HOLIDAYS OR HOLY DAYS? Should Christians keep the holiday? By Pastor Stephen Hower Everything is permissible – but not everything is beneficial. Everything is permissible – but not everything is constructive. 1 Corinthians 10:23 Jay Leno began one October 31st monologue by telling the audience how frustrated he was with the way Americans celebrate Halloween. “It has become so secular,” he lamented tongue-in-cheek. “I’ll bet none of you even worship Satan today! The religious significance is lost! All Halloween means anymore is candy, costumes, and parties! It just isn’t like it used to be.” Jay’s comments were humorous because they parodied what many Christians say about the celebration of religious holidays. The significance of Christ’s birth is lost on Santa Claus, the importance of Jesus’ resurrection competes with a bunny who hides painted eggs, and the Reformation has been displaced by a night of trick-or-treat. For Lutheran Christians, the holidays begin early. While the rest of Christendom begins the season at Thanksgiving, we kick things off with the celebration of Reformation Day on October 31. All Hallows’ Eve, as it was called in Martin Luther’s day, was like Christmas Eve has become for Americans. Everyone went to church. Believing that the saints in heaven could make intercession for the living, they held in high regard a night designated to honor all saints. Those who worshiped on All Hallows’ Eve had every reason to believe their prayers would receive special attention. Because the night promised a big crowd, Luther chose October 31st to post on the castle doors at Wittenburg his ninety-five reasons for opposing indulgences and other church abuses. Today, few Lutheran churches celebrate Reformation Day with an October 31 st evening service. Older and wiser pastors still celebrate the occasion but prefer to hold the service the Sunday before the historic date. They reason that the best celebrations are services that actually have participants in the pews. So what’s the solution? Has the world taken over? Should we run out into the wilderness and cry like Elijah, “I have had enough, Lord….Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors…I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected Your covenant, broken down Your altars, and put Your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left!” (1 Kings 19:4,10) Asking God to put us out of our misery is not the answer. The encroachment of the world is no threat to the faith of the true believer. The world has nothing to offer equivalent to God’s gifts at Christmas, Easter, and the Reformation. Faithful Christians shouldn’t feel compelled to choose between the two. By definition, they are not the same. One celebration is spiritual, and the other is not. As Christians, we should welcome the world’s desire to join in the observance and use it as a teaching opportunity, inviting the unchurched to discover the real meaning of the season. Christians, under certain conditions, can likewise join in celebrating our nation’s traditions without guilt or sin. The apostle Paul lived at a time when false gods and false teachers were more plentiful than Christians. You can imagine the questions he had to answer on the subject of compromise. “As a Christian can I participate in anything that might associate me with false gods even though I don’t believe in them? How do we handle it when our husbands want to celebrate the local customs but we aren’t sure we should? What do we tell our children?” During Paul’s day, some Christians were purchasing and eating meat that had been offered to idols. Other Christians objected, arguing that Christians who purchased meat offered to idols were participating in pagan worship and giving a false witness. Those buying the sacrifices thought such a view was ridiculous. They didn’t believe in false gods and the other Christians knew it. They were only buying the meat because it was a good deal. To them, meat was meat. Paul was asked to decide who was right and who was wrong. Paul gave three answers to this question. First and foremost he affirmed, Christians are free. “Food is just food,” Paul said. “It does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do” (1 Corinthians 8:8, paraphrase). In effect, Paul said, there is only one true God. Since there are no other gods, except those made up by the minds of people, faithful Christians can’t be accused of idolatry because they buy meat that pagans believe is sacred. As long as Christians didn’t join in idol worship they were free to purchase and cook the meat the pagans offered for sale after their sacrifice. This was not a simple “yes” or “no” situation, however, and Paul had more to say. Although Christians are free, if some of them believed that by buying and eating the meat they would be participating in evil, then it would be wrong and they should refrain. It would not only be a bad idea for them to act against their conscience, it would be a sin. “But the man who has doubts,” Paul said, “is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). In this situation two different Christians could participate in the same activity; one would be innocent and the other would be sinning. Paul taught if a Christian believes something is wrong (even if it’s not) and he participates against his conscience, he is sinning. Finally, Paul said Christians should be conscious of how the exercise of their Gospel freedom might affect others who would observe their behavior. Nonbelievers who see Christians buying and eating meat offered to idols might conclude that Christians are hypocrites, lacking spiritual integrity. Paul said others who observe Christians buying the meat might consider their behavior an endorsement of idolatry. Through misunderstanding, a nonbeliever who saw a Christian buy and eat the meat might be encouraged to join in false worship. It isn’t enough for Christians to be right, they should also be concerned about how others might interpret their behavior. If someone would be led to sin because he misunderstood the behavior of a Christian, Paul said Christians should voluntarily refrain from exercising their freedom. Notice that Paul’s concern is about weak and new Christians. This is not a situation where long-time Christians were offended by the exercise of Christian freedom causing Paul to urge restraint. When it came to Christians who should know better, Paul had an entirely different approach, challenging them to grow up and accept the truth. (1 Corinthians 3:1-4 and Hebrews 6:1-3) So should Christians celebrate holidays or only Holy Days? In addition to worship during Advent, Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day, can the faithful allow their children to sit on Santa’s lap and leave a carrot for Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer? Can Christians celebrate the Reformation on Sunday and take their children out trick-or-treating on October 31? The more things change, the more they remain the same. As in Paul’s day, there are at least three answers to these questions. First, Christians live under the freedom of the Gospel. They can participate as long as their actions remain innocent and are done for the pure fun and happiness associated with any secular tradition. To be sure, Christians acknowledge the reality of Satan and should never participate in any pagan rites or activities associated with Halloween. Paul told the Corinthians they could eat the meat but avoid the idolatry. Today he would advise, “Christians can eat the candy if they avoid satanic rituals.” Satan is not just a fairy tale made up to scare little children. According to the Bible, he is a fallen angel dedicated to the destruction of Christians (Revelations 12:7-12). He lurks in the shadows, waiting for his chance to entice and then entraps Christians through seemingly innocent occult activities like palm reading, fortune telling, Ouija boards, and seances. There is a big difference between trick-or-treating and dabbling in satanic activity. On the other hand, Christians who believe their participation in these secular activities is a compromise of their Christian faith should avoid them. Paul would state it even more strongly. To violate one’s conscience and participate in an activity that a Christian believes to be sinful is sinful for that Christian. If Christian parents believe that the world of trick- or-treat, the Easter bunny, and Santa Claus is a compromise of their Christian faith, they must refrain. Finally, Christians should be concerned about how others might interpret their participation, especially non-Christians and Christians of weak faith. Will others view their participation as hypocritical? Will nonbelievers be drawn into demonic activity because of a Christian’s participation in the harmless elements of the holiday? Even though Christians may know certain aspects of these celebrations are innocent, will others who are less knowledgeable be able to make the same distinction and understand a Christian’s limit participation? No doubt many Halloween customs have idolatrous origins, but as Jay Leno observed, most people today care only about the costumes, the candy, and the parties. In most American homes Halloween is a fun night for kids to dress up and ask for candy, nothing more. Santa Claus and the eggs of Easter also have historic origins lost and forgotten over time. Christian children who participate in the secular customs associated with Christmas and Easter should be taught the significance of their ancient Christian history. Because these holiday customs have become as much a part of America as eating turkey at Thanksgiving and hanging lights on evergreens at Christmas, Christian participation in most secular traditions has little or no potential to lead others into false worship. But, as Paul taught, it remains an individual decision that may be right for some and wrong for others. This is a case where belief dictates practice – practice that may or may not be contrary to popular belief. Each Christian family will have to decide their own level of participation based on God’s Word and their understanding of the event. The Scripture references regarding Paul’s advice to the first century Christians are from Romans 14:13-23, 1 Corinthians 8 and 10:23- 33. As Paul said, “Everything is permissible” – but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible” – but not everything is constructive. Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others. (1 Corinthians 10:23-24) So what are those things that are beneficial, constructive, and permissible? In a different letter Paul offered these suggestions: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:8-9).