Category Archive: Church Year
“Christmas trees have pagan origins, so they’re bad. For that matter, Christmas and Easter have pagan origins, and so they’re bad. The theater has pagan origins, so it’s bad (and so are any other forms of acting).” And so on and so on.
Heard anything like this? Godly people should have nothing to do with anything that (allegedly) has pagan origins.
How about this one: Musical instruments have pagan origins, and so they’re bad. Truly godly people would stay away from them.
Here’s something we’re told explicitly in the Bible: It was in the line of Cain, among the ungodly, that we first find musicians with instruments. Cain’s murderous descendant Lamech has three sons, one of whom, Jubal, is described as “the father of all those who play the harp and flute” (Gen 4:21). So there you have it: According to the Bible, expertise in musical instruments springs from the family of the ungodly.
But does that mean that the godly must never use musical instruments? Certainly not. David plays an instrument. David, under the inspiration of God, designs and commissions instruments for the Temple that Solomon will build. The Levites play instruments from that time on. The Psalms commend the use of instruments, even in the worship of God.
In fact, notice that it’s not just music that the ungodly develop in Genesis 4. It’s also metallurgy and agribusiness. Lamech’s son Jabal “was the father of those who dwell in tents and have livestock” (Gen 4:20). And Lamech’s other son Tubal-Cain was, literally, “the sharpener of every craftsman in bronze and iron” (Gen 4:22). As Jubal was the “father” of musicians–that is, the one who taught and trained and developed them–so Jabal and Tubal-Cain trained and taught all those who excelled in their fields. If “pagan origins” mean that we have to stay away from something, then we ought to stay away, not only from music, but from agribusiness and blacksmithery, too. But, of course, that’s not what Scripture teaches.
And therefore this argument — “If it has pagan origins it’s bad and godly people should abstain from it” — fails on biblical grounds. It adds to Scripture, setting a standard higher than the one God sets, and therefore ought to be rejected and condemned. (For more, see James B. Jordan’s “The Menace of Chinese Food.”)
It certainly is true that these skills were developed first among the wicked, and that’s worth thinking about. One of the patterns we see in Scripture, not least in Genesis 4, is what Jim Jordan calls “the Enoch factor,” which is this: The wicked get there first. It’s in the city of Enoch, Cain’s city, that we first find a lot of wonderful things. That poses a temptation to the righteous, the temptation to intermingle with the wicked and to forsake bearing faithful witness in order to enjoy those good things. But we fight that temptation by remembering what Jordan (somewhere) calls “the Jerusalem factor”: the righteous get there in the end.
So musical instruments and agribusiness and metallurgy may start in Cain’s city, among the wicked. They may have “pagan origins.” But they end up in David’s city, even being employed in God’s Temple. As the Proverb says, “The wealth of the sinner is stored up for the righteous” (13:22).
In his very enjoyable A Dresser of Sycamore Trees: The Finding of a Ministry (the title is taken from Amos 7:14-15), Garret Keizer describes his work as the clock-winder of the church clock in the town in Vermont where he serves as the lay pastor of Christ Church (Episcopal).Â Just as you start spotting Hondas as soon as you buy a Honda yourself, KeizerÂ has become aware of mechanical clocks all over the place.
He points out something worth considering:
I also realized that the public keeping of time has passed from the church and possibly the municipal building to the branch bank.Â In most towns of any size, that is the place to look for a digital display of the right time.Â The location of the public clock has something to say, I think, about the way a culture gives meaning to time.Â It was logical for a church to tell people the time when one of the things they needed to know time for was when to pray, and when church feasts and holy days colored the calendar.Â Equally logical is it that the bank should tell the hours to a populace for whom time is not liturgical but financial, who inhabit a fiscal year broken into quarters and the maturation periods of certificates of deposit (p. 86).
Yesterday afternoon, I read J. Bottum’s “Dakota Christmas.” Moriah and I enjoyed almost all of it, with (interestingly enough) the exception of the theological stuff toward the end. It brought back memories of some Christmasses past.
As happens with many celebrations, the ones Bottum recalls ended with people feeling depressed. The article’s turn toward theology takes place when a sixteen-year-old Bottum finally steps outside to breathe freely and finds himself looking over the prairie. It almost sounds as if he’s suggesting that God is out there, in the purity and simplicity and perhaps solitude of the prairie as opposed to among the crowd of people and the piles of toys and the food, food, food indoors, though the end of the article draws back a step from that conclusion.
It may have been true that Bottum’s family’s celebrations ended up in depression. Many people’s do. But is the problem that we celebrate too much or that we aren’t celebrating well? Just in time for our Christmas celebrations, Rich Bledsoe has written about “The Crisis of Christmas” with some wisdom about rejoicing and worship.
Tonight, Moriah, Aletheia, and I will be opening our presents. Tomorrow evening, my parents will be here for another Christmas celebration. May the Lord bless you and your family as you rejoice in our Saviour’s birth!
I’m thinking about what I’m going to preach in the weeks heading up to Good Friday and Easter. If you’re a pastor, what do you do? Or if you’re not a pastor, what does your pastor do? Continue the series you’re working on? Preach something special? I’m open to suggestions.
It occurred to me as I was typing it that the Wright quotation I posted yesterday, taken by itself, could be a bit imbalanced, as if Wright left no place for carols and candles (and cookies), as if the only point of Christmas was to remind us that the world was so evil that it needed Christ to come.
The good news, of course, is that the King has been born, the Light of the world has come, and though His own people rejected Him, yet to those who received Him He gave the right to be the children of God (John 1). And so there certainly is joy â€” and there can be carols and candles and cookies! â€” for those who live in the Light and who belong to the King.
And now, changing the topic only slightly, a comment from Chesterton on Christmas:
As I walk down the street I admit that I can understand a sensitive person being a little bored, or at least a little bewildered, with the external displays of Christmas, the shop-fronts full of sheafs and sheafs of incongruous Christmas cards or with children’s toys that only madmen could make and only millionaires buy. One writer against Christmas went so far as to say that the shopkeepers for their own commercial purposes alone sustain Christmas Day. I am not sure whether he said that the shopkeepers invented Christmas Day. Perhaps he thought that the shopkeepers invented Christianity. It is a quaint picture, the secret conclave between the cheesemonger, the poulterer, and the toy-shop keeper, in order to draw up a theology that shall convert all Europe and sell some of their goods. Opponents of Christianity would believe anything except Christianity. That the shopkeepers make Christmas is about as conceivable as that the confectioners make children. It is about as sane as that milliners manufacture women. Still, as I have said, I can understand a man finding the common Christmas shows incomprehensible or tiresome. The Christmas cards especially sometimes reach the flattest or dreariest level of caddishness or cant. But this is simply because we leave Christmas symbolism so much in the automatic hands of hirelings. It is not because we feel too Christmassy, but because we do not feel Christmassy enough. All these hilarious human observances are in this respect in the same position: as long as they are enjoyed they are enjoyable; it is only when a priggish criticism is brought to bear on them that they become, in practice, prosaic and irritating. It is not the popular belief in them, but a popular disbelief in them that makes them a general nuisance. The opponents of ritual attack it on the ground that it becomes formal and hollow. So it does. But ritual only becomes formal and hollow where men are not sufficiently ritualistic. â€” G. K. Chesterton, “The Neglect of Christmas,” The Illustrated London News, Jan. 13, 1906.
Merry Christmas, everyone! “Joy to the world! The Lord is come!”
For many, Christianity is just a beautiful dream. It’s a world in which everyday reality goes a bit blurred. It’s nostalgic, cosy, and comforting. But real Christianity isn’t like that at all. Take Christmas, for instance: a season of nostalgia, of carols and candles and firelight and happy children. But that misses the point completely. Christmas is not a reminder that the world is really quite a nice old place. It reminds us that the world is a shockingly bad old place, where wickedness flourishes unchecked, where children are murdered, where civilized countries make a lot of money by selling weapons to uncivilized ones so they can blow each other apart. Christmas is God lighting a candle, and you don’t light a candle in a room that’s already full of sunlight. You light a candle in a room that’s so murky that the candle, when lit, reveals just how bad things really are. The light shines in the darkness, says St John, and the darkness has not overcome it.
Christmas, then, is not a dream, a moment of escapism. Christmas is the reality, which shows up the rest of “reality.” And for Christmas, here, read Christianity. Either Jesus is the Lord of the world, or he is dangerously irrelevant to the problems and possibilities of today’s world. There is no middle ground. Either Jesus was, and is, the Word of God, or he and the stories Christians tell about him, are lies. â€” N. T. Wright, For All God’s Worth, pp. 1-2.
For any of you who get troubled by hearing Reformed voices claiming that we shouldn’t be celebrating Christmas, Jeff Meyers‘ new article “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year? A Defense of Christmas” may be just what you need. Jeff deals helpfully with the claims that the early Reformers didn’t celebrate Christmas, that Christmas is really a Roman Catholic holy day, that Christmas is really a pagan festival with a Christian veneer, and that Christmas celebration is somehow a violation of the “regulative principle of worship.”
If you’re interested in more on this topic, check out Mark Horne‘s “Celebrating a Calvinist Christmas with a Clear Conscience.” Jeff Meyers‘ “Is the Church Year Biblical?” is also an entertaining and helpful read.
I’ve often heard it said that the reason Christians celebrate Christmas on December 25 is that the Romans had a feast to the Sun on that date and the Church just took over the date and made it the feast of Christ’s birth. Newer liturgical scholarship, however, contests this story. It appears that Christians were linking Christ’s birth to December 25 before the Feast of the Sun was set on that date! Thomas Talley provides a full discussion in his The Origins of the Liturgical Year (which is sitting on my shelf, still unread) and William Tighe summarizes that discussion in his article “Calculating Christmas.”