Incarnation and Passion
My background is Open Brethren and we never had such things as Easter and Christmas Services. I don't recall that Brethren ever thought that there was actually anything wrong with them in themselves. It was just that they were the only two occasions when so many ever went to Church; we considered that hypocritical, so we didn't hold services then. Of course, such is hypocritical. So I have never grown up with them and after joining the Reformed Churches, I was never happy about observing the 'Church Year'.
However, I could not say that, in itself, it was wrong. My previous Session required it of me but not in a strait-jacket sort of way. I did my best for nine years and over that time my attitude has changed. Some years I really struggled to put together a few sermons on the subject in a fresh way. But there were times when I think I had good ideas and I think (for whatever that is worth) that some of my better sermons came out of those series. Over the years I came to appreciate the fact that the people in Palmerston North actually wanted to give up some of their holiday to come and worship God and thank Him for His salvation. We should not be unappreciative of that in today's hedonistic environment. Should we deny people that on these two appropriate occasions? Celebrating the two greatest events of our Lord's work for us? So, alongside Rev. Hoyt's treatment of the subject from a Scriptural point of view, which must always be first and determinative, may I make some other comments?
The Heidelberg interprets the Second Commandment as teaching "that we in no way make any image of God nor worship Him in any other way than He has commanded in His Word (LD. 96)."
The Belgic teaches "that the whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in (the Scriptures) at large (Art. 7)" and further;
...we believe, though it is useful and beneficial that those who are rulers of the Church institute and establish certain ordinances among themselves for maintaining the body of the Church, yet that they ought studiously to take care that they do not depart from those things which Christ, our only Master, has instituted. And therefore we reject all human inventions, and all laws which man would introduce into the worship of God, thereby to bind and compel the conscience in any manner whatever. Therefore we admit only of that which tends to nourish and preserve concord and unity, and to keep all men in obedience to God.(Art. 32)
The Westminster says, The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added... Nevertheless, we acknowledge ... that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and the government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.(Chap. 1, 6)
...the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture.(Chap. 21, 1)
...in the public assemblies, which are not carelessly or wilfully to be neglected, or forsaken, when God, by His Word or providence, calleth thereunto.(Chap. 21, 6)
From all this has developed the Regulative Principle of Worship which, roughly put, says, "what is not commanded is forbidden." Which begs the perennial question, what specifically is commanded? Recitation of a creed? Two services on the Lord's Day? Catechism preaching? What aspects of our worship are to be determined in the light of nature and Christian prudence according to the general principles of the Word and what are limited by His own revealed will in a rather more specific manner?
Dealing with Components
One thing I have noticed about all the confessional statements about worship is that they are dealing with the components of worship, not when or how often we are to worship. Thus, the second service is one of those things that the (human) rulers of the Church have, over the years, instituted to maintain the body of the Church. Thus too, can we not say that Catechism preaching is a human invention? But it does not bring anything foreign into the worship of God. It is simply a way of preaching the Word, a framework for systematically preaching the Word as one of the Scripturally prescribed elements. A liturgy serves a similar purpose. The Church has only followed the synagogue so far as liturgy is concerned; we don't have an explicit command. At the most Christ's and the apostles' example.
As I understand the Anglican practice of following the Church year, or the Lutheran lectionary, they are only trying to do the same thing, systematically preach the whole counsel of God both as respects God's works and our response, only using a different vehicle. So, for example, after Pentecost, preaching is for a couple of months or whatever, concerned with the work of the Spirit in the life of the Church and the Christian (our Gratitude section of the Catechism?). Maybe it could even be argued, per Psalm 78 as only one example, that theirs is the more biblical, the more Hebrew way, whereas ours is more Greek inspired – doctrinal rather than framed around the acts of God.
The Second Helvetic Confession written in 1566 by Heinrich Bullinger and adopted or highly approved in Switzer land, France, Holland, Hungary, Poland, the Palatinate, Scotland, England, says in Chap. 24;
Moreover, if the churches do religiously celebrate the memory of the Lord's nativity, circumcision, Passion, resurrection, and of the ascension into heaven, and the sending of the Holy Spirit upon His disciples, according to church liberty, we do very well to approve of it.
Although speaking of practices within the worship service like whether to kneel in prayer or not, the following comments of Calvin would seem also to apply to our subject;
(Christ) did not will in outward discipline and ceremonies to prescribe in detail what we ought to do (because he foresaw that this depended upon the state of the times, and he did not deem one form suitable for all ages), here we must take refuge in those general rules which he has given, that whatever the necessity of the church will require for order and decorum should be tested against these. Lastly, because he has taught nothing specifically, and because these things are not necessary to salvation, and for the upbuilding of the church ought to be variously accommodated to the customs of each nation and age, it will be fitting (as the advantage of the church will require) to change and abrogate traditional practices and to establish new ones.
Now it is the duty of Christian people to keep the ordinances that have been established according to this rule with a free conscience, indeed, without superstition, yet with a pious and ready inclination to obey; not to despise them, not to pass over them in careless negligence. So far ought we to be from openly violating them through pride and obstinacy.
What sort of freedom of conscience could there be in such excessive attentiveness and caution? Indeed, it will be very clear when we consider that these are no fixed and permanent sanctions by which we are bound, but outward rudiments for human weakness. Although not all of us need them, we all use them, for we are mutually bound, one to another, to nourish mutual love... Similarly, the days themselves, the hours, the structure of the places of worship, what psalms are to be sung on what day, are matters of no importance. But it is convenient to have definite days and stated hours, and a place suitable to receive all, if there is any concern for the preservation of peace. For confusion in such details would become the seed of great contentions if every man were allowed, as he pleased, to change matters affecting public order! For it will never happen that the same thing will please all if matters are regarded as indifferent and left to individual choice. Inst. IV:X:30, 31. See also 32 for further similar advice
Dean Anderson, in an FF Office-bearers' Insert in 1992, notes that historically, even in the Dutch tradition (over against the Scottish where we have come to expect it), there was a reticence on the part of Synods to promote 'feastdays' but pressure from the people and the government forced the Churches to accommodate them. So they tried to reform their observance including 'Sundayizing' them as much as possible. At one Synod, Rotterdam, 1575, Anderson considers the Churches' attitude to the government on this issue was one of respect; it was not considered a hill on which to die.
So also the Churches of the Afscheiding ruled in Amsterdam in 1836;
The Lord's Day has been set apart by the Lord Himself, and we cannot and may not add to it any feast by human decree. The six work days are given by God in order to work; people may indeed on those days gather together to be edified out of and by God's Word, provided that the conscience of men is not bound to the observance of fixed and annually returning feast days; the conscience must be left completely free in this matter.
We often complain that our society is becoming more and more secular. More godless. It is. Well, should we not try to redeem a little bit of it? However these two days, 'Good' Friday and Christmas, came into our calendar and with whatever initial pagan associations, they are in our calendar and have been for nearly 2,000 years – as Christian celebrations. Should we let them fall back into the mists of paganism again? Some try to deny we have a Christian heritage. We have never been a Christian country, they say. There is truth in that, formally. But, in a more subtle way, there is truth also that we do, in the culture in which our nation grew up, have a Christian heritage. Are we going to work to retain our Christian heritage in terms of law while, at the same time, deny it in what will ultimately be much more effective under the Lord's hand, in the more informal but more powerful influences that work within culture? Legislation will always fall before the popular culture. I do not know where this came from now, but sometime ago I wrote down the following on an initial draft of this article;
Long before (Calvin's) arrival (in Geneva), the rulers of the city had made laws against gaming, drunkenness, masquerades, dances and extravagance in dress. As there was no change in heart, these laws proved unavailing.
That is, they legislated for reformation without there being, as yet, a spiritual revival of the heart to give that reformation life. Popular culture is not the same as spiritual revival but the above illustrates Jesus' point that what lives in the heart of man is what drives him, not legislation.
On these days, we have an opportunity simply to celebrate and preach the Gospel of free grace in a world so desperately in need of it. They are one of the few times when an unbeliever might still feel he can get away with going to Church without too much scorn from his neighbour.
Wouldn't it seem a strange thing that the nation has these holidays to celebrate Easter and Christmas and we, the Church, did not? The world still knows something about what they are for – Christmas at least. Even if it is only by its soppy and ultimately blasphemous carol-playing in the shopping malls and its stupid little mangers and so on. Sentimentalism dies hard in the human breast. But when we don't remember what it is really about and preach the pure Gospel on that day, what are we saying to the world? That we also think Christmas is about "hail fellow, well met, jolly-ho, have a beer, aren't we all really good mates" kind of conviviality? That it is about being nice to your kids – one day a year! That it is good for business! Our God is gold! On this score, Easter becomes the most inane thing in all the world – as a nation we have two public holidays to eat chocolate eggs and Easter bunnies! Our God is our belly!
We should shout out against this blasphemy – not against the day; the day itself is not holy; but against the USE of GOD for business (or anything else). My point is this: we have this day and we have had it for centuries; it is part of our Christian heritage. Let us remind ourselves and our fellow men and women of the greatness and goodness of God and be thankful and worship Him. We either have to redeem these days and acknowledge their purpose or lobby the government, since it is talking about revamping our public holidays anyway, to abolish them for otherwise they are blasphemous. At the very least, we must just quietly go to work in protest. I can't see too many of us doing that by choice. As the Synod of Dort in 1578 said, in response to losing the battle again with the government over the matter,
Nevertheless, ... the ministers shall do their best to teach the congregation to transform unproductive and harmful idleness into holy and profitable exercises by sermons especially dealing with the birth and resurrection of Christ, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and such like articles of the faith.
Since we are already working, I believe, within Scriptural boundaries, and certainly within confessional and Church Order boundaries, we can be as pragmatic as that. There is a difference, of course. We have no government requiring us to observe this day, or at least, to worship on it or hold it as a holy day. But we will observe it; we do. Only, will it be per the rest of the world – in "unproductive and harmful idleness"? For that is all it is to the world. No, let us take the opportunity to redeem these days to worship God and to testify against the blasphemy, hedonism and godlessness of our age.