Christmas is, hands down, my favorite time of the year. I love the decorations, the lights, the parties, the food, the presents, the extra time with family, the memories, and did I mention the food? And if I could get away with it, I would probably play Christmas music all year long. It just always seems to put me in a good mood. And every several years or so Christmas Day and Sunday Church Service collide. Or depending on how you view it, you could say that they finally get to hang out together! Now, whenever this occurs, there are two central questions surrounding weekend programming that every Church must answer: Should we hold our regular Sunday service(s) on Christmas Day? Why or why not? I believe, regardless of which direction a Church decides to go on this, they should explain the decision that they’ve made to their congregation. I think inquiring minds would like to know. And so, this is not my attempt to start a heated theological debate, this is simply our rationale behind the decision that we made as a church:
Short Answer: We’re having our regular Christmas Eve Service from 6pm-7pm and one Christmas Day Service at 10am. We thought that scaling back a service on Christmas rather than closing our doors all together was the way to go. Why? Because we believe that having both a Christmas Eve and a Christmas Day service aligns with our mission and vision as a church, and we believe that Sunday should be observed as the Christian Sabbath.
Long Answer: Our Mission and Vision: At a recent staff meeting, we all agreed that not having a Christmas Eve service or not having a Christmas Day service would be easier for us and provide us more time to spend with family. But we went back to why we exist as a church to begin with and what we’re hoping to see happen because of the ministry that we’re doing. And when we remembered our mission and vision, the decision to have both of these services suddenly became clear. Our mission as a church is to point people to the truth of the gospel. And although celebrating the holiday of Christmas is not mandated in the Bible, we always want to capitalize on key cultural opportunities to point people to Jesus. What better opportunity than the day that’s been set aside once a year to celebrate the life of Jesus? I mean seriously, besides Easter, here’s the one day of the year when the life of Jesus is front and center, and we want to take a day off? It didn’t make sense to us. Now, we discussed the idea of perhaps not having a Christmas Eve service because we’re having one on Christmas Day, but again, we went back to our mission as a church and realized that a Christmas Eve service is another great opportunity to point people to the truth of the gospel who may never otherwise step foot into a church. Furthermore, our vision is to see our city and the world make much of Jesus, and we believe that having both of these services is declaring and demonstrating that the glory of Jesus is more important to us than maintaining some of our normal Christmas traditions. In short, we started to see this not as a scheduling problem to be solved, but as a gospel opportunity to be seized.
The Christian Sabbath: For us, there are many reasons why worshipping on the first day of the week is not optional, but rather, essential -
The Expectation of Meeting Jesus: In the gospel of John, the resurrected Jesus appears to his disciples on the first day of the week, however Thomas was not with them. But we read that, “Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you’ (Jn. 20:26).” But why eight days later? Jesus specifically waited until the first day of the next week to make another intimate appearance to his disciples, because Jesus was sending a very significant message - that his people can expect him to show up in a very special way when they gather together on the first day of the week. And for many centuries since, Christians have been gathering together on the first day of the week expecting to encounter the presence of Jesus through the ministry of the Holy Spirit in corporate worship. We gather together on Sundays expecting to meet Jesus in a spiritual and special way through the ministry of the word and sacrament.
The Lord’s Day: We begin each of our services by reminding ourselves as a congregation that we gather on the first day of the week for one very important historic reason: Christ is risen! This is no small thing. This isn’t just liturgical mumbo jumbo. The truth that Jesus is alive is the doctrinal cornerstone of the Christian faith. Without it everything falls apart (c.f. 1 Cor.15:17). In fact, the reason that we celebrate Jesus in a manger is because Jesus is no longer in a grave. The Christian Church began referring to the first day of the week as The Lord’s Day (see Rev. 1:10) because this was the day that the Lord rose again from the dead and ushered in a New Creation. Sunday is the Lord’s Day, and we want to honor and celebrate the Lord on that day.
The Practice of the Church: You hear people sometimes say, “We just need to get back to doing things like the ‘early’ church.” Well, after Jesus rose again from the dead, we see the church immediately beginning to meet together for worship on the first day of the week (see Mk. 16:2; Jn. 20:1,19,26; Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2). It’s very clear in the New Testament that to gather together on the first day of the week was the common Christian practice. And in interpreting the Bible in order to determine whether something is biblical or not, you don’t want to limit yourself to only looking for specific commands, but you want to also look for common descriptions of Christian practice. So yes! Let’s get back to doing things like the ‘early’ church.
The Spiritual Significance: The Sabbath (one day of rest within seven) for Christians changed from the last day of the week to the first day of the week because it was a spiritual reminder of how the finished work of Christ informs the work that we do throughout the week. Because Jesus has completed his work of redemption, God’s people no longer work and then rest, we now go to work from a place of rest. In other words, you could say that celebrating Jesus’ work for us precedes our weekly work for him as a profound reminder of the gospel in all that we do.
The Moral Law (the fourth commandment): Many people who see the significance of this spiritual rest being found in Jesus conclude that the Sabbath commandment has been completely fulfilled in Jesus. Therefore, they conclude that we now only have nine commandments to follow instead of ten. Advocates for this position point to passages like Galatians 4:10, Colossians 2:16, and Romans 14:5-6 to prove that there is no longer a moral obligation to either observe the Sabbath or that the day of the week that you observe it doesn’t really matter. But one of the key problems with using these passages to uphold that position is that all of these passages are not dealing with the moral law, but rather with the ceremonial law. The ceremonial law included many holy days and festivals that do find their fulfillment in Christ and that is what Paul was stressing. In those passages, the Apostle Paul is not subtly making the case that we now only have nine commandments instead of ten. After all, the moral law is the foundation for any healthy family and society, and so eliminating one of those laws would be a huge theological change that would require Paul to prove and explain using more than just one verse in passing.
And doesn’t only having nine commandments seem a bit odd? Didn’t Jesus fulfill all the other commandments for us as well? So, wouldn’t it follow that either none of the ten commandments should still be enforced or that all of them should be? Why just pick one out of the ten to not include? Furthermore, since we all still go to work and get tired it makes sense that we still need one day out of seven to rest. And in fact, this is exactly why the writer of Hebrews tells the ‘early’ church that, “there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God” (Heb. 4:9). This is why, according to our church’s doctrinal standards (The Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms), we are morally obligated to worship God on the first day of the week. Now, I get it – any time you talk about someone’s moral obligations, you fly right in the face of our cultures animosity towards having any type of moral absolutes that you’re obligated to follow. Because boy do we love our autonomy! We naturally want to think that the decision should be left up to us to make. No-one should be able to tell us what to do, but that’s to forget that Jesus is the King who doesn’t give us advice, he gives us commands. And we need to remember that his commands are always the things that he knows will lead to our joy. There are clear moral commands in the Bible and we believe that worship on the first day of the week is one of them.
Ever since I was little, I’ve heard it said that, “Jesus is the reason for the season.” And yet every so often the church gets to worship Christ together on Christmas day to reinforce to ourselves, to our families, and to our friends that we really believe that statement. After all, Jesus is THE gift of Christmas, and coming together to worship him on that day should not be a ‘have to’ but rather a ‘get to.’ And so in our minds, Christmas day and Sunday service are not colliding, they are indeed finally getting to hang out together. This is not a scheduling conflict; this is the solar eclipse for all Christmas lovers. This is not a problem to be solved; this is a golden opportunity to make much of Jesus together! Finally, Christmas is on a Sunday!