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How the Reformation (Almost) Killed Christmas

New England Puritans, in 1659, sought to ban Christmas celebrations, as they were thought to be “Satanic practices.” Only the most contrarian Christians are that severe today. How did Christmas win against Puritan opposition?

It was Christmas Day, 1550, in Geneva, Switzerland. A larger than usual crowd gathered at church that day, and the preacher, John Calvin, was rather annoyed.

“Now I see here today more people than I am accustomed to having at the sermon. Why is that? It is Christmas Day. And who told you this? You poor beasts. That is a fitting euphemism for all of you who have come here today to honor Noel.”

Calvin was not exactly trying to be like Charles Dickens’ Scrooge. Instead, he was bothered that so many of his church people were so superstitious, that they thought Christmas to be more important than the weekly Lord’s Day gatherings, held every Sunday. Calvin would be appalled by the contemporary practice of keeping shops open on Sundays, while closing those same shops on Christmas!

Calvin was not alone in his suspicions about Christmas, with some seeking to kill Christmas altogether. From Ulrich Zwingli’s Zurich, Switzerland, to the post-Elizabethan era of English Puritanism, in the early 17th century, many in the Reformation movement sought to abolish all feast and saints holy days… including Christmas.  The Bible gave no command and made no explicit provision for celebrating Christmas, and the Roman Catholic practice of celebrating Christmas was associated with so many superstitious beliefs (kissing under the mistletoe?), that it was better to be rid of all things that even hinted at “ole’ Saint Nick.” Even in colonial America, the Puritan settlers of New England sought to ban Christmas celebrations outright.

On the other hand, the German Reformer, Martin Luther, was one of the holdouts, who liked keeping Christmas traditions. Since the Bible never specifically prohibited Christmas celebrations, he saw no reason to forbid them. Luther gave his children toys and honey cakes on Christmas day. He popularized the Christmas tree. But for the English forebearers of Protestant reform, inspired by those like Geneva’s John Calvin, few Bible preachers and teachers on the British Isles cared that much for Christmas.

It was mainly during the long reign of Elizabeth I, the 16th century “Virgin Queen,” that Christmas managed to hang on, and even flourish, among the Protestant English. Christmas was a festive time at Elizabeth’s court.

Elizabeth I of England (1533-1603). The queen who saved Christmas for English Christians.

Elizabeth was determined to steer a middle course between the traditionalism of Roman Catholicism, which she abhorred, and the exuberant, reform-minded preaching of the Puritans, who wanted to strip the legacy of choral music, candles, and visual arts from the churches. The 1559 Elizabethan Settlement sought to marry Protestant theology with a collection of traditional, Roman Catholic worship practices. Elizabeth’s Protestant, yet not-so-rigid faith, gave space for the continued celebration of Christmas, during the tumult of the 16th century Reformation. Despite the efforts by Puritan partisans, to stamp out Romish traditions, the English populace loved Christmas.

By the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the red hot conflict between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism had finally begun to cool somewhat, and the Elizabethan embrace of Christmas eventually won over even ardently skeptical Bible-believers. The less confessionally-oriented growth of the evangelical movement, started by popular evangelists, like George Whitfield and John Wesley, made it possible once more for enthusiastic Protestants to consider Christmas as a genuinely Christian celebration, among English-speaking peoples. Towards the end of the 19th century, the popularity of English Christmas carols, ranging from “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” to “O Holy Night,” to “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” helped to cement the reception of Christmas among English-speaking Christians.

Christmas did not merely survive. It thrived.

I am very much a child of the Reformation, sola fide, sola gratia, and all of the rest. Yet even though I do get rather burned out on the barrage of Christmas carols on the radio and in shopping malls, by about mid-December, I am nevertheless thankful that the Protestant Reformation did not ultimately succeed in killing off Christmas. In our increasingly secular American society, Christmas is still a festive time of year, where even the most skeptical non-believers are willing to enjoy a Christian celebration. Sure, many have no real understanding of the meaning of Christmas. Yet some are open to discuss spiritual things. Thanks to folks like Martin Luther (for Germans) and Queen Elizabeth I (for the English), the season of Christmas remains a time of year where we can focus on the mystery of God’s incarnate mission and presence on earth, through Jesus Christ.

Merry Christmas!

For a broader look at the “War on Christmas” in history, read this Veracity posting from a few years ago. The above blog post was inspired by reading David Swartz’s post, on the same topic, at the Anxious Bench blog.

The Williamsburg Inn, at Colonial Williamsburg’s Grand Illumination, 2017, celebrating the coming of the Christ, during the Christmas Advent season.


Are Eclipses Signs from God?

 

Some are calling it the “Great American Eclipse,” when the moon covers the disc of the sun, racing across from Oregon to South Carolina, on Monday, August 21, 2017. The last time this happened in the U.S. was 1918. But is God trying to tell us something with this event?

Some Christians might think so, but is such a belief warranted? The Bible does report some unusual astronomical phenomena, such as the darkness that covered the earth, on the afternoon of the Crucifixion.

It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun’s light failed. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two”(Luke 23:44-45 ESV)

Interestingly, one popular Bible translation tries to tell us how this happened:

“It was now about noon and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon because of an eclipse of the sun….“(Luke 23:44-45a NAB)

A solar eclipse? While the translators of the New American Bible might be good Bible scholars, they need a refresher in astronomy. Let me explain why.

First, the movement of the moon’s shadow across the face of the earth, across a single point, travels much faster than three hours. The moon’s shadow will book across the United States, at the speed of at least 1000 mph. For example, in Columbia, SC, in the path of Monday’s total eclipse, the duration of the totality will be 2 minutes, 30 seconds.

Secondly, the timing of the lunar calendar is completely off, to support the idea of a solar eclipse. The Crucifixion happened near the time of the Jewish Passover, which happens during a full moon, midway through the Jewish month of Nissan. Total solar eclipses only occur during a new moon, when the moon’s surface facing the earth, is completely within the sun’s shadow, which is at the opposite time of the month from a full moon.

The math simply does not work. Whatever darkness happened on Good Friday, trying to tie it strictly to a natural event of a solar eclipse is pure folly. Sure, God can use these things, for His purposes, and He can produce supernatural events. But whether it be solar or lunar eclipses, or planetary alignments, caution is in order before drawing too much from naturally occurring, astronomical events.

Astrology and the Bible Do Not Mix

In the history of the church, some Christians have read too much from the “signs in the heavens.” I remember watching the movie Elizabeth: The Golden Age, just shaking my head. Queen Elizabeth, the monarch who set the theological course for the Church of England, for at least the next 400 years, consulted her astrologer, John Dee, about how her navy would fair against the Spanish Armada.

Or there is the influential colleague of Martin Luther, the German Reformer, Philip Melanchthon, who consulted astrological horoscopes, to help him decide on when to take long journeys.  Even Huldrych Zwingli, the early Swiss Reformer of Zurich, dabbled in believing in various “signs and portents” in the heavens.

However, it would be anachronistic to judge Christians from earlier generations, who appropriated ideas from astrology, before the age of modern astronomy. But when some Christian leaders today, speculate on whether or not the “Great American Eclipse” is a sign of God’s impending judgment against America, it is cringe-worthy. To her credit, daughter of evangelist Billy Graham, Anne Graham Lotz, is being pretty vague, but it bothered me that she uses the prophet Joel to encourage people to look for heavenly “signs”:

“The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes.“(Joel 2:31 ESV)

Lotz neglects to tell the rest of the story. While the Bible does employ cosmologically rich language to refer to God’s judgment, the Bible also warns us not to look to the heavens for prophetic signposts. For the prophet Isaiah, astrology is condemned, lumping it along with all forms of occultism and sorcery:

12 Keep on, then, with your magic spells
    and with your many sorceries,
    which you have labored at since childhood.
Perhaps you will succeed,
    perhaps you will cause terror.
13 All the counsel you have received has only worn you out!
    Let your astrologers come forward,
those stargazers who make predictions month by month,
    let them save you from what is coming upon you.
14 Surely they are like stubble;
    the fire will burn them up.
They cannot even save themselves
    from the power of the flame.
“(Isaiah 47:12-14a)

So, for those planning on braving the traffic, to places like South Carolina, next Monday, enjoy the eclipse for what it is, a really cool display of God’s wonder and creation. It demonstrates the reliability, predictability and beauty of nature, which only a God of order and elegance can create. What a great opportunity to talk with friends about how awesome God is, as Creator!

But as for applying prophetic significance to the eclipse, as a reason why you might want to pull your money out of the stock market, to avoid financial ruin,… well, leave that to the astrologers.

Christians have other, better things to do.

 


Idols and Images: Ten Commandments, Yes, But How Do You List Them?

Moses and Aaron, with the Ten Commandments: Aron de Chaves (1674)

I received a little pushback offline on a previous post about dream catchers. I kind of expected that.

Christians have long struggled with the relationship between idols and visual images. Much of the controversy stems back to how Christians read the Ten Commandments, or more to the point, how various Christians read the Ten Commandments differently. An often ignored consequence of the 16th century Protestant Reformation illustrates the difficulty.

The Ten Commandments are derived from two passages from the Bible, Exodus 20:1-17 and Deuteronomy 5:4-21, texts that are very close to one another in content. But careful study demonstrates that not every Christian identifies all of the commandments in the exact same manner. However, contrary to some misguided assertions, there are no mainstream Christian traditions that have “changed” the Ten Commandments. Rather, the problem is in how different traditions have grouped the various commandments together.

An obvious question to start off with would be, so why “Ten” commandments? Well, we have three passages in the Bible that directly tell us of “ten words” given to Moses at Sinai (Exodus 34:28, Deuteronomy 4:13, and Deuteronomy 10:4).

However, the Bible was not divided up into a verse numbering scheme until the Protestant Reformation, in the 16th century. Therefore, in the early church, there was no intuitively clear way to group the Ten Commandments together. Even the Jews have had their own unique pattern of grouping the “commandments,” and it has not matched 100% with any Christian version. Continue reading


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