Christmas and Commandments

By the time a reader comes to this article, their Christmas worship plans will already have been made or will have already been carried out. So, I am not going to remonstrate anyone for how many Christmas services they consider essential to the celebration of Christmas or what calendar days they occupy. My concern is different and bears on how one keeps Christmas rightly quite separately from the calendrical concerns of 2022. But the calendar debates have raised this concern for me, and I hope you bear with me lovingly as I come to express it below.

I made Christmas plans for the small mission of which I am vicar as I always do. We have a very late Christmas service of Holy Communion on the evening of Christmas. So, when midnight strikes between the 24th and the 25th, we are in the church, gladly singing and rejoicing to behold the Savior’s birth. It is a very important service for us, maybe not quite as important as Easter morning, but really important. And just as we rise early to behold the empty tomb at Easter, we come late on the evening of Christmas to behold the manger. The service is important enough that we raised our children in its observance. Drowsy infants, fidgety toddlers, napping and semi-drowsing little children and teenagers. We sacrificed the comfort of regular bedtimes and a few hours of sleep before an early morning of presents in order to put the Christ and the Mass in Christmas. Our family loves this tradition of beginning Christmas with that late-night service.

We do not have Christmas morning services as well. We are not opposed to them by any means. Our little pool of musicians and volunteers do a wonderful job with the Christmas service. An additional Christmas service would be wonderful. And if I asked them, they’d rally to hold one, even after such a late night just hours before. But our little flock has always had the Christ-mass in its earliest place and not held a later Christmas service afterward.

Years ago when our Christmas service first fell on a Saturday night, we did not change course. Our reasoning was really simple. Christmas Day takes precedence over any other Sunday observance. And, as the ACNA prayerbook in the introduction to its Calendar of the Christian Year would later put it, “Sundays also reflect the character of the seasons in which they are set. Following ancient Jewish tradition, the celebration of any Sunday begins at sundown on the Saturday that precedes it.” In keeping our Christ Mass near midnight, we had not canceled our Lord’s Day service; we had simply moved it up a few hours in keeping with the character of the Nativity feast.

This year social media has been rife with arguments against what parishes like ours do. Even Anglicans have been quick to criticize churches that do not worship on Christmas Sunday morning, even if they were up at midnight. Some have asserted that Christmas Eve is a vigil fast and that a Christmas morning service of Holy Communion should follow it. But the tradition of a late-night Holy Communion has never been seen as a vigil or a fast. Even the readings used assume that the Christmas Eve Eucharist is indeed a Christmas Day service. Advent ends at sunset, and Christmas begins at that point. “Eve” does not mean the day before a thing but the evening of it! Some have asserted that the biblical command to keep the Sabbath holy rules out missing church on Sunday morning. But, first, Christ fulfilled the Saturday sabbath in the tomb and we keep our sabbath rest in him. And, second, even if Sunday is a new sabbath to be kept, an evening Christmas service after sundown would keep it. Some have asserted that if even one visitor comes to our church on Christmas Sunday morning and finds that we have already worshiped we will have failed in our evangelistic obligation towards them. But we have hardly ever had a visitor to the church who had not been a visitor to the website first to confirm the place and time.

What concerns me, though, is not the surplus of new arguments against our old practice, or even the misunderstandings some of them betray of how festivals work. I have always thought it was great, probably even best, to have a Christmas morning service in addition to the evening of Christmas. I have always thought it fine to have a Christmas morning service without an evening service preceding it. If a church can and wants to, like some in my diocese do, have Holy Communion on the evening of Christmas, the morning of Christmas Day, St. Stephen’s, St. John’s, and Holy Innocents, all, I am an admirer and advocate.

My concern is with the tone of much of the rhetoric I have seen this year. A priest of my own tradition posted on social media that anyone whose church does not have a Sunday morning service on Christmas day should “find a real church.” My little flock has been exposed to Anglican voices in posts and videos asserting that those who “cancel” their morning services on the 25th – even if they observe Christmas Eve – have abandoned their duty, have prioritized family over Jesus, would rather open gifts and drink cocoa than serve the Lord, have neglected their Gospel witness before a pagan culture. And they are putting this stuff out there where Christian and non-Christian alike can see and hear it. Christians remonstrating fellow Christians before the heathens for a Christian practice older than we are. I have parishioners who are scandalized by priests of their own jurisdiction calling their church false, and I have non-Christian friends pointing out that Jesus’ disciples clearly have no love toward one another. Merry Christmas.

None of us should take pride in our liturgical practices. None of us should boast in anything but Christ. None of us should read nefarious motives into each other’s long-held and canonical practices of worship either. Christians should give each other the benefit of the doubt even when they disagree. Remember when we were all scrambling through a pandemic, trying to figure out what traditions to keep and which to alter? I was a stickler for tradition then too, and I rejoiced in this very journal for the things we do not change. But I saw the danger of public criticism of fellow Christians for the changes they made and the danger of reading motives into their practices that might not really be there. We held together through crisis in love. We did not disparage or unchurch one another. Churches who fought over practices and Christians who lorded their opinions over their brothers and sisters during the pandemic surely now see the damage done by it over time.

Christmas without the mass is a semantic contradiction in terms. So I hope all churches will always have a Christmas service. But we have all always understood that the Christ-mass looks a little different and is scheduled differently from parish to parish. This is no time for nit-picking each other’s long-held practices. And it is certainly no time for impugning folks’ motives or raising questions as to whether their churches are “real.” We would not do well to find that in our zeal to keep the commandment concerning the Sabbath we have broken the one that forbids us to bear false witness against our neighbor.

 


Paul Edgerton

Fr. Paul C. Edgerton is the planting vicar of The Church of the Redeemer in Wilson, North Carolina, a parish of the Reformed Episcopal Church (ACNA). A bi-vocational pastor, he has taught in the public school system for nearly two decades. Fr. Edgerton has had the privilege to study at Cranmer Theological House and the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies and writes for RedeemerSongs. His wife Christie and his three crazy children keep him laughing.


'Christmas and Commandments' have 3 comments

  1. December 23, 2022 @ 2:14 pm Dr. Bob Hauet

    Wow, he said a lot…and nothing.

    Reply

  2. December 23, 2022 @ 4:23 pm Cliff Gobin

    Thank you for this article affirming the practices of many small parishes and missions, including the one I serve. For years our church met on Saturday evenings for weekly Holy Communion, renting space from other churches or organizations. Even after moving pir weekly services to Sunday mornings we continued to cherish and maintain our Christmas Eve and Easter Vigil traditions for these very special days. Until this year none of our Anglican brethren online have accused us of disregarding the Lord’s Day by our practices. To accuse small parishes of not being truly Anglican or biblical is not at all helpful. Thank you for making 9ur case much more eloquently than I could.

    Reply

  3. December 23, 2022 @ 10:23 pm PWH

    Thank you for writing this. I responded to one of the condemnatory articles you mention, saying that I was quite shocked that Christians would cancel Sunday Christmas services — but that is because the article talked about cancelling services so that one could be home, cook, have guests, and watch football or whatever other secular thing people do. If services are cancelled for those reasons, that is indeed quite shocking.
    What you point out, however, is quite correct. An observance — especially with the Eucharist — on the evening before a major feast, after sundown, was the normal practice. In the Roman Catholic parish for which I play piano, it still is — and they follow up the Christmas Eve and Easter Vigil Masses with one on the following morning, using the normal Sunday morning schedule. If the same musicians have to do both services, it’s tiring, yes — but it can be done.

    Reply


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