Most of us learned in high school that nature abhors a vacuum. When a vacuum is created, it takes concerted effort to keep it a vacuum because nothing always tends to fill up with something. The principle is unexceptionable, but we can still be surprised from time to time at the ways in which the principle is fulfilled.
Prior to the Reformation, the church calendar was clogged with saints’ days, and it was hard to swing a cat without hitting one. The simplistic approach that led to this “overachieving” assumes that if one thing is good, then two of them must be better, and neglects the truth that if everything is special nothing is. If every day, or virtually every day, is set apart for special celebration, then it is not long before special celebrations are ordinary. When this happens, the stage is set for reaction.
At the Reformation, there were varying degrees of reaction. Some of the more radical among the Protestants wanted to ban all special days, with the exception of the weekly observance of the Lord’s Day. Among the Anabaptists, some wanted to do away even with that. The continental Reformers had a more moderate approach, wanting to eliminate most of the existing traffic jam but keeping what were called the “five evangelical feast days.” Not surprisingly, even these can be reckoned differently. These days were Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost. Or if Good Friday and Easter were considered as part of the same festival, Trinity Sunday could follow Pentecost. There were other differences as well—Calvin wanted to move any Christmas observance to a Sunday, for example. But even with the variations and confusion, there was agreement that the church calendar needed to lose some serious weight.
But among the Reformed, there was still significant opposition to having the year defined by any such days at all. Verses that originally applied to the fulfilled Judaic calendar were reapplied to the concept of the Christian year. “Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ” (Col. 2:16-17). In the name of honoring Christ, it was insisted that the calendar ignore Him.
But the “definition” of a year is inescapable. As long as we have to live through them, we will set boundaries and mile markers within them, and we will order our lives accordingly. This will either be a system of defining our days that honors Christ, or it will be a system that wants to make no reference to Him. Those who bridle at the use of anno Domini in the use of dates are not hypersensitive nonbelievers—they know what many conservative Christians do not know, which is that the one who defines time is the Lord of time. The one who defines the calendar is the Lord of the calendar.
Because a movement arose within the Church that did not want the Lord Jesus to be the Lord of all history, but rather Lord just within the walls of our churches, or just inside the walls of our hearts, a public vacuum was created and was naturally filled. So it is that we now define our days by academic cycles (six weeks till spring break), or by the state calendar (only three weeks until the Memorial Day weekend), or by a corporate calendar (ten days till my vacation). There are still two historic Christian holidays remembered by our surrounding culture (Christmas and Easter), but unbelievers are laboring hard to change the meaning of even these holidays. They want, in effect, to get Saturn back into Saturnalia. And there is one American holiday with Christian origins (Thanksgiving) which is also on the hit list. Non-believers have a deep desire to turn it into Turkey Day.
My reference to Saturnalia means that I must take a slight detour for a moment. One of the more influential arguments used by our anti-holiday brethren is that these holidays used to be pagan holidays, and so their origin makes their observance today a compromise on the part of Christians. In the first place, there is nothing wrong with observing what used to be a pagan holiday—after all, we used to be pagans. Many of our innocent customs used to have pagan association—the use of wedding rings, meeting someone for lunch on Thor’s Day, and blowing out the candles on a birthday cake after making a wish. We ought not to be uptight about such things. Who was Paul’s brother, companion, and fellow soldier? Why it was Epaphroditus, whose name means that he was dedicated to the pagan goddess of copulation (Phil. 2:25). Why didn’t Paul make Epaphroditus change his name? The answer is that it was not that big a deal.
But secondly, in the case of our holidays it isn’t true. The early Christians began observing Christmas, for example, as an answer to the pagan idolatry around them, and not as a compromise with it. It was very similar to the way many modern Christians celebrate Reformation Day in a direct challenge to Halloween. And when we have sealed our testimony for Christ with as much blood as they did, we might have the right to lecture them about their tendencies to compromise the antithesis. We chastise them for challenging pagan holidays with distinctively Christian observances, and then we, in a craven fashion observe all the holidays set by our modern unbelieving state.
We need to learn to define our days in a distinctively Christian way. We need to number them with Christ in mind. We need to learn how to celebrate Christmas as the beginning of the church year, remembering the Incarnation as the foundation of all that follows. That done, God rest ye merry.