AT THE DAWN of the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, the leadership of the Church weighed down the faithful with a plethora of feast days, saints days, and other holy days on which the faithful were required to cease from labor, do penance, and attend Mass in order to have any hope of salvation. As the years went by, the number of these days increased.
In this context the Reformers came. Along with the rediscovery of the doctrine of justification by faith alone was a rediscovery of the Christian life of sanctification being one of gratitude, not guilt. The Continental Reformers responded to the medieval system of worship in two ways. First, they re-established the Lord’s Day as the primary feast day and focal point of the Church’s worship and community life. Second, while removing all “holy” days besides the Lord’s Day, the magisterial Reformers retained what they called the “evangelical feast days.”1 Instead of viewing these days as a part of the Christian’s accomplishment of his or her salvation, they viewed celebrating these day as a to celebration of the salvation which Christ had already accomplished for them in his Incarnation (Christmas), death (Good Friday), resurrection (Easter), ascending to the Father (Ascension), and giving of his Spirit (Pentecost). They were seen as invaluable times to celebrate Christ and his Gospel.
Most often than not, the charge is that observing any days other than the Lord’s Day is a violation of the Reformed regulative principle of worship. This principle comes from the second Commandment, which teaches, “That we in no wise make any image of God, nor worship Him in any other way than He has commanded in His Word” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 96). One example of this is the esteemed Orthodox Presbyterian historian D. G. Hart. In an otherwise brilliant book, he says, “The Reformed tradition most obviously veers from other high-church traditions concerning the matter of a church calendar” (emphasis added).2 According to Hart, this is most obvious "because if today’s Presbyterians who cling to their Christmas pageants and revere their Good Friday services ever had to confront the high-church origins of their favorite holy days, they might change their minds, and quickly."
Here Hart commits three errors, in my opinion. First, he muddies the waters by invoking the imagery of “Christmas pageants,” which may be the historic practice of Rome or high-church Anglicanism, but is not the practice of the Reformed. Second, he makes a genetic fallacy in arguing against Christmas and Good Friday based on their “high-church origins,” which may be deplorable, but still do not determine the practice of the Reformed. Third, he argues against the church calendar using a Red Herring argument in speaking of those who “revere” these “holy” days. A Reformed believer may revere a certain day and even consider it holy, but these are not the terms used by the historic Reformed practice of celebrating these days.
Hart’s other most obvious argument is this: “From its very beginning, the Reformed tradition, because of its application of the regulative principle of worship, opposed celebration of any day other than the Sabbath as a required assembly for church members.”3 Unfortunately for Hart’s argument, this is not so obvious as the practice of the Reformed tradition was exactly the opposite!
The History of Reformed Practice
The Palatinate, the region of Germany in which our Heidelberg Catechism was written, observed Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, Christmas, as well as New Year’s Day. The rubric entitled, “Order of Holy Days,” stated:
Order of Holy Days: Holy days shall be kept in the same manner as Sunday. These holy days shall be observed: all Sundays, Christmas and the day following, New Year’s day, Easter and the day following, Ascension day, Pentecost and the Monday following.
On Christmas and the day after, the basis of our salvation, namely the two natures in Christ with the benefit we obtain therefrom, shall be expounded in the narratives of the birth of Christ, as that is dealt with in the end of Part I and the beginning of Part II of the Catechism.
The Ministers in the towns are also permitted to begin to explain the narratives of the Passion on Invocavit Sunday and pursue the same until Easter, according to the convenience of each particular church.
On Easter and the Monday following, the narratives of Christ resurrection shall be preached, so that the Christian congregation may receive good, basic instruction from the holy, divine Scripture upon the two principle articles of our Christian faith, namely, that Christ arose from the dead on the third day, and that we too shall arise from the dead.
The festival of Christ’s ascension also has its narratives, as they are written in the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 1, and elsewhere. Upon them, we may teach and preach concerning those articles of our faith in which we profess that Christ has ascended into heaven, sitteth at the right hand of God, and from thence will come to judge the living and the dead.
On Pentecost and the Monday following, the second chapter in the Acts of the Apostles shall be the basis of preaching.4
In the first hymnal published for Palatinate worship in 1565, there were 44 Psalms, 55 canticles, and 11 hymns. Later, in the second edition of 1573, all 150 Psalms were included, the canticle section was expanded to include the Nunc Dimittis and Te Deum, while the hymn section was divided into Luther’s catechetical hymns, hymns for the church calendar from Advent to Pentecost, and then come topical hymns.5 The Palatinate liturgy, contained in the Church Order (Kirchenordnungen) began with the following rubric:
Before the Sermon, especially in the morning on Sunday and holy days, and on fast days, the following prayer shall be delivered to the people, in which the Christian Congregation is explicitly reminded of the misery of man, and the saving grace of God is implored, so that hearts become humble and more desirous of receiving the Word of grace (emphasis added).6
The Kirchenordnungen specified the texts to be preached on Christmas, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost, while permitting freedom to the churches to celebrate “Good Friday” on the Sunday of Invocavit. There are also prayers for Christmas, New Year’s Day, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost.7
In the city of Strasbourg, Old Testament scholar Wolfgang Capito and liturgical reformer Martin Bucer studied the issue of the church calendar. After originally rejecting any day but the Lord’s Day in the Grund und ursach, they came to the position of celebrating the evangelical feast days.8 The Strasbourg Psalter of 1537 and after began to include festal hymns, especially those of the Church of Constance. This would, of course, indicate the observance of these feasts. As well, in 1548, Martin Bucer, in the name of the ministers of Strasbourg, wrote “A Brief Summary of Christian Doctrine” in response to an unnamed Anabaptist tract against them. One of the point Bucer took up was “Christian festivals,” no doubt because these Anabaptists rejected the Lord’s Day as well as other celebrations. After a brief exposition of the Lord’s Day, the “general festival of the Lord,” Bucer went on to say,
In like manner must be observed the other festivals and seasons which have been prescribed, with a view to the increase of godliness by meditating upon the great deeds of the Lord accomplished for our redemption and eternal salvation, and to the giving of thanks to God for them. Such festivals are those of the Incarnation and Nativity of Christ, of his Ascension, etc. (emphasis added)9
Notice the purpose of these festivals was twofold: to increase godliness by means of meditating upon the work of Christ and to give thanks for this work. What was the basis upon which the Church celebrated such festivals? Later, in 1562 Bucer’s Lectures on Ephesians were published. At the end of his lectures on chapter 1 he discusses the unity of the Church and speaks of things necessary for unity and things indifferent (adiaphora), saying, “But unity is not necessary in anything not set forth in the word: here a degree of liberty obtains. So in the matter of man-made rites, different arrangements can be made in different quarters the better suited to edification.”10 The observances in the Church are divided into three classes:
1. Observances…concerning which Scripture contains explicit instructions.
2. Observances…which are not explicitly prescribed by Scripture but can nevertheless…be shown to be in accordance with Scripture [here Bucer gives the examples of infant baptism, hallowing of the Lord’s Day, and admission of women to the Lord’s Supper].
3. Observances…instituted by revered men in the Church, such as the forms of prayer, the times of fasting, lectionary arrangements, details of place, etc. So long as they do not militate against the divine will but rather have its promotion as their object and also have regard to complete doctrinal purity.11
As well, in his 1549 treatise, The Restoration of Lawful Ordination for Ministers of the Church, Bucer lists the points in which a candidate for the ministry was to be examined, among them the following:
23. Whether he believes that we incur God’s stern displeasure when we fail to devote the Lord’s Day and other specially consecrated days to godly exercises, abandoning not merely useful physical labours but much more all the useless and harmful works of the flesh…For whatever lawful recreation to the people are granted, it can never be rightly permitted on days specially set apart for divine worship.12
John Oecolampadius, the Reformer of Basel, was by far the leading Protestant patristic scholar. Although today he is not well known, the Reformers themselves highly respected his opinion. The term, “evangelical feast days,” is primarily his work. It was shortly thereafter pretty much taken over by Zwingli and Bucer as well as Calvin. Oecolampadius had translated the feast day sermons of Gregory of Nazianzus and several other Greek fathers. This list of church feasts was fairly common in the ancient Greek church.
Before the great Synod of Dort (1618-19) adopted what became the Church Order of all Reformed churches of Dutch heritage, the earlier Synod of Dort (1574) spoke only of the Lord’s Day being observed. Nevertheless it decided that the Sunday before Christmas ministers should preach about the birth of Christ and that on both Easter and Pentecost Sundays, the resurrection and outpouring of the Holy should also be preached.13 Then at the next Synod of Dort (1578), it was decided to have sermons on Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost, and the days following them, as well as Ascension and New Year’s, because these were national holidays upon which licentiousness was known to be rampant. The churches, then, used these opportunities to gather the churches for holy exercises of piety rather than unholy partying and living.14
And so the Synod of Dort, at the insistence of the commissioners from the States of Holland, said the following regarding the feast days in its Church Order, article 67,
The Churches shall observe, in addition to Sunday, also Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost, with the following day, and whereas in most of the cities and provinces of the Netherlands the day of Circumcision and of Ascension of Christ are also observed, Ministers in every place where this is not yet done shall take steps with the Government to have them conform with the others.15
This original Article was expanded by the Christian Reformed Church in its 1934 Church Order, which says,
The churches shall observe, in addition to Sunday, also Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension Day, Pentecost, the Day of Prayer, the National Thanksgiving Day, and the Old and New Year’s Day.16
The Principle Behind the Reformed Practice
Consistories in the Dutch Reformed tradition, for example the United Reformed Churches in North America, have the freedom (“may”), not obligation (“shall”) to call celebrations of “Christmas Day, Good Friday, Ascension Day,” as well as giving attention to “Easter and Pentecost on their respective Lord’s Days” (Church Order, article 37). What is the principle behind this?
One example of how these days could be observed while holding to a Reformed view of worship is the Second Helvetic Confession. Written in 1561 by Heinrich Bullinger, this Confession was one of the great summaries of the Reformed Faith. In it we are told that the celebration of the evangelical feast days belonged to the “Christian liberty [of] the churches” and were approved of “highly” (ch. 24). Notice the fine distinction implicitly made between Rome’s obligation and the Gospel’s freedom. Instead of viewing these days as a part of the Christians’ ongoing contribution to his/her salvation, these days were within the Gospel liberty of the churches to commemorate the salvation which Christ had already accomplished for his people.
Francis Turretin also followed this tack. Whether or not the churches celebrate the high points of Christ’s work on our behalf or not, “this the orthodox think should be left to the liberty of the church.” The reason is that their celebration is “not from necessity of faith, but from the counsel of prudence to excite more to piety and devotion.”17 And their observance is not due to any intrinsic holiness of the day, but to “positive right and ecclesiastical appointment; not, however, necessary from a divine precept.”18 Turretin demonstrates that these days were celebrated in this manner by the Reformed in unity with the ancient church, quoting the ancient historian Socrates, who in detailing the debate between East and West on the celebration of Easter, said,
Neither the apostles, nor the gospel itself imposed the yoke of slavery upon those who yielded to the doctrine of Christ, but left the festival of Easter and others to be celebrated according to the free and impartial judgment of those who had received on such days blessings.19
This is illustrated as well, according to Turretin, by the examples of the celebration of Purim and the Feast of Dedication by the Jews. These celebrations do not prove “that this custom ought to prevail in the Christian church,” but, "It shows only that on certain days (annually recurring) there may be a public commemoration of the singular benefits of God, provided abuses, the idea of necessity, mystery and worship, superstition and idolatry be absent.20
And so, as Turretin concludes, “If some Reformed churches still observe some festivals…they differ widely from the papists,” for four reasons:
1. These days are dedicated to God alone, and not to creatures.
2. No sanctity, power, or efficacy is attached to them above other days.
3. Believers are not bound to a scrupulous and strict abstinence on these days from servile work.
4. The church is not bound by necessity to observe these days unchangeably.21
Therefore, as the title of this chapter says, the Reformed have not viewed these days as holy, but as helpful. Even the Lutheran theologian of Copenhagen, K. E. Skydsgaard, in speaking of Good Friday, said,
Good Friday does not in itself posses any special value, any particular ‘virtue.’ Our Good Friday is not the day on which Jesus died on the cross; it is not in itself that ‘hour’ of which Jesus spoke of as ‘his hour.’ There is no one day to be chosen by us rather than another. In other religions—the Jewish for example—a special value is given to a particular day or a particular time. In the Epistle to the Galatians (Chapter 4) Paul speaks of such observances in a frankly polemical manner…The apostle Paul does not at all regard this as an innocent liturgical discipline, but on the contrary as a very serious mistake…Behind these days and these seasons lies the worship of a mysterious and formidable power…Paul states that a return to these observances is a kind of idolatry, a cult based on nothing. He categorically forbids them, because they overthrow the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They are a return to Judaism.22
The Benefit of This Practice
How can these days benefit us? First, celebrating these days explicitly gives opportunity to reflect upon the objective work of Christ for us as signposts throughout the year. “There is no quasi-divine institution of Holy Week. These days are centered, not in themselves, but in Jesus Christ alone.”23 François Stoop of the Taizé ecumenical community, said, "In our journey towards the Kingdom the festivals are like halting-points in the way, halts at which our hope is nourished and the life of grace renewed, so that with ever growing joy we may together come nearer to the fullness of Christ."24
Yet, it is often said, “We celebrate Christmas and Easter fifty-two Lord’s Days a year.” But unless that it explicitly taught to the people, most need to be pointed in that direction.
Second, celebrating these days reminds us that our faith is in an historic person—Jesus Christ—whom the writers of Scripture point out was born, lived, and died within particular historic times, and which the Apostles’ Creed commemorates, saying he “suffered under Pontius Pilate” (cf. Luke 2:1–2; Matt. 2:1, 19–20, 26:3–4, 57, 27:1–2; 23:44, 46; Matt. 28:1).
We do not believe in “cleverly devised myths,” but in him of whom Peter said, “We were eyewitnesses…we ourselves heard” (2 Pet. 1:16, 18). This objective, tangible reality we celebrate and participate, so that by faith, we can say with John,
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ (1 John 1:1-3).
Third, Christ's person and work are the mystery of God manifested to the Church until the consummation of all things. The apostle Paul wrote to the saints in Ephesus, saying God lavished his grace upon us in Christ, “Making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:10-11). A mystery (musterion) in Paul’s terminology is something that was hidden but has not been revealed. To adapt St. Augustine’s famous dictum that the New Testament was in the Old Testament concealed, and the Old is in the New revealed, what Paul is saying is that Christ was in the will of God concealed, and the will of God is in Christ revealed. The will of God that was concealed was to bless us “with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (v. 3), choosing us “before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless” (v. 4), predestining “us for adoption” (v. 5), and redeeming us and forgiving our trespasses (v. 7). All this was concealed in God’s will, but revealed in Christ (vv. 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9, 10) “according to the riches of his grace which he lavished upon us” (vv. 7, 8). God’s “purpose,” or, better, “good pleasure” (eudokiav), was to publicly display this purpose in Christ. The word Paul uses here, which the ESV translates “set forth,” he alone uses in the New Testament. He uses it in Romans 1:13 to say that he “often intended” to go to Rome. Yet, here in Ephesians 1:9-10, the use is grammatically parallel to that of Romans 3:25: "whom God put forward as a propitiation.”
Both clauses begin with a relative pronoun (hen/hon), use the verb proetheto, and end with a singular noun in the accusative case. Christ, then, is the Father’s public proclamation of his “economy of the fullness of the times” (eis oikonomian tou pleromatos ton kairon). God has worked out his plan precisely as he purposed it: “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4-5). Whereas in Galatians Paul speaks of the fullness of time (chronos), that is, the ages of history, in Ephesians he speaks of the fullness of times (kairon), that is, the precise times of God’s appointment. And because this time has been fulfilled, we are living in a new age.
This plan, put into effect at the precise time in Christ, is “to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (v. 10). Christ is “recapitulating” (anakephalaiosasthai), or “summing up” all things that are estranged together in himself, the second Adam who availed where the first Adam failed (Rom. 5:12-19; 1 Cor. 15:20-28, 42-49).
All of this mystery has been made known “to us” (Eph. 1:9), and as Paul later says, “So that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might be made known” (3:10). Christ makes his mystery known to us, that we might make it known “to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (3:10)—and how much more so to the world. Listen to how Paul expands upon Ephesians 1:9-10, when he says,
For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles—assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you, how the mystery was made known to me by revelation . . . When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel . . . To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord (Eph. 3:1-11).
The Church’s very existence is a witness to these mysteries of God, and they are to be proclaimed and celebrated. As we said above, some say, “We celebrate Christmas and Easter fifty-two Lord’s Days a year.” It would be an amazing testimony to the world if this were explicitly and clearly made known Lord’s Day to Lord’s Day, yet, experience shows that because of our capacity, we need to reflect upon the mysteries of God one by one:
We are men with limitations; limited by our existence in time. We cannot grasp everything at the same moment. We need to stop at such and such a point in the ‘economy of the mystery,’ so that its truth may be fully illuminated, and may in this fuller light go with us and pierce below the surface of our lives. And there is an equal need for returning again and again to the same truths, to the same events in our salvation, so that we may come to a deeper understanding of them as we go on through life.25
In these texts we learn that Christ is the mystery (Col. 1:27). In him we were chosen and loved from all eternity (Eph. 1:4, 5) in what we often call the pactum salutis, or, covenant of redemption. In him who was incarnate in the fullness of time (Gal. 4:4), we have one who has recapitulated the disobedience of Adam in Garden, and was obedient in the place of the disobedient (Rom. 5:12-19). In the words of St. Irenaeus:
The things which had perished possessed flesh and blood. For the Lord, taking dust from the earth, molded man; and it was upon his behalf that all the dispensations of the Lord’s advent took place. He had himself, therefore, flesh and blood, recapitulating in himself not a certain other, but that original handiwork of the Father, seeking out that thing which had perished.26
In Christ we have one who “through his blood” (Eph. 1:7) has redeemed and forgiven us. Irenaeus, again, said: "When he became incarnate and was made man, he recapitulated in himself the long history of man, summing up and giving us salvation in order that we might receive again in Christ Jesus what we had lost in Adam, that is, the image and likeness of God."27
In Christ we have one who was raised, ascended, and seated for us in heaven (Eph. 1:20-22) that we might be raised to life, taken into heaven, and seated with Christ (Eph. 2:4-6). All this work St. Irenaeus summarized, saying,
And therefore does the Lord profess Himself to be the Son of man, comprising in Himself that original man out of whom the woman was fashioned, in order that, as our species went down to death through a vanquished man, so we may ascend to life again through a victorious one; and as through a man death received the palm [of victory] against us, so again by a man we may receive the palm against death.28
As Paul said, Christ’s coming was “to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:10). He has begun that restoration, although we still await its consummation: "What then did the Lord bring at his coming? Know that he brought all newness, by bringing himself, who had been foretold. For this was announced, that a newness would come, to renew and give life to man."29
Fourth, celebrating these redemptive events as churches unites us to the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church” (Nicene Creed), while keeping us free from the entanglements of a full-blown liturgical calendar. This is why the Reformers uniformly rejected the observance of the penitential seasons of Advent and Lent, as they did not focus on Christ, but upon our preparation for the feasts of Christmas and Easter, the “high holy days.” It is true, though, that the four Lord’s Days of Advent have come into some use in our churches. If this is the case, it must be done with great care to focus upon the prophecies of the coming of our Lord to accomplish our salvation.
Finally, Advent/Christmas and Easter especially provide an opportunity for the church to engage in evangelism. Since in the United States, these times of the year are cultural "holidays," we have a built-in opportunity to speak the truth of the Word into the hearts and minds of those who are already thinking about those days.
1 For a helpful little introduction to this topic, see Leading in Worship, ed., Terry L. Johnson (Oak Ridge: The Covenant Foundation, 1996), 103-4. See also Old, Worship, 34-37.
2 D. G. Hart, Recovering Mother Kirk: The Case for Liturgy in the Reformed Tradition (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 31.
3 Ibid., 31.
4 The Living Theological Heritage of the United Church of Christ, series ed., B. B. Zikmund, 3 vols. (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 1997), 2:374 n4. See Bard Thompson, “The Palatinate Church Order of 1563.” Church History 23:4 (December 1954): 339-54.
5 Deborah Rahn Clemens, “Foundations of German Reformed Worship in the Sixteenth Century Palatinate” (PhD diss., Drew University, 1995).
6 Heritage of the United Church of Christ, 2:360.
7 J. H. A. Bomberger, “The Old Palatinate Liturgy of 1563.” The Mercersburg Review 2:1 (January 1850): 84. For the prayers for Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost, see J. H. A. Bomberger, “The Old Palatinate Liturgy of 1563.” The Mercersburg Review 2:3 (May 1850): 275-7. On Bomberger’s contribution to the liturgy of the German Reformed Church in the mid-nineteenth century, see Michael A. Farley, “A Debt of Fealty to the Past: The Reformed Liturgical Theology of John H. A. Bomberger.” Calvin Theological Journal 39:2 (November 2004): 332-56.
8 Old, Worship, 36.
9 Common Places of Martin Bucer, trans. and ed., D. F. Wright, The Courtenay Library of Reformation Classics 4 (Appleford: The SDutton Courtenay Press, 1972), 90.
10 Ibid., 208.
11 Ibid., 210.
12 Ibid., 264.
13 Idzerd Van Dellen and Martin Monsma, The Church Order Commentary (reprint; Wyoming, MI: Credo Books, 2003), 273, 274.
14 Ibid., 274.
15 As cited in The Psalter (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, July 1999 edition), 187.
16 Psalter Hymnal (Grand Rapids: Christian Reformed Church, 1934), 124. It is interesting to note that the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church 1926, sustained the judgment of a Classis against a Consistory for failure to a service on New Year’s Day. Acts 1926, article 78, p. 97.
17 Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 3 vols. (Phillipsburg: P&R, 1994), 2:101.
18 Turretin, Institutes, 2:101.
19 Cited in Turretin, Institutes, 2:101.
20 Turretin, Institutes, 2:102.
21 Turretin, Institutes, 2:103.
22 Stages of Experience: The Year in the Church, trans. J. E. Anderson (Baltimore: Helicon Press, 1965), 47.
23 Stages of Experience, 49.
24 Stages of Experience, 17.
25 Stages of Experience, 12.
26 Against Heresies, 5.14.2.
27 Against Heresies, 3.18.7.
28 Against Heresies, 5.21.1.
29 Against Heresies, 4.34.1.