We’re fast approaching the joyous and festive season of Christmastime, widely viewed as the crown jewel of the calendar’s holidays. It’s a time of decked halls, trimmed trees, wrapped gifts, and hearty carols—all in all, a heartwarming time of year. Believers and unbelievers alike tend to love Christmas for a variety of reasons, but only Christians can appreciate its deeper meaning: a commemoration of the birth of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world.
This will be URC Psalmody’s first Christmas, and Jim and I would like to make the most of it. There are a few reasons we believe this is a particularly important subject for some thoughtful discussion and interaction.
Firstly, Reformed churches tend to find themselves in an awkward place when it comes to Christmas traditions. With a hybrid background of pagan and Christian elements, Christmas (think “Christ” + “mass”) is somewhat of an oddity in the liturgical calendar. American culture all but demands that it be celebrated, but how? Can we sincerely commemorate the birth of the Messiah through a tangle of elves, snowmen, and reindeer, or are such inventions idolatries that must be pried away at all costs? While a variety of views are possible, we must admit that Christmas marks the point at which the church tends to pick up the greatest number of extra-biblical, and sometimes downright unbiblical, practices. Traditions such as tree lightings and advent candles might not be forbidden in Scripture, but it’s dangerously easy for us to forget their original purpose. Thus, we believe that Christmas ought to be a time in which we examine our worship especially closely to ensure that it remains faithful, true, and acceptable to the Lord.
Secondly, the United Reformed Churches in North America in particular don’t seem to have any concrete convention regarding Christmas practices. We have the following general guidelines for corporate Sunday worship from our Church Order:
Article 37. The Consistory shall call the congregation together for corporate worship twice on each Lord’s Day. Special services may be called in observance of Christmas Day, Good Friday, Ascension Day, a day of prayer, the national Thanksgiving Day, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, as well as in times of great distress or blessing. Attention should also be given to Easter and Pentecost on their respective Lord’s Days.
Article 38. The Consistory shall regulate the worship services, which shall be conducted according to the principles taught in God’s Word: namely, that the preaching of the Word have the central place, that confession of sins be made, praise and thanksgiving in song and prayer be given, and gifts of gratitude be offered.
Article 39. The 150 Psalms shall have the principal place in the singing of the churches. Hymns which faithfully and fully reflect the teaching of the Scripture as expressed in the Three Forms of Unity may be sung, provided they are approved by the Consistory.
From these articles it’s clear that our worship must remain grounded in God’s Word at all times. Sabbath services are a divine ordinance; Christmas services merely “may be called.” Whatever holiday traditions may be in place, our Lord’s Day worship must include preaching, confession, praise, thanksgiving, and gifts of gratitude. Our musical repertoire should, as always, be rooted in the 150 biblical psalms, and any hymns we sing—even Christmas carols—must “faithfully and fully reflect the teaching of Scripture” and be approved by the Consistory.
The grave words of Lord’s Day 35 (Q&A 96-98) of the Heidelberg Catechism also come to mind: the second commandment forbids us to “make any image of God [or] worship him in any other way than he has commanded in his Word.” Candle ceremonies? Nativity scenes? Individuals as well as congregations must be willing to reevaluate each of their holiday traditions in light of such words.
Thirdly, and most specifically, Christmas music has a peculiar habit of dwarfing the psalms in our churches during the month of December. To be sure, many carols are quite solid and easily deserve a place among our other hymns. But why do we continue to rely so heavily on other Christmas songs that fall drastically below the Scriptural and doctrinal standard? Besides, if the psalms are really so Christ-centered (an argument we’ve been advocating for the past several months here on URC Psalmody), why shouldn’t they be just as applicable to the Christmas season as non-inspired carols?
Since this is, of course, a blog devoted to psalm-singing, we’d like to spend a significant amount of time (most of the month of December, in fact) wrestling with these questions. Over the next few weeks we’ll be talking about various topics related to our churches’ celebration of Christmas. I’ll be walking through some favorite Christmas carols to see how well they mesh with the Reformed faith. Meanwhile, Jim intends to introduce some of the oldest and richest Christmas carols in existence–messianic psalms–and suggest ways in which they could complement our holiday celebrations. Our aim, as always, is to promote Biblical worship in a practical and constructive manner. With this in mind, we’d be delighted to have you join us along the way with your comments or feedback.
Sorting through these matters may be difficult; Christmas music, on the whole, possesses an extraordinary dimension of emotional and sentimental attachment for most if not all of us. But while we might occasionally come down a little hard on your favorite carol, we don’t want these discussions to ruin your holiday spirit. Instead, we hope that the month of December on URC Psalmody will present an opportunity for all of us to refocus, refine, and revitalize our Christmas celebrations, so that we may with all our hearts celebrate Christ’s birth by worshiping the Lord in spirit and in truth.
Blessings to you this Christmas!