At various points, we’ve discussed the celebration of Christmas and other holidays in various sectors of the Reformed tradition, including among some conservative Presbyterians in the nineteenth century, as well as time-keeping more generally.
The same favorable attitude we see in Hodge continues into the twentieth century.
J. Gresham Machen
Thus J. Gresham Machen, the founder of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, commends the observance of Christmas two days after Christmas, 1936, just five days before his death.
He does so in a radio address on the Atonement–one of several from around the same time–that is included in God Transcendent, a collection of Machen’s sermons and addresses edited by Ned B. Stonehouse (Eerdmans, 1949).
In that address, Machen notes that the commemoration of Christ’s birthday entered the Christian church much later than the commemoration of his death; the former was ordered to the latter, and the latter receives much more attention in the Bible than the former. Moreover, the Bible makes explicit provision for the celebration of Christ’s death, while it does not do so for Christ’s birth. Nevertheless, Machen states, it is fitting to celebrate Christ’s birth all the same. In Machen’s own words:
At the beginning of the examination there is one fact which stares us in the face. It has sometimes been strangely neglected. It is the fact of the enormous emphasis which the Bible lays upon the death of Christ.
Have you ever stopped to consider how strange that emphasis is? In the case of other great men, it is the birth that is celebrated and not the death. Washington’s birthday is celebrated by a grateful American people on the twenty-second day of February, but who remembers on what day of the year it was that Washington died? Who ever thought of making the day of his death into a national holiday?
Well, there are some men whose death might indeed be celebrated by a national holiday, but they are not good men like George Washington; they are, on the contrary, men whose taking off was a blessing to their people. It would be a small compliment to the father of his country if we celebrated with national rejoicing the day when he was taken from us. Instead of that, we celebrate his birth. Yet in the case of Jesus it is the death and not the birth that we chiefly commemorate in the Christian church.
I do not mean that it is wrong for us to commemorate the birth of Jesus. We have just celebrated Christmas, and it is right for us so to do. Happy at this Christmas season through which we have just passed have been those to whom it has not been just a time of worldly festivity but a time of commemoration of the coming of our blessed Saviour into this world. Happy have been those men and women and little children who have heard, underlying all their Christmas joys, and have heard in simple and childlike faith, the sweet story that is told us in Matthew and Luke. Happy have been those celebrants of Christmas to whom the angels have brought again, in the reading of the Word of God, their good tidings of great joy.
Yes, I say, thank God for the Christmas season; thank God for the softening that it brings to stony hearts; thank God for the recognition that it brings for the little children whom Jesus took into His arms; thank God even for the strange, sweet sadness that it brings to us together with its joys, as we think of the loved ones who are gone. Yes, it is well that we should celebrate the Christmas season; and may God ever give us a childlike heart that we may celebrate it aright.
But after all, my friends, it is not Christmas that is the greatest anniversary in the Christian church. It is not the birth of Jesus that the church chiefly celebrates, but the death.
Did you know that long centuries went by in the history of the church before there is any record of the celebration of Christmas? Jesus was born in the days of Herod the King — that is, at some time before 4 B.C., when Herod died. Not till centuries later do we find evidence that the church celebrated any anniversary regarded as the anniversary of His birth.
Well, then, if that is so with regard to the commemoration of Jesus’ birth, how is it with regard to the commemoration of His death? Was the commemoration of that also so long postponed? Well, listen to what is said on that subject by the Apostle Paul. ‘For as often as ye eat this bread,’ he says, ‘and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come.’ That was written only about twenty-five years after the death of Christ and after the founding of the church in Jerusalem. Even in those early days the death of Christ was commemorated by the church in the most solemn service in which it engaged — namely, in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
Indeed that commemoration of the death of Christ was definitely provided for by Jesus Himself. ‘This cup is the New Testament in my blood,’ said Jesus: ‘this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me.’ In those words of institution of the Lord’s Supper, Jesus carefully provided that His church should commemorate His death.
Thus the Bible makes no definite provision for the commemoration of the birth of Jesus,1 time but provides in the most definite and solemn way for the commemoration of His death.
What is the reason for that contrast, which at first sight might seem to be very strange? I think the answer is fairly clear. The birth of Jesus was important not in itself but because it made possible His death. Jesus came into this world to die, and it is to His death that the sinner turns when He seeks salvation for his soul.2
Another twentieth century Presbyterian theologian, Geerhardus Vos, also makes a case for the “observance of special seasons.” His emphasis is slightly different from Machen’s: whereas Machen argues that everything in the Bible centers around the death of Christ, for Vos it is the resurrection.
We see this in a sermon on 1 Corinthians 15.14 that Vos preached in the chapel of Princeton Theological Seminary on Easter in 1905, and that sermon is included in Grace and Glory. There he says this:
We may say Paul here exhibits the resurrection as that towards which everything in Christianity tends; the goal in which all thinking and striving and hoping of believers finds its perfect rest and triumphant solution. It seems to me we can set for ourselves no more appropriate or profitable task this Easter day than at the hand of the apostle to trace the inner nexus of our Christian faith with the resurrection of Christ. If the observance by the church of special seasons associated with the great epochs in the work of redemption is to be justified at all, it can be justified on no higher ground than that such seasons as Christmas and Easter and Pentecost invite us to rise for a moment from the poor fragmentariness of our average consciousness of salvation to that clearer and more blessed vision whereby as from a mountain top we span the entire origin of our faith. Everything belongs to us of right, brethren, because we are Christ’s and Christ is God’s; but we are consciously rich in so far only as we learn to place ourselves at least sometimes on those points of elevation from which we may survey the land of God’s promises as a whole. Perhaps we do not sufficiently appreciate the extent to which the remembrance at stated seasons of these great facts of the incarnation, the atonement, the resurrection, the gift of the Spirit, has kept alive in the church the spirit of true evangelical piety. I am sure we shall not have meditated upon the words in vain if our meditation leads us to realize in some measure how entirely our holy religion stands or falls with the resurrection of Christ.
Vos is quite perceptive about humans as creatures both (a) bound to the rhythms of time and (b) sluggish and inattentive, and therefore in need of seasons of heightened remembrance of important truths in order to bring them more directly before the consciousness. Another and simpler way of saying this is that if every Sunday is Easter Sunday, then none of them is. Festivals are the exclamation point the church puts on sentences that are true all year round.
Vos, by the way, wrote poetry, and the first poem in his collection Western Rhymes is about the Nativity of Our Lord, with a special focus also on the Virgin Mary and a paraphrase of the Magnificat, which Vos recommends especially for use at Christmas. I’ll close this post with it.
Ye listeners to the tale retold,
What do your wondering eyes behold?
A babe that, scarcely given, gives,
Its every breath a grace that lives;
Giver and gift and sacrament,
All merged in one and manward bent;
Entering our kind and ours alone,
Flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone;
The uncreated Light of Light,
Heaven’s noonday, swallowed by our night;
Guileless, incapable of wrong,
More than the lambs He lay among;
His smallness laden with our sin;
Born that his birth-cries might begin
Full thirty years of tragedy,
Each step a step toward Calvary.
And this is the high-holy spot,
Angels are sad to visit not!
Here undergird God’s cords of gold
Our earth, and it from falling hold
Into the desperate abyss,
Where love not even a memory is.
This is the blest alighting ground
Of grace, whence it shall circle round
With one wide-flung redeeming span
All sin and sorrow and pain of man,
And make new paradise streams flow,
That from God’s throne through Eden go;
Yea cause all things now mute and dim
Again to shine and sing in Him.
If this ye in the manger see,
A promise and a prophecy
Of what was for the future willed,
Observe a thing even now fulfilled,
Well worth to open wide your eyes:
Close to the babe, transfigured, lies
She through whom God the Christ-gift gave
The world both and herself to save.
Lest thou the full-orbed glory miss,
Note well the mother’s part in this;
The greatest masters of the brush
Put more here than the solemn hush
Of just awakened motherhood,
Trembling at its beatitude;
They tried to limn a mystery
Of God-encompassed ecstasy;
But God, who first the image drew,
Knows more than ever artist knew;
His work is the Madonna-face
With its uncopyable grace,
Where, as in a pellucid stream,
To Him his own eyes mirrored seem.
The light God saw in Mary shine,
The inmost shrine within her shrine,
The whitest flame within the flame:
Religion is its holy name.
From it proceeded the groundswell
Upheaved in her high canticle:
The feeling of unworthiness,
Not loath, but eager, to confess
Itself but chosen instrument,
A chord through which God’s music went,
Like pulses throbbing through the frame
Back to the heart-pulse whence they came;
A hymn unaging, ever new,
An organ-peal the ages through,
Singing: “The handmaid of the Lord,
Me be according to thy word,”
Made through a fine simplicity
Mindless of its own melody,
Anxious alone that God should hear
A virgin strain pleasing his ear,
Sensing as from within God’s mind,
Why He exalts the humble kind,
Puts down the mighty from their seats,
The hungry with his fullness meets,
And, rising high above the thought,
That aught could in return be brought,
Perceives how all the blessed live
Only, that God may give and give.
So Mary, with naught else to bring,
Made her sweet Psalm an offering,
Wherein the Lord such pleasure found,
He let it through the world resound,
To bless our ears each Christmas night
With notes like drops of liquid light,
So clear we mean to hear in them
The very voice of Bethlehem,
As had by Mary’s side we sat,
And drunk of her “Magnificat.”
- Note that for Machen this does not mean that we should draw the conclusion that it is impermissible to commemorate the Incarnation annually at the traditional and customary time; that conclusion would be, he seems to believe, a non sequitur.
- You can find the passage beginning at the bottom of p. 51 here. It is on pp. 185-7 in God Transcendent.