Do you ever wonder what happened in Boston on December 25, 1661?
In 1659, Massachusetts Bay Colony, under Puritan leadership, banned the observance of Christmas as “superstitious,” fining anyone caught celebrating it. As in Soviet Russia, the best evidence against any “keeping” of Christmas was to go to work.
Well, December 25, 1661, was a Sunday. And Sundays were the high point of the Massachusetts week, regulated by what one was to do (go to church) and fail to do (work).
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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So, when Puritans went to church on Sunday, December 25, 1661, presumably the minister said nothing about Christmas, an early version of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” If the “Bible-in-a-Year” model had been in vogue back then, by the last week of December they should have been in the middle of some real awful plagues in the Book of Revelation. That’ll teach ‘em!
And when the Puritans came home on Sunday, December 25, 1661, (probably in mid-afternoon) and lolled around the farm, how did the Colony authorities know they were honoring the Sabbath rather than clandestinely “forbearing of labour” to honor Christmas?
I make these observations in light of a feature in the December 18 New York Times’ Sunday Magazine, in which Ruth Graham interviews Protestant pastors across America who plan to cancel church services next Sunday, December 25. Why?
Because it’s Christmas Day.
Now, lest one think that the spirit of Increase and Cotton Mather and perhaps Jonathan Edwards suddenly stalks the land, relax. There’s nothing quite so theologically serious about why they’re calling off church services.
The pastors are cancelling them because they don’t think people will come.
Unlike financial planners, their future forecast is based on past performance: when Christmas last fell on a Sunday—in 2016—service attendance was minimal. People told pastors they preferred a slow morning, with their families, opening presents.
Given that precedent, and still-anemic numbers after the great Covid lockdown, some Protestant pastors simply decided to announce no service would be scheduled. Graham reports that 84 percent of Protestant ministers surveyed planned Christmas services, which means almost one in five didn’t.
The Mathers at least railed at Christmas because they thought it “superstitiously” detracted from the honor due God. Today’s pastors now rail at Sunday because it detracts from the comfort options of their congregants on Christmas.
As if Christmas and Sunday are mutually exclusive.
Graham notes that the 2020 pandemic experience had also changed the way some ministers think of what it means to “go to church.” Given the tele-evangelical bent of Protestantism, “online church” is growing. [That doesn’t work for a sacramental church like the Catholic Church—unless you turn the sacraments into empty rituals—but for Protestants who long ago marginalized even Eucharistic celebration, no sweat].
Ministers who are more theologically loosey-goosey (a key theological term) invoke Matthew 18:20 (“where two or three are gathered in my name, I am in their midst”) to apply a religious patina to familial present-opening on the living room floor. It’s probably not too far from the American Golfer’s Proof for the Existence of God (“I encounter the Lord in nature…on the eighteenth hole”).
Pundits lament the decline of “organized religion.” But the truth is that moderns don’t seem to think religion needs to be “organized.” Religion as a structure, a discipline against which one measures one’s beliefs and actions, is derided as “inauthentic” or “externalist” or even “hypocritical.” “Real” religion is interior.
In one sense, that’s true: religion needs to be self-appropriated. But I fear that, in practice, the interiority of religion of which moderns speak is inside the house, sipping hot chocolate by the Christmas tree; or under the covers at noon, reading the Times Sunday Magazine about the other folks who aren’t going to church either.
Honesty demands admitting this schmear has nothing in common with “organized religion,” not just because it is unorganized but because it doesn’t deserve the name “religion.” Religare, the etymological origin of “religion,” means “to bind together.” But this goo unites nothing.
It calls itself “spiritual” because it feigns some nonmaterial aura; but it shares nothing with spirituality unless we believe everyman is simultaneously his own disciple and guru. Such schmaltz may have worked for Ralph Waldo Emerson and even Henry David Thoreau (though the latter needed his working aunt to bail the wordmonger of Walden out of jail), but I bet even Ebenezer Scrooge would have preferred a thicker gruel.
Worship of God always involved a communal context. God made a covenant with Israel, not individual deals with Moses and Aaron. A true Jewish worship service presupposes a minyan: ten men past their bar mitzvahs (i.e., true “sons of the Torah”). Christianity speaks of the “body of Christ” (1 Corinthians 12), the “vine and the branches” (John 15:1-17), and God’s will to save men in community (Lumen gentium, # 9).
The sidelining of the ecclesiological context of worship, while accelerated by the great Covid lockdown and the failure to reckon with the long-term damage of a “field hospital” that retreated from the battlefield, preexisted 2020. The privatization of religion has long been afoot; it is arguably even a foundational tenet of the Protestant Revolt, with its focus on personal Scriptural interpretation and “my relationship with Jesus.”
What we see today is what happens when individualism detaches from organized religion to become a religion in itself, one that takes down its competition. It’s a “religion” that finds social resonance when even the mainstream faiths peddle a moralistic therapeutic deism instead of an authentic Judaism or Christianity. How could we imagine a “good and gentle Jesus” who simply wants us to “love” being upset that we are not “going to church” when He’s both everywhere and yet conveniently nowhere in terms of most of what I want to do in life?
Note the verb: “imagine.” There’s a lot of imagining that takes the place of real religion today. And that’s why going to church on Christmas becomes a question, even for those who imagine this is compatible with real faith.