christians (including the Roman Catholic tradition) look at John’s connections between the Levitical festivals and Christ as warrant to adapt and continue the Levitical festivals--especially the three great pilgrimage festivals. The observation of Passover under the Old Covenant was adapted and continued as Christian Easter. The Feast of Pentecost and the giving of the Law under the Old Covenant was re-cast and continued as a New Covenant Pentecost, celebrating the giving of the Spirit. Booths was transformed in the Christian calendar into the Feast of Epiphany celebrating the manifestation of Christ in the world.

Athanasius of Alexandria represents this express recycling and continuance of the Levitical Law. He wrote, “A bishop ... shall gather [the people] together at the great festival of the Lord [i.e., Easter]... And at the feast of Pentecost he shall refresh all the people, because on that day the Holy Ghost came down upon the church. And at the feast of the Lord’s Epiphany... [Thus the people] shall celebrate with thee these three seasons, each year: the Paschal feast [Passover] ... and a feast at the end of the fifty days [Pentecost] and the new-year’s feast, which is (that of) the gathering in of the harvest and the fruits [Booths].” (Riedel and Crum, Canons of Athanasius, p. 27.)

Athanasius explains plainly what many Christians today have not realized about the Christian calendar. It is an adapted continuation of the Old Testament Levitical calendar.

Anyone who knows me knows that the Old Testament Law is one of my favorite topics of study. (In fact, while preaching through Leviticus, I recently preached on the Old Testament festival calendar, here, here, and here.) I love the Old Testament Law--including the Levitical Laws--because they elegantly express the profound promises accomplished by Christ. But I do not believe the church should re-implement the Levitical Laws, even after redressing them in New Testament language.

It seems an unfortunate irony to me that the church, today, places so much emphasis on the days of the “Christian calendar,” while our care to guard the holiness of the sabbath declines--the one holy day Scripture does call us to continue!

So, my pastorate might be out of step with much of the Christian world--even much of the Reformed world--when it comes to Christian “holy days.” But I hope this brief explanation shows that this position is not taken out of stodgy traditionalism. It is a conviction embraced in loving reverence for Christ who has removed the Levitical Laws, and he has denied the church any authority to adapt and reimpose them.

I recognize that is a strong statement. I believe this is a point of conviction, so it warrants strong expression. But strength of conviction does not necessarily require (or justify) harshness of application. Let me add two points about walking out this conviction.

First of all, many of those churches who do observe the Advent season do so out of their love for Christ. I respect that, and Scripture commands me to honor that. When Paul, in his day, dealt with this very controversy whether to continue observing the Levitical holy days, he wrote, "The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord ... the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord..." (Rom. 14:6). In the broader context of that verse, Paul makes it clear he is not approving an "anything goes" attitude. There is a right answer to the controversy Paul was addressing, and he is not shy about giving the right answer. Nevertheless, Paul also calls us to appreciate the different levels of growth in the church over such doctrinal issues. Where Christians observe old, Levitical practices they ought not, but they do so motivated by love for Christ, Paul teaches us to frame our disagreement with them in brotherly grace. In fact, I would even go so far as to say, if this doctrine becomes a hammer to condemn other Christians (in Paul's words, to "pass judgment" and "despise" a brother; Rom. 14:10), an even worse sin is being committed (Eph. 4:15; 1 Jn. 4:20). So, Christmas non-observance is a position to be held with all the weight of a biblical conviction, but that does not justify a harsh spirit in how the disagreement is discussed--by either side.

Secondly with regard to walking out this conviction: after reading all this you might be surprised to know that my family does put a Christmas tree in our living room each December. Everything I have argued above has to do with religious festivals and worship services. Church holidays are instituted by Christ and by no one else. Civic holidays, however, are different--and I recognize that difference. Civic holidays are not ritual presentations of an anticipated promise, as religious holidays are. When Jesus calls us to worship on the sabbath, he does so to hold out before us the anticipation of the coming, eternal sabbath. That is the nature of religious holy days and their observance with gathered worship. There is a future resurrection hope; the incarnation, however, is a completed event.

Civic holidays are different, though. Civic holidays are simply days to remember something important that happened a long time ago. Martin Luther King, Jr., had an important impact on our country, so America has a holiday to remember him. July 4th was also an important day that America remembers every year. If America also adopts a civic holiday to remember Christ's birth, in principle there is nothing wrong (and much that is good) about that. And the church can (in my view) commend the state for recognizing the importance of Christ in this way. Admittedly, the fact that the civic observance of Christ's birth began as a Roman Catholic festival makes its continued observance as a secular holiday complicated. I recognize a case could be made to discontinue even civic observance of the day. But I want to make clear, that is not the point of this post.

Whether Christians should gather in their living rooms on December 25th, read Luke 2, and give gifts to one another, is (in my estimation) a matter of Christian liberty of conscience. Some will be persuaded against the practice; some (like myself) will welcome the opportunity to end the year with family giving. Family participation in civic observances of July 4th, Easter, Labor Day, Christmas, and other holidays adopted by secular society is a matter of private conscience.

But when it comes to the worship services of the church, there is only one festival day Christ has continued from the Old Testament into the New (as described, e.g., in Lk. 24). Therefore, my earnest desire as a minister is to promote weekly observance of the sabbath in joyous expectation of heaven.