We have often reminded you that ownership of time is inescapable. Either we will mark and define our days with reference to God and His Christ, or we will allow the calendar to be defined by unbelievers. So, for example, either your year will be defined by holidays like Christmas and Easter, or it will be defined by something like Memorial Day and the 4th of July.
But there is much more to the topic than this. If we are to be biblical people, we have to pay attention not only to what we celebrate, but also to how we celebrate it. In other words, there are ostensible ways of marking the life of Jesus that are nevertheless grotesque and debauched. What is Mardi Gras? Why the drunken and orgiastic revels? Well, that occurs on the eve of Lent, a period of time in which you are supposed to be really good, and Lent is the run up to Easter, the time when we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. And the resurrection of Jesus occurred to liberate us from the condition of being the kind of people who think that Mardi Gras might be an appropriate way to behave.
In short, there is a way to mark the life of Jesus that does not render Him true and appropriate honor. Actually there are two basic ways to do this. One of them is the Babylonian debauch (Jude 4), and the other is the way of demonic denials (1 Tim. 4:1-4). These are not to be confused with being merry before the Lord (Ps. 104:15), or fasting as a true spiritual discipline (Matt. 9:15).
“Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward” (Matt. 6:16).
“Wherefore if ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances, (Touch not; taste not; handle not; Which all are to perish with the using;) after the commandments and doctrines of men? Which things have indeed a shew of wisdom in will worship, and humility, and neglecting of the body; not in any honour to the satisfying of the flesh” (Col. 2:20–23).
Summary of the Text:
Because man is created in the image of God, he is homo adorans, worshiping man. He was created for worship, and ultimately cannot do anything but worship. But because he is also fallen, he has the impulse—down in his bones he has it—to worship a false god or, failing that, to worship the true God falsely. He wants somehow to veer off from the right worship of Jehovah, and will do it either in the direct object or in the adverb. He will turn to Molech or Baal, or he will worship Jehovah under the auspices of something like Aaron’s golden calf.
Now one of the ways that men have always wanted to propitiate the gods is by dancing around altars and cutting themselves with knives. When this impulse has been allowed into the church, it has usually been domesticated somewhat, but we are still told to resist the inroads of this kind of thinking. We are to be wary about the first stirrings of it. How are we to do that? When you fast, Jesus teaches, no one should know about it. And while there is a show of wisdom in harsh treatment of the body, abasing yourself in arbitrary ways, Paul says that it is of no value in mortifying the flesh. No value. It does not really get the job done at all.
In short, there is a denial of the flesh, an abuse of the flesh, that is actually a manifestation of the flesh. Poking your body with sticks is something the flesh wants to do. Your body doesn’t want it but your flesh does.
Good Fellowship Despite This:
Now wariness is not accusation. The point of preaching on this topic is not so that we can get into holiday conflicts and clashes with friends or family members who think differently about these things. Rather, it is to make sure you know that our reasons for abstaining from certain themes and practices in our worship service is a principled stand. It is not because we are slow on the uptake, and have somehow not figured out how Christmas and Easter are supposed to go. We are Puritans, and so we worship like we are Puritans. But we are also Puritans who accept the charge Paul gave us in Romans. “One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind” (Rom. 14:5). So it is not the end of the world when others do what we wouldn’t do. But we draw the line at us doing what we wouldn’t do.
How Penitential Seasons Can Become Pestilential:
Because the seasons of the church year developed over the course of centuries, many of those calendrical developments occurred when a false notion of merit theology had dominant sway in the church. It was that merit theology that in large measure necessitated the Reformation. The error was not a small one, and it did not cause tiny dislocations.
During these centuries, two penitential seasons developed. Lent was the run-up to Easter and Advent was the run-up to Christmas. The idea was that these preparatory seasons were times for reflection, penitence, anticipation, and giving things up. When you got to the festival—say, the 12 days of Christmas—you would then celebrate. Having come through the wilderness of the penitential season, you would enter the Canaan of the festival. The same thing was true of Lent and Easter.
Now as this church year has come down to most Americans, some of it arrived in an unrecognizable condition. If you mention Lent to a cashier at the grocery store, most everyone will know that you are supposed to “give something up.” In other words, the penitential aspect of it is still visible to pretty much everyone. But if you mention Advent, people simply think you are talking about preparations for Christmas—hanging lights, counting the days, shopping for presents, etc. Virtually no one thinks it is supposed to be penitential. That is why I feel free to celebrate Advent and not Lent—secular Americans wrecked the penitential aspects of Advent with their celebratory cash registers. We are nowhere close to where we need to be yet, but it was a real improvement and provides us with a real opportunity.
You Had One Job . . .
So at bottom, we need to see that the ascetic impulse and the licentious impulse are frequently the same thing, and can amount to the same kind of will-worship. This is not to say that the pursuit of pleasure is automatically bad, or that fasting is automatically bad. But it is to say that both these paths run along a narrow ridge with a steep cliff on either side. In order to stay on the path of “enjoyment,” we must pursue it according to the Word. In order to stay on the path of “self-discipline,” we must pursue it according to the Word. So, to take one example, if you are fasting, what one thing must you not do to your face? When you are fasting, Jesus said, make sure you don’t do what? You must not disfigure your face, or be downcast. You must not smudge your face.
Gratitude for the Coming Christ Who Came:
The issue is never our discipline, or our lack of it. Whenever it is ours, we do it wrong. The issue is always Jesus Christ. We are looking forward to His liturgical coming, and because we have been given the entire story, our celebration is full of anticipatory joy.
There is no way to celebrate the church year as one who is reading the book for the first time. The pleasures of our celebration are always those of someone rereading a beloved book for the tenth time. There is no way to hear the bittersweet words of Simeon without hearing them against the backdrop of the resurrection and ascension. There is no way to read about Mary Magdalene at the foot of the cross without anticipating her glad cry of rabboni in the garden.