By Clyde Davis: Local Columnist
I was rather surprised to overhear recently a comment to the effect that “we do not celebrate Christmas because it is not in the Bible.” The comment was made on the morning of Dec. 24. Today, as most liturgical churches celebrate Epiphany, it seems like a good time to share some thoughts on the comment and its implications.
First, a disclaimer is needed to remind us we live in a country where a central tenet is freedom of religion. Whether to celebrate a religious holiday or not, and how to do so, is a matter of personal choice. Protestant Christians have fallen traditionally, and continue to fall, in two broad categories.
The first is those who believe, if something is not specifically mentioned in the Old or New Testament, it should not be practiced. This would include views such as the one I overheard.
The second approach is, if something is not specifically forbidden in the canon, it is allowable. This would be the stance of most mainline Protestant denominations, especially those from a liturgical background.
Thus we come to Christmas, and then to Epiphany, which marks the ending of the Christmastide celebration. It is indeed true that the Gospel writers, and the other New Testament authors, nowhere tell us, “You shall celebrate the birth of the Messiah.” It is also true there is significant lack of clarity about what time of year that birth occurred. The December date seems to be a compromise arrived at early in the life of the Church, due to some other issues I haven’t space to address here.
Epiphany marks the end of the Christmas celebration, the so-called “Twelve Days of Christmas.” Although the retail world has borrowed this phrase and applied it to the last 12 shopping days before Christmas, its origins are rooted in the 12 days between the celebration of Christmas and the ending of that celebration, the day of Epiphany, actually Jan. 6.
Epiphany, on the church calendar, represents the day when the Magi, or Wise Men, came to pay their respects to the Messiah who had been born, bringing their gifts of gold, incense and myrrh. The story is found in the Gospel according to St. Matthew. Obviously, this does not mean that the Magi appeared 12 days after the birth; the story would indicate a time anywhere up to two years. The day was chosen, again, as a compromise.
The early Church made many decisions based on the need to present theological concepts in a way that made them understandable to those whom they were trying to reach with the message of God’s love. Some of these decisions involved compromises in customs and calendar dates.
It is not requisite that anyone celebrate Christmas, or Epiphany, or for that matter Lent or Easter; various denominations approach these issues differently. The problem arises when any group tries to force its view on others, or condemn those who view faith differently.
As a liturgical Protestant, I find a great deal of significance in the celebration of Epiphany, Christmastide or, for that matter, All Saints’ Day, Pentecost or Lent.
As an English teacher, I’m aware of the power of stories in our lives, to shape us and remind us of who we are, which I suppose is why I find that great deal of significance.