“The churches shall observe, in addition to the Sunday, also Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension Day, Pentecost, the Day of Prayer, the National Thanksgiving Day, and Old and New Year’s Day.”
—Article 67, D.K.O.
“Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days; which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ.”
Shortly after the Reformation of the sixteenth century, the Reformed Churches adopted the position that all the special so-called holy days, sanctioned and revered by the Roman Catholic Church, should be abolished. It was not that the Reformed fathers felt that the celebration of these days was in itself wrong but they favored setting them aside for these reasons: (1) These days are institutions of men but not God. There is no injunction in the Word of God requiring the church to observe them. (2) These days tend to force aside the Sabbath and cause it to lose some of its significance. It is more important that the proper commemoration of the Sabbath be retained than anything else. If these special days detract from it in any way it is better that they be abolished. (3) These days tend toward looseness of morals and heathen modes of feasting. If the truth of this argument is questioned, one has but to look around a bit today at the celebrations of the members of the church in connection with many of these days and you will be convinced that our fathers were correct.
Zwingli and Calvin both encouraged the rejection of all ecclesiastical festive days. Even before Calvin arrived in Geneva these practices had been discontinued under the leadership of Farel and Viret. Knox, too, the Scottish Reformer, shared these convictions and succeeded in getting the Scottish Churches to ban the Romish sacred days.
In spite of this strong influence of leading Reformers, however, this practice did not continue long in the churches in the Netherlands. The situation there was somewhat different. First of all the church and government were very closely knit together and the latter favored the celebration of these days since they were popular with the people. The synod of the Reformed churches there then made concessions to the government and allowed a limited number of these special days in the churches. At first just Christmas, Easter. New Year’s and Ascension were celebrated. But gradually other days were added until we have the list that is mentioned in our Church Order today.
We must face the question whether or not this concession by the church was wrong? Also in this connection whether there is or is not any merit or value for the church in commemorating these special days in addition to her weekly sabbath?
A concise evaluation of this practice we find in the Rev. G. Ophoff’s “Church Right.” On page 149 he writes: “Certainly, there can be no objection to Christian holidays if only they, be rightly kept. The Old Testament Church had her religious holidays on which the people of Israel concentrated on the great salutary works of God that had taken place on those days. Such was Jehovah’s will. The Old Testament holydays were His institutions. The Old Testament holydays waxed old and vanished away with the law. The realities of the kingdom are now before us in the Scriptures. For God has sent His Son in the flesh and through Him wrought salvation. Christ suffered and died for the sins of His people, was raised unto their justification and they with Him were set in heaven and blessed with all spiritual blessings. These works of God took place in time, were wrought on certain days of twenty-four hours and with these days they are associated in the mind of the church, associated with dates, points of time, in the year. And though there is no express command, yet certainly there can be no objection to God’s people repairing to God’s house at the annual return of the dates or days of those events to be occupied in their minds with those events. The idea is not certainly that Christian people have before their mind these events only at the annual return of the day on which they took place. We must have God’s works before our mind always, for then only do we have God before our mind—the God and Father of Christ—for through His works God revealed Himself. It is only in these works that we see Him and through these works that we know Him.”
In general we can concur with the views expressed in this quotation although we will add a few comments about this matter. It is certainly true that for the New Testament church the celebration of these special days is not mandatory. For us it has become mandatory by rule of our Church Order but there is no command in Scripture to this effect. Some have reasoned that this lack of a direct command is equal to a prohibition and, therefore, it is wrong for the church to celebrate these days, but this is an entirely erroneous deduction. Celebration of special days is proper if these days are rightly kept. This must be emphasized because it is better not to commemorate these special days at all than to do sot improperly. Rev. Ophoff correctly points LIS to the purpose of these celebrations. It must be to direct us into a deeper, spiritual contemplation of the great and wonderful works of our God. The day (not just a single hour of it) is set aside to praise and glorify the God of our salvation. Doing this the celebration of these special days becomes spiritually profitable.
We are bold to say that although the statement of Article 67 of the Church Order is ideally correct, it is in need of complete revision when it comes to the practical application of it in our day. What we mean is that for the present generation it is not adequate to state that “The churches shall observe . . .” but we need a concise but complete definition as to how this observance of special days is to be enacted. Some of us seem to think that the mere calling of a special church-service on these days constitutes a fulfillment of our obligation here, while others are evidently satisfied with even less since these services are generally very poorly attended. Many are too preoccupied with other things on these days to find time to observe them in the house of God. Christmas has become so thoroughly paganized and commercialized that the celebration of the birth of Christ is made a public mockery. Easter is the annual occasion to display the latest styles in wearing apparel and this takes precedence over any sober thinking about the wonder of the resurrection. Thanksgiving is made an occasion of festive banqueting that echoes the worldly slogan, “Eat, drink and be merry.” Old Year and New Year Days are marked as times of revelry, hilarity and pleasure without consideration of the truth that heaven and earth are passing away and the Lord is at hand to make all things new. Pentecost and Ascension Days are nearly forgotten and this undoubtedly because the world has not capitalized upon them as it has upon the other holy days for its own profit. With regard to the observance of these days by the church, the Word of God must ever resound, “Be not conformed to the world but be transformed in the renewing of your minds” (Rom. 12:2). But the fear is very real that if it were possible to purify the celebration of these days of all that is pagan and carnal, there would be little left for the church to observe and to observe that exclusively is undesirable in this age of materialism. The church seems willing to give note to the spiritual significance of these days as a sort of subsidiary to the carnal and material but to sound that spiritual note alone is considered evidence of a cultural deficiency. Nevertheless, God still demands, “that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect will of God” (Rom. 12:2).
We do not plead the abolition of these celebrations because current practice and custom do not meet the required standards of God’s Word. If such would be the argument the same could and would have to be applied to our observance of the sabbath. The sabbath is frequently desecrated. The lack of zealous devotion and whole hearted consecration to the things of God is present in all of us. Now it might be argued that the true parallelism is not found here because sabbath observance is directly enjoined in Scripture and this, as we have seen, is not the case with the celebration of special days. Hence, the former could not be abolished while the latter could without violating the Word of God. But the church never reasons that because the practice of a certain thing becomes wrong it must be done away with. Rather the thing itself may certainly be retained, but the evil practice must be removed.
This the Synod of Dordt in 1618-19 decreed when it adopted the following six points regarding sabbath observance.
“1. In the fourth commandment of God’s Law there is a ceremonial and a moral element.
“2. The rest on the seventh day after the creation, and the strict observance of this day with which the Jewish people were charged particularly, was ceremonial.
“3. That a definite and appointed day has been set aside to the service of God, and that for this purpose as much rest is required as is necessary for the service of God and for hallowed contemplation, this element is moral.
“4. The sabbath of the Jews having been set aside, Christians are in duty bound to hallow the day of the Lord solemnly.
“5. This day has always been kept in the early church since the time of the apostles.
“6. This day must be so consecrated unto the service of God that upon it men rest from all servile labors, except those required by charity and present necessities, and likewise from all such recreations as prevent the service of God.”
These six points were adopted by the synod of the Christian Reformed Church in 1881 and then in 1926 the synod expressed that they must be considered doctrinal in their nature and hence binding and also in full accord with -the fundamental principles expressed in Lord’s Day 38 of the Catechism, to the effect that the fourth commandment also applies to the New Testament Church in its observance of the day of rest and worship. The synod also declared that these points are an official interpretation of the confession and not an addition to the Three Forms of Unity.
It is to be lamented that in the decline of the church the force of such decrees is lost. There is considerable evidence today that this doctrinal position is maintained only in the archives. Were it enforced there would be occasion for much disciplinary labor.
Special days, including the sabbath, are necessary. Though the day itself is nothing and although there is not special merit or reward earned by keeping it, the observance of these days is spiritually uplifting to the child of God who uses them aright in his seeking the Kingdom of God and its righteousness.