Happy Christmas: Sunday is Coming!
Christmas Day, last year, fell on a Saturday, and we took the decision at Gateway Church not to have a Christmas Day service. Partly this was a pragmatic decision – we felt that holding two services in two days would not generate a positive response…! This pragmatic decision then required a choice – meet on Christmas Day or Sunday? And that took us in a more theological direction…
Part of this theology is that we are free to make something or not of ‘special’ days as we see fit – these things are ‘a shadow’ (Col 2:16-17) so there is no more spiritual value in meeting on Christmas Day than on any other. Digging a bit into the history, Christmas is a Roman Catholic (and essentially pagan) feast, married to a festival born out of Victorian sentimentality, whereas we know that from the book of Acts onwards believers have gathered to worship ‘on the Lord’s day’. For me, theologically and historically, Sunday is a far more significant day for Christians to gather than any other, so in making a choice I’d rather stick with Sunday – and yes, had I been alive at the time of the English Civil War I would probably have been on the side of those who wanted to abolish Christmas!
Pragmatically again, Christmas is a great opportunity for us to get people into our church buildings who would never normally darken our doors, which is why any sensible church leadership team puts effort into some kind of Christmas event that gathers the crowds. We do this at Gateway with a pre-Christmas Day carol service – but this is born of missional strategy, not a theological conviction about the value of Christmas.
So we had good pragmatic, historical and theological reasons for not having a Christmas Day service – but the decision still upset some members of my congregation!
It is interesting how certain days matter more to some people than to others. One encounters it occasionally with those believers who have a bee in their bonnet about the Sabbath. Sometimes these people are those who say Sunday is the Sabbath, and that in some way the OT Sabbath laws still apply to Christians. Another camp is those who say that Saturday is the Sabbath and that is when Christians should meet to worship.
Strictly speaking, Saturday is the Sabbath. It is the last day of the week. The day on which God finished his work of creation and rested. However, it is clear that from the earliest decades of the Church, followers of Jesus were meeting to worship on ‘the Lord’s Day’ – Sunday, the first day of the week, the day that Jesus rose from the grave (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor 16:2.). One can imagine Paul in the Synagogue on the Sabbath, “proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ,” and with the church on Sunday, worshipping that same Christ. It is also clear that the early believers felt no restriction about limiting their meeting to just one day a week – indeed, the first church met daily (Acts 2:46).
Christ is the fulfilment of the Sabbath, the one in whom we have already entered rest (Heb 4:9). So while having a ‘day of rest’ each week is still advisable as a creation principle, and while there seems wisdom in following the example of 2,000 years of church history and meeting to worship on the first day of the week, we are not bound to keeping any particular day – certainly not Christmas Day!
As for those people in my congregation who would like to meet on both Christmas Day and Sunday, well this year Christmas Day falls on a Sunday so problem solved. And beyond that, when Christmas Day does not fall on a Saturday or Monday I would expect to do services on both – so we should be ok until 2017!
A few years on from writing this post and with Christmas day again falling on a Sunday my position would be pretty much the same: For Christians, Sunday should be a bigger deal than Christmas Day. So to cancel a service this Sunday is a problem not because it is Christmas, but because it is the Lord’s Day! However, I have also softened my stance somewhat. It is true that we cannot know when Jesus was born (personally I think it is much more likely to have been during the feast of tabernacles in September/October than at ‘Christmas’), so at Christmas while we celebrate the birth of Christ, we really are not celebrating ‘Jesus’ birthday’. That phrase is more often Christmas schmaltz than genuine piety. But pastorally, it is wise to hold Christmas Day services: I know that members of my congregation who live on their own or who have difficult family situations need the experience of being with the body of Christ on what can be a stressful day. And - certainly in my kind of church context - organising the Christmas morning service is hardly an onerous task. We gather briefly, sing songs of praise, have a short talk pointing us again to Christ, greet one another, and go, strengthened and ready for the day. (And for some of us, for a swim in the sea!).
Happy Christmas - have a wonderful Sunday!