He tabernacled among us too

A baby, a scandal and a heavenly host

Merry Christmas! I must confess this is the first year I’ve ever celebrated Christmas fully. My first Nativity play in Church, my first Christmas Day service, the first time I’ve had Advent Candles lit; the first time I’ve sang Carols each Sunday. I have been to a few Watchnight Services before, but always in a sense as a spectator.

My old Church did not celebrate Christmas, or indeed any of the Church Calendar. In fact, though people are shocked, Scotland didn’t celebrate Christmas until recently. It was in the mid-1950s that Scotland took December 25th as a public holiday. Up until then it was a normal day. As a consequence of the Oxford Movement (which was an Anglican one) impacting the Church of Scotland slowly Christmas Trees began to appear in church buildings, even a certain element of liturgy and slowly Advent, Watchnight Services and special Christmas services. Much to the bemusement of the nation. Now people are shocked with the idea that some Christians don’t celebrate Christmas.

I remember people saying to me around this time “My, this is your busy period isn’t it?” To which I’d usually smile, but say to myself “not really! Its pretty much business as usual!” Nowadays, the only denominations in Scotland that do not officially celebrate Christmas are: The Free Church of Scotland, The Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, the Associated Presbyterian Churches and the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing). Additionally some Independent congregations (some Reformed Baptists and the like) may not either. The largest of these denominations – the Free Church (my old denomination) – however is the most lax in its observation of the old way. The vast majority of Free Kirkers will celebrate Christmas at home, identically to anyone else. Trees, presents, carols even. Most APC would as well. Among the FCC there would be many for whom Christmas is a family holiday. Amongst the FPs however, it would be extremely rare for much observation even in the home for such a holiday. Instead, traditionally New Year would be a bigger holiday. Presents would traditionally be exchanged either on the 26th or New Years Day and to my knowledge that would be commonly observed today. Nigh universally amongst the FPs, Christmas Cards are not exchanged – certainly not with a ‘Christian’ message and instead New Year cards are given. This would be common amongst the FCC as well, though I have received Christmas Cards even from FCC ministers before so its obviously more mixed. Amongst the APC and Free Church most would send Christmas cards, though I remember having to be careful to give the right type of card to the appropriate people!

Recently I was asked why this is all is?! First, it is nothing to do with a disbelief in the Virgin Birth or the birth accounts in the Gospels. All four denominations – and their spiritual forefathers before them – held to a strict understanding of the veracity of the literal, historical, miraculous virgin birth and Gospel accounts. Ironically, some who now are the most ardent celebrants of Christmas in the Church do doubt or plain disbelieve the truth of the accounts. So, it needs to be made clear that non-observance of Christmas as a religious feast/festival, does not deny the truth of the event, nor its significance.

Instead, it is a fundamental disagreement over the whole ‘Church Calendar’ at all. Christmas, Easter, Saints Days, etc. were all put out at the Reformation. Feasts and Festivals of the Dark Ages were abolished. Instead the Reformers understood that there was only one ‘Feast Day’ to be kept by the Christian Church – that established at Creation and reconstituted with the Resurrection – the Second Creation – of Jesus: the Lord’s Day, Christian Sabbath, first day of the Week. The only celebration commanded in the New Testament, the only act of remembrance was the Lord’s death and not his birth. Thus the Feast commanded is the Lord’s Supper, Communion or the Eucharist. Thus, though the Birth is crucial in terms of prophetic fulfillment, establishing how the Second Person of the Trinity took on human flesh and explaining how the Atonement could be accomplished, and how it impacts us today in fellowship with the Creator God, there is little discussion of the Birth outside the Gospel narratives. No indication that the Early Church celebrated it in an organised form. The fact that we have no immutable indication of the time of year Jesus was born (but almost certainly not December 25th – more probably June or July), nor what year (again, almost certainly not or 1AD!) indicates that it is not a commanded part of the Church’s life. Depending on your view of the Regulative Principle (that we only do what God explicity commands in worship and avoid not only what he forbids but anything he has not commanded) all of these facts will determine your importance of celebrating Christmas as a religious event.

There is another side to it all however – the issue of evangelism and unity. People are more aware of Jesus at Christmas than at any other time of the year. Everyone (almost) is happy to hear carols telling the story (with varying degrees of accuracy) and, given it is a ‘warm’ and friendly time of year the whole story makes people feel good. This is a huge problem as well as a huge opportunity – but I’ll ignore the problem side just now! It’s a good opportunity for the Church to buy into society’s acceptance of Jesus at this time. To point out the reality of the story, the importance and the implications of the story for them and us all today. To guide people to Jesus who grew up and who makes claims on who they are and how they stand in relation to him. Its a great opportunity to speak God and his activity in the world into the terrors and horrors of our planet – ‘God is there and is not silent’. Its also for me a good opportunity to share in the outward, visible unity of the Church. We regard the Virgin Birth as a fundamental doctrine, acknowledged in all the Creeds. It is one of the few points of unity for the major branches of the Christian Church – even if all the branches don’t celebrate Christmas Day on the 25th of December, which isnt that important – and therefore is an opportunity for us to share fellowship and worship together. This happens too infrequently. The fellowship and opportunity of Christmas should be used to share the Gospel together and the importance of it in our expression as one Body, one Baptism, one Spirit, one Faith – and as a step towards the unity Jesus prayed for in the High Priestly prayer (John 17) and that will be finally, perfectly achieved in Glory.

So, with all its issues and problems, I am happy to say: Merry Christmas – Emmanuel, God with us.