Not Observing Lent? Then Why Celebrate Christmas?

Growing up in the Reformed tradition, we did not observe the season of Lent.  As with crucifixes, vestments, and other traditions within the Christian church, Lent was simply ‘too Catholic’ to be observed within our circles.  At first blush, I suppose such an objection may seem valid, but it really won’t hold up to any scrutiny, especially if we, like many, reject Lent but accept Christmas as a valid Christian observance.

Am I overstating my case?  I don’t think so.  Here’s why…

First, considering history.  I am not aware of any scholars or writers who would deny the impossibility of accurately determining the exact date (day/month) of Christ’s birth from Scripture.  The oldest dates for the observance of Jesus’ birth appear to be in the Spring, only changing to December, in the West, under the rule of Constantine during the mid-fourth century.  The first ‘hard evidence’ for the observation of Christmas on December 25th comes from a Roman calendar called the “Chronography of 354,” dated AD 354.  Prior to the legalization of Christianity under Constantine, any celebration of Christmas as a church holiday was at best sporadic (cf. Clement of Alexandria) but, more commonly, not mentioned (cf. Tertullian) or simply rejected outright as a pagan notion (cf. Origen [mid-3rd cent] and Arnobius[early 4th cent]).  In short, the celebration of Christmas was not widely observed until the mid-fourth century.

In contrast, the history of the observation of a period of fasting, repentance, and preparation prior to the celebration of the resurrection (i.e., Easter) is much older than the history of Christmas.  In the late 2nd century, Irenaus of Lyons wrote of just such a season, though it was not the 40 day season we observe today.  His mention of what we now call Lent is not a remote example.  Tertullian, who failed to mention any celebration of Christmas, wrote of a forty day period of fasting similar to what we now observe, though even here there seems to be widespread variation on the exact length of the time of preparation.  There was such a wide variation in tradition, in fact, that the Council of Nicea (AD 325) expressly mentioned forty days as the suitable practice for this pre-Easter observance.  Unlike Christmas, a Lenten-like period of preparation was so widespread in the early church that the Council felt it necessary to weigh in on the discussion.

From a purely historical perspective, then, Lent predates Christmas as a widely observed church season.

Second, considering theology.  Any celebration of Christmas at all as a Church holy day (holiday) comes solely from tradition, as there is no express biblical warrant, command, or example.  I mention this point only in response to those who reject Lent and other Christian traditions because they ‘aren’t in the Bible’ or should not be considered permissible under the Regulative Principle of Worship.  Quite honestly, you cannot have it both ways, rejecting one tradition over another on what I would argue are purely subjective grounds. To reject one and retain another is inconsistent.

So, if you do not observe Lent, why not?  I’m not trying to suggest that Christians must, but I’m also poking a little at those who suggest that Christians may not.  I should think we would all benefit from a deliberate season of preparation for Easter–reflecting upon our own sins/need for a Savior as well as preparing ourselves to be of further service to our merciful God.

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No Crucifix? Then Why a Manger?

Earlier this week, this post got me thinking about crosses and crucifixes…

As one recently come from mainstream Evangelicalism, one of stark contrasts of Lutheranism is the use of a crucifix (i.e. a cross with Jesus on it).  What is a bit of a paradox is that while Evangelicals of all flavors love to sing about the cross, they are amazingly quick to reject crucifixes outright.  What is more, some of the best hymns (“When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” Isaac Watts) and worst hymns (“There is Power in the Blood,” Lewis Jones) sing of Jesus’ crucifixion…but in the same breath, Evangelicals can sing these words and then quip something along the lines of, “My Savior isn’t on the cross anymore!”

Call me crazy, but isn’t this just a bit inconsistent?  How is it perfectly suitable to sing of the cross again and again while so vehemently rejecting its depiction?

Some folks thoughtlessly reject the crucifix as being ‘too Catholic.’  Whatever.  Some argue that it violates God’s commandment against graven images.  Though this objection sounds plausible on the surface, I reject it too–another topic for another day.  What I think is at the root of our objection to crucifixes is the offense of crucifixion and the scandal of the cross itself.  No, we won’t admit to it, but deep down there is a part of us that recoils at the horror of crucifixion and wonders how and why a loving God could subject his own son to such a torturous death for crimes (sins) he did not commit.  The non-believing world rejects the Passion as folly or madness.  Unfortunately, many of us try not to think about it too deeply, lest we be taken aback as well.

The cross is not a thing of beauty, it is an item of torture and capital punishment.  What makes if ‘wonderful,’ to quote Watts, is that there is where Law and Gospel collided for all of time.  There is where the only sacrifice suitable for washing away the sins of the world was made, once for all.  It is scandalous…but it is also completely gracious.  The cross is our salvation.

Unfortunately, the folly of those who reject the use of crucifixes comes to the fore during the other major festival of the church, Christmas.  As pointed out here and here, why are those who reject Jesus’ depiction on a crucifix so quick to depict him in a nativity scene?  He is neither on the cross nor in a manger.  If we’re concerned about commandment breaking, both would equally violate God’s law.  I fall back on my position, stated above.  We reject crucifixes because we recoil from having that unimaginable pain and suffering displayed before our eyes–even that pain and suffering that wrought our very salvation.  A baby in a manger, on the other hand, is cute, sweet, and relatively tame.

May your Good Friday not be Christ-less but Christ-filled as we mediatate on the Passion of our Lord and our gracious salvation from sin and death!

Poetry-Some Children See Him


This morning on the way to work I was listening to James Taylor at Christmas and was taken aback by the words to a song I have heard countless times but never really listened to. While song lyrics aren’t often read as poetry (at least by the masses), these lyrics are indeed poetry in the truest sense:

Some children see Him lily white,
The baby Jesus born this night.
Some children see Him lily white,
With tresses soft and fair.

Some children see Him bronzed and brown,
The Lord of heav’n to earth come down.
Some children see Him bronzed and brown,
With dark and heavy hair.

Some children see Him almond-eyed,
This Savior whom we kneel beside.
Some children see Him almond-eyed,
With skin of golden hue.

Some children see Him dark as they,
Sweet Mary’s Son to whom we pray.
Some children see him dark as they,
And, oh . . . they love Him, too

The children in each different place
Will see the baby Jesus’ face
Like theirs, but bright with heavenly grace,
And filled with holy light.

O lay aside each earthly thing
And with thy heart as offering,
Come worship now the infant King.
‘Tis love that’s born tonight!

As I read these words two thoughts come to mind. Negatively, we tend to make God in our own ‘image and likeness’ instead of remembering that we are made in his. Positively, though Christ took on humanity as an ethnic Jew some 2000 years ago, he is the God of all nations, tribes, tongues…and colors.

Poetry-Nativity

In the midst of Advent with Christmas quickly approaching, my thoughts (even in poetry) are turning to the Nativity. Perhaps one of the best poetic descriptions of the blessed event, in the English language anyway, came from the pen of John Donne. He was not only a great English poet but also an Anglican priest who wrote his Holy Sonnets in the early 1600s. Here is his sonnet on the nativity:

Nativitie

Immensitie cloysterd in thy deare wombe,
Now leaves his welbelov’d imprisonment,
There he hath made himselfe to his intent
Weake enough, now into our world to come;
But Oh, for thee, for him, hath th’Inne no roome?
Yet lay him in this stall, and from the Orient,
Starres, and wisemen will travell to prevent
Th’effect of Herods jealous generall doome;
Seest thou, my Soule, with thy faiths eyes, how he
Which fils all place, yet none holds him, doth lye?
Was not his pity towards thee wondrous high,
That would have need to be pittied by thee?
Kisse him, and with him into Egypt goe,
With his kinde mother, who partakes thy woe.

We could surely unpack the rich theological truths proclaimed here…but that is best left for another day.