Holy Days

Friends,

As we are saying, “Goodbye to February”, it is my hope that we are also saying, “Goodbye to the snow and ice”. March brings with it Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) on March 5, Ash Wednesday on March 6, Lent from March 6 until April 18, daylight saving time (DST) beginning on March 10, St. Patrick’s Day on March 17, and St. Joseph’s Day on March 19. Other than daylight saving time, none of these actually affect worship in Reformed traditions. Daylight saving time does in that it means we have to get up an hour earlier for church on that Sunday.

Mardi Gras begins on or after the Feast of the Epiphany and climaxes on the day before Ash Wednesday. That Tuesday is known as “Fat Tuesday” or “Shrove Tuesday”. Mardi Gras is French for “Fat Tuesday”. In the United States and in many other places, this Tuesday is celebrated by eating rich, fatty foods before the fasting of the Lent begins. In some countries, such as England, Mardi Gras is known as Shrove Tuesday. Shrove Tuesday comes from the word shrive which means, “to administer the sacrament of confession to; to absolve”.

Ash Wednesday, marks the beginning of Lent and is characterized by worship services that emphasize prayer, fasting, and repentance and often include the imposition of ashes. The imposition of ashes is the practice of marking a cross, using ashes, on the foreheads of worship participants. This is accompanied by the recitation of either the words “Repent and believe in the Gospel” or “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Lent lasts 40 days and is symbolic of Jesus’ temptation in the desert as recorded in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). Sundays are always feast days in the Christian calendar and therefore not counted in the 40 days of Lent. Lent ends on the evening of Maundy Thursday. It is observed in the Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Lutheran, Methodist, and Roman Catholic Churches. Traditionally, it has not been observed in Reformed traditions.

Daylight saving time (DST) is the practice of advancing clocks during the summer so that it is light longer in the evening. George Hudson, a New Zealand entomologist, first proposed this idea in 1895. Port Arthur, Ontario, Canada, was the first city in the world to enact DST on July 1, 1908. They were followed by Orillia, Ontario, introduced by William Sword Frost in 1911. The German Empire and Austria-Hungary were the first to implement DST nationwide, on April 30, 1916, to conserve coal during wartime. They referred to it as Sommerzeit. Britain and most of her allies soon followed. Russia and a few other countries waited until the next year. Here, in these United States, DST was not implemented until 1918.

St. Patrick’s Day is a cultural and religious celebration. It occurs on the traditional death date of Saint Patrick (c. AD 385–461). Saint Patrick’s Day has been officially celebrated by a portion of the Church since the early 17th century. It is observed by the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion (especially the Church of Ireland), the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the Lutheran Church. It is a celebration of Saint Patrick and Christianity coming to Ireland. These celebrations include parades, the wearing of green clothing or shamrocks, and drinking alcohol. The Lenten restrictions on eating certain foods and drinking alcohol were lifted for the day. This of course, encouraged the holiday’s tradition of raucous behavior.

St. Joseph’s Day is the feast day of Saint Joseph, the husband of the Virgin Mary. It is celebrated in the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran Churches. Saint Joseph’s Day is the Patronal Feast day for Poland and Canada. It is also Father’s Day in Spain, Portugal, and Italy.

Samuel Miller, in Presbyterians Do Not Celebrate Holy-days, sums up the Reformed tradition’s historical approach to these sorts of celebrations, “We believe, and teach, in our public formularies, that “there is no day, under the Gospel dispensation, commanded to be kept holy, except the Lord’s day, which is the Christian Sabbath.”” He went on to declare, “that even the keeping of these days, when they are made stated observances, recurring, of course, at particular times, whatever the aspect of Providence may be, is calculated to promote formality and superstition, rather than the edification of the body of Christ.”

Miller’s reasons for his opinion are the following:

Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.

Colossians 2:16 (ESV)

and

But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.

Galatians 4:9–11 (ESV)

The Genevan church and the Church of Scotland did not celebrate any holiday but the Lord’s day. Likewise, Puritans refused to celebrate any holiday other than the Lord’s Day. According to Miller, the Long Parliament, in June 1647, “officially declared an end to Easter (and all other Christian Holy Days).” This was done to eliminate all traces of Roman Catholicism in England. They only allowed worship on Sunday.

New England’s original Puritans disallowed and saw Christmas, Easter, or any other Christian Holy Day celebration as “pagan mockery”. In 1645, a group of Puritan ministers declared: “festival days, vulgarly called Holy Days, having no warrant in the Word of God, are not to be continued.” Miller goes on to say, “All Holy Days were banned in Boston, including Christmas and Easter, from 1659-1681. The law stated: “observing, by abstinence from labor, feasting or any other way any such days as Christmas day, shall pay for every such offense five shillings.””

In the United States, Christmas was not a Federal Holiday until 1870 and Easter still is not officially recognized. Until 1870, Congress was routinely in session on Christmas Day. In Boston, up to this time, schoolchildren were expelled for skipping school on Christmas Day. They also considered Lent an idolatrous practice and Easter a heathen holiday and they were banned.

So, what does all of this mean? First, things have changed. Secondly, if we are to take seriously our traditions, we need to know what they are and why they are there. Thirdly, we need to be careful and not let our traditions draw us away from God. Finally, we should always seek the counsel of Scripture in evaluating any of our practices.

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

2 Timothy 3:16–17 (ESV)

Yours in Christ,

Rev. Walls