Sunday, March 27, 2016

Christian Holidays and Pagan Roots: Honoring Other Gods?

This Easter I've seen quite a number of images like this floating around my Facebook news feed:

Something bothered me about seeing these posts, but not because they pointed to the pagan roots of and influences on our modern holiday traditions. We know that's a fact. It's not too hard to dig into history and find out that the Roman Church adopted certain pagan festivals and rechristened them as Christian celebrations. And even without a knowledge of history, it's not too hard to discern that bunnies and eggs have nothing to do with the Risen Christ.

However, when someone in my Christian family points these things out, I can't help wondering, "Why are you bringing this up? How important is this historical fact to the present-day meaning of the celebration? Are you inferring that I should not celebrate this holiday, and if so, why?"

This post is my attempt to succinctly articulate why all this bothers me.

"While knowledge makes us feel important, it is love that strengthens the church." 1 Corinthians 8:1
As I looked at the picture above, I couldn't help thinking that the principles in the writings of Paul could apply here. In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul addresses the issue of eating food that had been offered to idols. Some of the church in Corinth thought there was nothing wrong with it, and others had distinct qualms. Paul says:

"Well, we all know that an idol is not really a god and that there is only one God. There may be so-called gods both in heaven and on earth, and some people actually worship many gods and many lords. But for us, there is one God, the Father, by whom all things were created, and for whom we live. And there is one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things were created, and through whom we live. However, not all believers know this. Some are accustomed to thinking of idols as being real, so when they eat food that has been offered to idols, they think of it as the worship of real gods, and their weak consciences are violated." (verses 4-7)

Paul reminds his readers that the gods they are worried about -- Baal, Ishtar, and Tammuz, to use the example in the picture above -- are really nothing. Eating meat offered to an idol -- or eating an Easter egg, or putting a Christmas wreath on your door -- means nothing.

But that's only part of what bothers me. The other thing that concerns me is that posts like these, and often the comments accompanying them, either implicitly or explicitly point judgemental fingers at other people. Sadly, we are often quick to raise eyebrows, to condemn, and to think that we are more righteous than our brothers and sisters because we do or don't do something, whatever "side" you're on. I believe that especially for issues such as the celebration of Easter and Christmas, this attitude is neither helpful nor necessary.

There is always the danger that "knowledge puffeth up", whether it's knowledge about the pagan practices that influenced current holiday traditions, or the kind of knowledge that Paul references in 1 Corinthians 8 and Romans 14.

However, Paul presents all his arguments in a framework of love.

Although he reminds believers that idols are nothing and implies that there's nothing to worry about in eating meat sacrificed to them, he also reminds them that they shouldn't go pointing fingers at someone who doesn't think the same way they do, or encouraging them to do something the other believer thinks is wrong.

Regarding judgemental tendencies, Paul writes to the Romans in a similar context as he wrote to the Corinthians:

"Those who feel free to eat anything must not look down on those who don't. And those who don't eat certain foods must not condemn those who do, for God has accepted them. Who are you to condemn someone else's servants? Their own master will judge whether they stand or fall. And with the Lord's help, they will stand and receive his approval... So why do you condemn another believer? Why do you look down on another believer? Remember, we will all stand before the judgement seat of God...Yes, each of us will give a personal account to God. So let's stop condemning each other. Decide instead to live in such a way that you will not cause another believe to stumble and fall." (Romans 14: 3, 4, 10-13)

The Bible has nothing to say about the celebration of Christmas and Easter holidays in the sense that we observe them today. God does not command that we keep or remember them in the same way that he wants us to keep the Sabbath or celebrate communion, for example. Believers should be able to make their own decisions about whether or not they keep these other holidays in accordance with their own conscience.

Ellen White, a respected author in my denomination, said the following regarding Christmas, and I believe the principle can be carried into other celebrations as well:

"Letters of inquiry have come to us asking, Shall we have a Christmas tree? Will it not be like the world? We answer, You can make it like the world if you have a disposition to do so, or you can make it as unlike the world as possible...A word to the wise is sufficient."

So celebrate Christmas. And Easter. Or don't.

Whatever you choose to do, it's important to remember that Christmas and Easter are times when people are thinking about Jesus, even if it is only fleetingly. Rather than focusing attention on pagan histories and starting debates about whether or not we should observe the holidays, as Christians, let's put the attention back on Christ.

"So then, let us aim for harmony in the church and try to build each other up." (Romans 14:19)

Instead of subtly or openly criticizing each other, let us focus on the reason that we exist and the mission God has given us to share His love.

After all, whatever you think about Easter, it doesn't change the fact: He is risen indeed. And that's something to be excited about.

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