The idea of a holy day, or, as we have elided it, a “holiday” is quite ancient. The belief that certain places and certain days or even times of day made a person’s worship more (or less) likely to be well received by divine object of one’s choice was, and perhaps still is, widespread. This is not, however, an idea that finds friendly support in either the Old or New Testament.
In the Old Testament, certain festival days were “set aside” or “consecrated” for particular religious events. But there is not a shred of evidence to support the notion that prayers offered on a consecrated (or “holy”) day or from a consecrated place (like the temple) were categorically different than other prayers offered from other places on other days. To find that idea, one must turn to the pagan religions. In the Old Testament, we find that a day or a place being set aside, “consecrated,” is a part of the cultic law God gave his people to ensure that they remembered his past acts and promised faithfulness and took occasions to offer themselves with reverent joy to him who is utterly holy and yet savingly present. They did not celebrate holy days. They celebrated a holy God. They did not count down to a calendar date, they walked towards a scared event – a meeting with their God.
People are, to paraphrase Freud, “incurably superstitious.” We would have our holy days. We want those occasions when we can “group our shots” in prayer and get the most bang for our buck. In fact, even in Calvin’s Geneva, on Christmas Day in 1550, we find a superstition regarding the day itself strangely present. Listen to the beginning of Calvin’s sermon on that crisp alpine morning!
“Now I see here today more people than I am accustomed to having at the sermon. Why is that? It is Christmas Day. And who told you this? You poor beasts. That is a fitting euphemism for all of you who have come here today to honor Noel. Did you think you would be honoring God? Consider what sort of obedience to God your coming displays. In your mind, you are celebrating a holiday for God, or turning today into one. But so much for that. In truth, as you have often been admonished, it is good to set aside one day out of the year in which we are reminded of all the good that has occurred because of Christ’s birth in the world, and in which we hear the story of his broth retold, which will be done on Sunday. But if you think that Jesus Christ was born today, you are as crazed as wild beats.” John Calvin, Sermon on Micah 5:7-14
Wow! That’s one way to start a Christmas Day sermon! We should remember that in Calvin’s Geneva, there was a service every day regardless of the time of year – and during the weekday services from November of 1550 through January of 1551, Calvin was preaching through Micah – and so when December 25th came around, he preached from chapter 5, picking up where he had left off the previous morning. He preached a sermon on the birth of Christ on the next Sunday.
There is a profound lesson in that – and in Calvin’s admonition to his flock about holidays. The joy and anticipation of meeting with the Lord, as the Lord’s people, on the Lord’s Day, around the Lord’s Word and Table, should be the pinnacle of our experience on this side of heaven. While Calvin does in one sense simply remind us that there is really no sound reason to believe that Jesus was born on December 25, there is another sense in which Calvin calls his congregation to avoid the tendency to let a “holiday” become something more significant than any given Lord’s Day of the year. In other words, don’t settle for celebrating Christ’s birth on December 25, celebrate it every Sunday. And let the glow of the candles and the sound of the carols continually draw your heart to him on every day in between.