Monday, March 30, 2015

Are holidays and religious festivals suitable for Christians?

For this week's newspapers, I answered a question about whether it is appropriate for Christians to set aside certain days to commemorate people or events of a religious or civic nature:

Q:  I’ve heard accusations recently that it is unbiblical for Christians to celebrate certain days or seasons as an observance of people or events from church or national history.  When, if ever, is it acceptable for Christians to do this?

We can find evidence that humans have set aside certain days of the year as commemorations throughout history, even when their only tool to do so was the angles of the sunlight shining down on the earth.  In Bible history, we see the same pattern, as the Lord forbids Israel from joining in the religious festivals of their unbelieving neighbors, but also gives them a calendar for their own commemoration of His deeds in history. 

They remembered God’s act of creation on the New Year, the forgiveness of sins on the Day of Atonement, and the giving of the Law on Pentecost.  The Passover was not only instituted to save the people of Israel from the tenth plague upon Egypt, but also given as a yearly commemoration of God’s deliverance from death and from Egyptian slavery.  After the Israelites settled in the Promised Land, they celebrated the Feast of Booths as a commemoration of their ancestors’ 40 years of wandering the wilderness on their way from Egypt, and later, the festivals of Purim and Hanukkah marked other events of God’s deliverance. 

In similar fashion, the Christian Church also holds a yearly cycle of festivals remembering the life of Jesus and His provision for the Church.  Nearly all Christians celebrate Christmas and Resurrection as a minimum.  The most historic churches spend the first half of their liturgical year remembering the major events in our Lord’s earthly life, and the remainder focusing on His teachings as they have been handed down to the Church which preserves and proclaims them.   

While the date and number of these festivals is not given in the New Testament, we do know that the Church began to read Scripture in a predictable pattern from very early on.  Historical documents from outside of Scripture also indicate that the Resurrection was celebrated at the same time as Passover within the lifetime of the Apostles, that Lent became a time of preparation for this festival by the end of the First Century A.D. and that Christmas was a common festival by the first half of the Second Century, giving a strong indication that this tradition of the Church in commemorating feasts and festivals was approved by the Apostles themselves and is an ancient part of the Church’s life. 

We also see today that the Church commemorates other events in the lives of Biblical saints such as the Annunciation, when our Lord’s conception was proclaimed to Mary by the Angel Gabriel, and the Confession of St. Peter, who boldly proclaimed Jesus as the promised Savior.  In addition, other Biblical saints and their roles in the Scriptures are remembered on the dates of their deaths, and other important figures in Christian history are commemorated for their exemplary contributions to the life of the Church. 

The types of feasts, festivals, and commemorations listed above would all be an ancient and acceptable part of Christian tradition, along with other events such as the anniversary of a congregation, when Christians might gather to thank God for providing in a particular way.  The only caution regarding these festivals would be to ensure that they are held in thanksgiving for what God has done, rather than being transformed into worship of the human persons involved in God’s works. 

National and civic commemorations are also appropriate for Christians to engage in outside of their congregations, provided that they do not involve idolatrous worship or a compromise to their confession of Christ to the world.  However, in most cases it is inadvisable to make these commemorations a part of the church’s worship life, but rather to let the nation’s festivals be celebrated by the nation and the Church’s be celebrated by the Church, and allow the members to participate in both according to their vocation. 

Monday, March 16, 2015

The Who, What and Why of prayer:

For this week's newspapers, I answered a question about to whom and for what we should pray:

Q:  When Christians pray, who should they pray to, and what things should they pray for?

The typical formula by which Christians pray is a prayer to God the Father, through or for the sake of Jesus – God the Son, and guided by God the Holy Spirit.  This sort of prayer includes the whole Trinity, and acknowledges that we have no right to approach God in prayer, except because His Son Jesus had died in our place, forgiven our sins, and reconciled us to His Father, and that it is only by the Holy Spirit that we can trust in Him and rely on this. 

The public prayers of several liturgical traditions reflect this by ending with the words, “…through Jesus Christ, Your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.” 

Sometimes less-formal prayers simply shorten by praying to God “in Jesus’ name,” and other prayers might pray to Jesus Himself without mentioning the other members of the Trinity.  Although permissible in theory, prayers directed toward the Holy Spirit are only rarely seen in the history of Christian prayer. 

Because the Triune God forbids those who trust in Him from mixing His worship with that of other gods, it would be inappropriate for Christians to pray to any god other than the persons of the Holy Trinity, such as the Muslim Allah, the many Hindu gods, or local ancestral deities, or to direct prayers to demons or to lesser spirits associated with other religions. 

Prayers to creatures that are real and good, but are not God Himself would also be prohibited.  This would include prayers directed toward angels, other Bible characters, and Christians who have died before us.  This is made clear in Scripture when St. Paul writes to Timothy that “there is one God and one mediator between God and men – the man Jesus Christ.” 

At some times and places, a compromise has been suggested that, even though we may not pray to deceased Christians, it is permissible to ask them to pray for us from Heaven instead, much like we would ask a living neighbor to pray for us. 

Even though this idea recognizes that our deceased brothers and sisters still live with the Lord as members of the Church, and some Scriptures even lean toward implying that they do pray for us there, this has typically been discouraged in most times and places.  This is the case because there is not a direct Biblical instruction for us to ask them do so, because it has a significant danger of crossing the line into worshipping the dead, either by confusion or carelessness, and because we have the privilege of asking Jesus Himself intercede for us is, which is of infinitely higher importance. 

In a related note, Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the Tax collector also teaches us that the length and number of prayers and those offering them is not an indication of God’s answer, so confining our requests for prayer to the living congregation of believers does not impair God’s ability to answer.  Instead, although persistence in prayer is a virtue, we recognize that the brief prayer offered once is just as likely to be answered as the prayer of thousands offered repeatedly. 

This is because prayer is answered purely as a gift because of Jesus and not because of our effort or worthiness.  In fact, in Jesus perfect prayer given to the Church, He instructs His followers to pray for several things that God has already promised to do and which will happen even without prayer.  Yet we pray for them out of confidence that they will happen, rather than in order to cause them to happen. 

Christians may pray for these things that God has already promised with the certainty that He will grant them.  They may also pray for any other good thing in God’s creation—both earthly and spiritual—even if He has not promised that He will certainly give it.  In such cases, we recognize that God may grant it, or He may know in His infinite wisdom that we are better not to have it, and therefore withhold it for our benefit. 

The number of things for which Christians may not pray is a short list:  They may not pray for those who already died apart from Jesus to receive forgiveness and be saved, and they may not pray for sinful things or things that are harmful to themselves or others.  In such cases, we can be certain that God will not grant what is asked for, because it is contrary to His revealed will.