A Reformed Case for ‘Evangelical Feast Days’

Just in time for Christmas comes an article from Rev. Danny Hyde, pastor of Oceanside URC.  He also serves as an Adjunct Instructor at both Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and Mid-America Reformed Seminary.
Daniel R. Hyde, “Not Holy But Helpful .” Mid-America Journal of Theology 26 (2015): 131–149.
This is used by permission: Web: www.midamerica.edu. E-mail: info@midamerica.edu. Phone:219.864.2400.

Feast of the Holy Innocents

By Robin Phillips

Today is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, a day that Christians have historically set aside for remembering the baby boys of Bethlehem that Herod cruelly slaughtered (Matthew 2:16-18).

Also called Childermas, the Feast was instituted between 400 and 500 AD by the Latin-speaking church and intentionally placed within the octave of Christmas to emphasize that the Holy Innocents – considered by many to be the church’s first martyrs – gave their life for the newborn Saviour.

But the Feast is also a time when the church annually reaffirms her commitment to the sanctity of life. As George Grant observed last year,

It has long been the focus of the Christian Church’s commitment to protect and preserve the sanctity of human life–thus serving as a prophetic warning against the practicioners of abandonment and infanticide in the age of Antiquity, oblacy and pessiary in the Medieval epoch, and abortion and euthanasia in these Modern times. Generally set aside as a day of prayer, it culminates with a declaration of the covenant community’s unflinching commitment to the innocents who are unable to protect themselves.

As Dr. Grant’s words suggest, today is a time for us to mourn, not only over the Bethlehem martyrs, but over the tens of thousands of innocent victims who have been slain on the altar of the abortion industry.

Collect for the Day

“We remember today, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem by King Herod. Receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

Readings from the Book of Common Prayer.

This article has been cross-posted with Robin’s Readings & Reflections.

Further Reading

The Magi, the Massacre and Herod the Horrible

St. John’s Day (the Apostle)

Today, the Western church celebrates the memory of St. John the Evangelist.  There are a lot of traditions mixed with this holiday, which I’m not comfortable with.  Part of the problem with paying attention to the church year is knowing how to sift through the accretions of tradition and culture.  But, we can certainly see the value in meditating on the  profound teachings of this “Beloved Disciple.”  In John 1, we read one of the most sublime passages in Scripture, which describes the miracle of the Incarnation.  Surely this is worth our attention during the “Twelve Days of Christmas” (actually it’s the 12 days after Christmas).

The Anglican Book of Common Prayer has a good selection of Scriptures to mediate and pray through on this day, a special day to remember the Light which came into the world.  Again, the point of observing the church year is not to accept it all as straight from Mt. Sinai.  But, it does help us to focus on different aspects of our faith in a disciplined way.  May we be like John, and gain a deeper appreciation of how this Light transforms the darkness.

Collect for the Day

Shed upon your Church, O Lord, the brightness of your light, that we, being illumined by the teaching of your apostle and evangelist John, may so walk in the light of your truth, that at length we may attain to the fullness of eternal life; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Christmas in the Trenches

Today is St. Stephen’s Day, a fact most Reformed folks would be blissfully ignorant of.  As I’ve become more aware of the traditional pattern of the church year, I’ve been musing on the practical wisdom of following the liturgical year.  First, some background.  St. Stephen’s Day commemorates (quite obviously) Stephen, the first martyr of the church (see Acts 7).  Also, “Because St. Stephen was the first Deacon, and because one of the Deacons’ role in the Church is to care for the poor, St. Stephen’s Day is often the day for giving food, money, and other items to servants, sevice workers, and the needy (it is known as “Boxing Day” in some English-speaking parts of the world).” [HT – fisheaters.com]  I want to suggest two benefits to observing St. Stephen’s Day, one practical and one theological.

Practically, observing “Boxing Day” returns us to the deep meaning of Christmas.  Traditionally, Christian took “boxes” of food and gifts to the needy in response to God’s Gift(s).  Being made in the “image of God” we are to imitate the Father, and all good gifts come from Him (James 1:17).  What better way to show our thankfulness for all that we have been given (just yesterday!) by turning around and intentionally giving to those who have less?  There’s no better remedy for the self-centered “Christmas blues” than to reach out to others in humble service.  Yesterday evening, our family took a meal and a gift to an elderly friend of ours who really has no family or community.  She lives in near-poverty, with bad health, and was alone on Christmas.  It made Christmas night a special time for her and for our family.  I want my children to associate Christmas with giving, in a really tangible way, rather than just with receiving.  (Had we planned better, we would be out doing something similar today, but that is an eschatalogical goal for next year!)  But, since we are paying more careful attention to the church calendar, we will have a yearly reminder to stay focused on the Gift of the Incarnation, rather than just returning to life as usual.

Theologically, St. Stephen’s Day reminds us that we are in the midst of a war.  Christ came as a tiny babe, meek and mild, in His first Advent.  In His second Advent, He will come with a bright two-edged sword and will destroy his enemies (Rev. 19:11-21).  Jesus Christ came to bring “peace on earth,” but it is the peace of the Gospel.  For those who oppose the Gospel (the good news about Jesus the Messiah), there will be no peace.  The Gospel offends sinful men who refuse to submit to their rightful King.  For this reason, Jesus also came to bring a sword of division:  “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth.  I have not come to bring peace, but a sword … ” (Matt. 10:34–take a minute to read the rest of the passage!)  St. Stephen discovered the truth of these sobering words.  He accepted God’s Gift, and paid for it with his life.  Remembering St. Stephen on this day reminds us of the reality of the spiritual warfare we live in.  Recalling St. Stephen’s faithful example of martyrdom should fortify us to follow Christ the King, wherever He may lead.  As He told us, “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 10:39).  May we be like Stephen, and lose our lives for the King, only to find them again!

Martyrdom of St. Stephen - by Bernardo Daddi, A.D. 1324

Readings for St. Stephen’s Day from the Book of Common Prayer

Collect for the Day

GRANT, O Lord, that, in all our sufferings here upon earth for the testimony of thy truth, we may stedfastly look up to heaven, and by faith behold the glory that shall be revealed; and, being filled with the Holy Ghost, may learn to love and bless our persecutors by the example of thy first Martyr Saint Stephen, who prayed for his murderers to thee, O blessed Jesus, who standest at the right hand of God to succour all those who suffer for thee. our only Mediator and Advocate. Amen.

Sacred Times and Seasons (Part 2)

By Robin Phillips

Preach the gospel at all times and, if necessary, use words.” St. Francis

In an article for the November/December edition of Touchstone, titled ‘The Devil’s Calendar, Father Scott Wilson talked about the stealthy theft of Christian holy days. Father Scot lamented that “one by one, the Church’s holy days have been overshadowed by secularizing forces, by new false gods, if you will…. It is striking that nearly every major feast day in the church year has been preempted, to one degree or another, by a secular event that now absorbs the greater part of public attention.

Father Scott pointed to many examples of this, not least the way Easter break has been hijacked by Spring Break:.

“Even in public school systems, the weeklong break that occurs in the spring used to be called the ‘Easter break.’ No more; it is now just called ‘spring break.’ And while it often coincides with Holy Week, the solemn week culminating with Good Friday, when our Lord’s Passion is commemorated, many people use the break to skip town and head to warm climates for festive activities, in a recess from daily and academic grinds. Good Friday on the beach is not one of the Stations of the Cross.

Because human beings are inescapably liturgical and religious, we invariably organize the year into rhythmic structures that reflect our priorities. As I pointed out in my blog post ‘Church Calendar’, if our priorities are not the great feasts of the church, then by default our year will probably end up being structured around secular holidays that tell the story of political redemption or else holidays that pay homage to the god of hedonism, such as vacation time. The issue is not that we have civic landmarks or vacation time: the problem arises when these become the fundamental structuring devices by which we order time. Continue reading

Sacred Times and Seasons (Part 1)

Three times in the year you shall keep a feast to me.” Exodus 13:14

This year Christmas Day happens to fall on a Sunday. That means that many American Protestants will do something they are not used to doing: they will attend church on Christmas Day.

Do Church and Christmas Day go Together?

When my wife and I first moved to America from England, we found it odd that almost all Protestant churches were shut for Christmas Day, though many Protestant liturgical churches will have Christmas Eve services.

In England, church attendance on Christmas morning is as much a part of the celebrations as stockings, mince pies and carols. In fact, many English men and women who hardly ever set foot inside a church will attend their local Anglican church on Christmas morning. Indeed, walking to the village church on Christmas morning, accompanied by the festive music of the church’s bells, is such an integral part of an English Christmas that when we moved to America my wife and I found it difficult to imagine a Christmas without it.

In America, the tradition of going to church on Christmas morning has been preserved mainly among Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, with the exception of a handful of liturgical churches. The reformed Presbyterian church that my family attends reintroduced the practice a few years ago.

From Feast Day to Family Day

In her Time article titled, ‘Going to Church on Christmas: A Vanishing Tradition’ Amy Sullivan remarked about the way family has replaced faith as being the center of an American Christmas:

“While demand for Christmas Eve celebrations is so high that some churches hold as many as five or six different services on the 24th of December, most Protestant churches are closed on the actual religious holiday. For most Christians, Christmas is a day for family, not faith.”

The problem is not, of course, that Christmas is a family-centered occasion. After all, in the European countries where church attendance is an inseparable part of Christmas piety, the day is also family-oriented, as anyone familiar with Dickens’ A Christmas Carol can attest. But family is not the thing that is first and foremost.

This year when Christmas happens to land on a Sunday, millions of Americans who are regular church-goers will sadly skip church because they simply cannot imagine Christmas morning having anything to do with church attendance. Many will probably justify their absence by saying that they are wishing to preserve the sense of Christmas being a ‘family day.’ But those who do make the effort to attend church this Christmas Day will have a wonderful opportunity to connect with a lost tradition. For some of the younger ones among us, this may be the first time they have ever been able to engage in corporate worship on Christmas Day, an opportunity that won’t repeat itself again until 2016 (unless, of course, their churches decides to bring back the tradition like my church has). Continue reading