A great reaction developed during the era of the Reformation against observing regular times and seasons of prayer and celebration. The reaction was particularly strong in the Reformed and Anabaptist wings of the movement. In extreme cases this reaction led to the total rejection of all Christian festivals and prayer customs not explicitly sanctioned in the Bible. Is such a position appropriate for Protestant Christians today? It is helpful first of all to consider what provoked such a severe reaction. I would isolate four tendencies in late medieval Catholicism which led some reformers to reject established pattern of worship and festival:
A notion of the intrinsic holiness of certain times and places, which the reformers found to be appropriate to the old covenant but not to the new.
A manner of legislating certain times and feasts, which treated the keeping of them as fundamental to being a Christian, an obligation as solemn and essential to the Christian life as the keeping of the Ten Commandments.
A popular understanding of merits which saw religious observances as means of mechanically accumulating points on the credits side of the divine accounting ledger.
A proliferation of feast days dedicated to saints and a corresponding loss of understanding, on the part of many people, of the centrality of Christ and his unique redeeming work.
While Catholics would views these issues differently, few modern Catholic scholars would deny that, at least on the popular level, abuses in all these areas existed in 15th and 16th century Europe and stood in need of reform.
But did the radical surgery of some of the reformers recapture the balance? Did they not sometimes go too far and clip away observances that were of great value? One could hold that their stand was justifiable in their day. But can the same stand be justified in our own day, when the enemy is launching his attacks from other directions?
Today, in general, Christians of all traditions have grown more sensitive to the ways in which the observance of religious times and seasons can go wrong. Nonetheless (contrary to Murphy's law), the fact that such patterns can go wrong does not mean that they must go wrong. The New Testament allows such practices and the earliest Christians adopted them. If freedom to liability to abuse and distortion were the criterion for determining Christian doctrine and practice, the Christian people would have no creed and no way of life.
The question that many Protestant Christians would request to have answered could be phrased as follows: "What is the fruit of observing patterns of prayer and celebration? Does it lead to a stifling institutionalism or a deeper knowledge of God in Christ? Does it lead to the love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith, which is the aim of our charge? (1 Tim. 1:5). How can observing times and seasons support the life of the Christian family and the life of the Christian community.
I will offer an answer by describing a particular observance which has become integral to the life of my own community, The Sword of the Spirit. The observance is a regular family celebration of the Lord's Day. The example will serve as a concrete illustration of how a wide variety of similar practices can build up the body of Christ.
We begin the celebration of the Lord's Day in our families on Saturday night, a time which both follows the biblical manner of reckoning days as beginning in the evening and also allows us, wide awake, to inaugurate the Lord's Day with a leisurely festive meal. Many of the customs we have adopted are modeled on traditional Jewish forms of celebration. The woman of the home begins the event by lighting a candle and reciting a blessing in which the themes of the burning candle, the creation of light on the first day, and the resurrection of Jesus are all joined. The man of the house then recites a short summons to all present which urges them to give thanks to God for the blessings of the week and to consecrate this day to him as a time of worship and refreshment in his presence. He proceeds to say a blessing over a cup of wine and a loaf of bread, and the family eats and drinks as the sign of their unity and their joy. In addition to a bountiful and tasty meal, the evening may include singing, sharing together from events of the week, teaching and discussion from the scripture, and informal entertainment or games. All dress well, eat well, and usually sleep well.
Saturday night is for the family, and no community events are scheduled during this time.
Sunday itself is mainly occupied with church services in the morning,
a community gathering for worship and teaching in the afternoon, and occasionally
a course in some aspect of Christian living. As much as possible, members
of the community avoid workday affairs, set the day apart for the Lord
and for spending time with his people. Some families conclude the day formally
on Sunday night with a brief set of prayers over dinner and an extinguishing
of the candle lit the previous day.
We are all naturally creatures of routine. The man who shuns God-centered routines will inevitably fill his life with other ones. When I was growing up, Sunday was always a special day, but not for spiritual reasons. There was no school, I would sleep later, my father would go out and buy bagels and lox and cream cheese for brunch, I would read at leisure the Sunday funnies and the expanded sports section, and the men of the household would gather in the afternoon before the television to watch professional football or baseball. I waited eagerly each week for the appearance of Sunday. In a similar fashion, many Americans have a weekly and yearly routine which is governed largely by a pattern of sports events and television programs. Such routines develop inevitably -- so why should we not cultivate routines which center our attention on the Lord Jesus? If our year does not center on Easter Sunday and the celebration of the Lord's resurrection, then it may very well center on Super Bowl Sunday -- the secular liturgical extravaganza of modern America.
Of course, Christian routine has its dangers. It can easily become an
end in itself, divorced form the purpose it is meant to serve. It can even
become a substitute for a genuine relationship with God. It can become
a bondage which prevents us from responding appropriately to exceptional
circumstances and the daily initiatives of the Holy Spirit. However, Christian
routine need not degenerate in any of these ways. It can be observed spiritually
and flexibly, and such an observance will bring a peace and order that
enables us to focus more constantly on the Lord.
The greatest benefit of the Lord's Day celebration and similar customs, though, derives from their Christian significance. Family unity and identification are fortified, but this identity is rooted in the One from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named. When five-year old Billy asks, "Why do we keep the Lord's Day, Dad?" his father responds, "Because we are Christians, Billy, and this is the day of the week on which Jesus rose from the dead". The Lord's Day celebration builds our family identity on the bedrock of God's redeeming work in Jesus Christ.
If we do not observe such customs as the Lord's Day, then our children
and we ourselves will likely identify more with the surrounding secular
society than with the Christian people. Elimination of Christian customs
will still leave an abundance of secular customs, and these will shape
The Passover Seder has functioned successfully for generations as an annual family classroom. Experience proves that a custom observed scrupulously each year in the home, utilizing special symbolic foods and its won collection of songs and prayers, inevitably evokes a set of questions which the father of the family must be prepared to answer.
In an analogous fashion the celebration of the Lord's Day provides a perfect opportunity for teaching about the resurrection of Jesus and his fulfillment of the Sabbath. At Christmas we remember the incarnation, at Easter the redemption, at Pentecost the outpouring of the Spirit, and at Advent the Lord's second coming. The Lord's Day, Easter, and Pentecost are specifically effective teaching occasions, since they are anniversaries of the key historical events of our salvation. Of course, these are not the only days of the year when we speak about and celebrate these events. Still, these days allow vivid recollection of the details of these events and their significance.
Too often this element of instruction is left out of Christian seasonal celebrations such as Christmas. But Christian observances are not ends in themselves; they are supposed to point beyond themselves to a greater reality. Instruction in Christian truth gives meaning and content to the celebrations and fulfills an important part of their original purpose.
In essence, observance of the Lord's Day is a celebration. It is a joyful commemoration of Christ's victory over sin and death. Thus, it involves those elements that are usually found in human celebrations: singing, feasting, entertainment, with a touch of formality (but hopefully no stiffness). Other Christian celebrations also involve gift-giving, either among ourselves or to the needy. Christ has conquered, and his people should rejoice.
Human beings have a natural desire to celebrate important events and turning points in life. We celebrate victories in war, victories in athletics, birthdays, wedding anniversaries, and anniversaries of all sorts. The degree to which we celebrate an event is the degree to which we honor the person, relationship, or institution which the event signifies. If we value those events that effected our salvation, then we should honor them with appropriate festivity. If we celebrate our own or our spouse's birthday more than the birthday of Jesus (even though the date is merely a convention), or a World Series victory more than the victory of the cross, we betray a distorted sense of values.
As human beings we are going to celebrate, even as we are going to establish routines and customs. Given that this is the case, let us celebrate with the greatest jubilation those realities which form the basis of our Christian life.
A distorted observance of patterns of worship and festival is an obstacle
to the true Christian life. However, the absence of patterns of prayer
and celebration can be just as great an obstacle. When instituted and overseen
with pastoral wisdom, such patterns prove, in fact, to be a great asset
to the Christian community. Let us diligently seek God's wisdom so that
our families and communities might be conformed to heaven and not to the
world, and our common life might redound more to the glory of God through