Skipping Church on Sunday — Because It’s Christmas?

It is imperative that we rediscover the truth that ‘we are saved in community’

Jindřich Tomec (1863-1928), “The Piarist Church in Vienna”
Jindřich Tomec (1863-1928), “The Piarist Church in Vienna” (photo: Public Domain)

So, if Christmas falls on a Sunday, does that mean Sunday’s canceled and you need not go to church?

No, I have not had too much “naughty” eggnog. The New York Times asked that question in a spread in its Dec. 18 Sunday Magazine section.

Whether to go to church on Sunday, Dec. 25, is apparently roiling some American Protestants! No kiddin’!

Catholics sometimes need to exit their parochial perspectives to see a bigger — often more concerning — picture. “O Come All Ye Faithful, Except When Christmas Falls on a Sunday” reports that some Protestant pastors are canceling Christmas services this year because it falls on a Sunday.

Christmas, unlike Easter, has a fixed date: Dec. 25. Because it is tied to a date and not a day, it will tend to fall every six or seven years on a Sunday (which, like this year, gives you the longest possible Advent you can have, with a full, seven day Fourth Week). The last time Christmas was a Sunday was in 2016.

According to the Times, Protestant pastors noted six years ago that almost nobody showed up for Christmas Sunday morning services. People wanted to stay home in their pajamas on Christmas morning and unhurriedly open presents. So, drawing on that experience and the likely still anemic post-COVID return-to-church numbers, those ministers have decided to call off services on Sunday, Dec. 25.

Not all pastors interviewed, of course, agreed. One noted that you can’t go around telling people “Jesus is the reason for the season” and then cancel services without suggesting, “Hey, it’s Christmas, and Jesus may not be the reason for the season.”

Having cited the dissenting holdout, the Times then goes on to quote rationalizations by pastors for not putting in a pulpit appearance Dec. 25. They fall into three camps:

  • the pragmatic types, who don’t expect crowds and decided it’s not worth the effort (should I really put on the lights for the three found sheep in the back row?);
  • the contemporary “pastoral” types, who figure they can livestream a service over Zoom that people can watch from their couches in front of the Christmas tree (and unwrap a present if the sermon is not uplifting);
  • and the pseudo-religious types who want to do the Protestant equivalent of sprinkling some holy water on the abuse: citing a Bible verse. They justify the missing sheep by assuring us “where two or three are gathered together, God is in their midst.”

As Catholics (who have our own issues with co-religionists familiar only with churches decorated in two main motifs: poinsettia and lilies) we should not forget that Protestantism is not a denomination but an umbrella covering a broad range of “high” to “low” churches (i.e., those closer to or further from Catholic practice). Some of the “high” traditions, like Lutherans and Episcopalians, even have something like midnight services.

But Catholics should also not forget that most Protestants — except the Germans and English who liked some of the old smells and bells — generally jettisoned much of Catholic tradition, including the liturgical year, arguing it lacked Scriptural warrant. Let’s not forget that Puritan Massachusetts actually banned the celebration of Christmas for 22 years (1659-81), imposing fines on people who would not work on that day. (I suppose that when Christmas did fall on a Sunday — as it did in 1661, 1667, 1672 and 1678 — Puritan services followed their own “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy). So, the idea of marking an historical event in Christ’s life, in contrast to observing the explicit Fourth Commandment (in their reckoning) about “keeping holy the Lord’s Day” still affects Protestant theology (to the degree people actually look for theological reasons for what they want to do).

Finally, Catholics should not forget that the radical individualism of Protestantism undercuts the need for a church. For someone raised on “Jesus is ‘my personal Savior’” which I know through my act of faith and my personal interpretation of the Bible, does one really need a church in the middle of all that? What would its role in terms of my salvation be? The Protestant model, whether they admit it or not, is the individual believer siloed in his relationship with God: everything is vertical, nothing (at least essential) is horizontal.

In that light, why not celebrate Christmas Sunday at Jimmy’s First Baptist Church of the Tuscaloosa La-Z-Boy?

Among the reasons Puritans objected to Christmas was their claim that there is no historical basis to associate the birth of Christ with Dec. 25. Increase Mather, one of Boston’s great Puritan divines, insisted Christmas was simply an attempt to throw holy water on the pagan feast of Saturnalia (and, in good Protestant fashion, he didn’t have a verse to throw at it).

Well, even if that were true, so what? The Romans observed Saturnalia because they celebrated the “Conquering Sun” (sol invictus). Ever since June, every day has grown shorter than the day before. By Dec. 21, the day is at its shortest. So that the Sun now appears to conquer the growing darkness is an occasion for celebration in Rome.

But the great Old Testament prophet Malachi spoke of Jesus as the “Sun of Justice, rising with his healing rays” (4:2). Is there any wonder why, beyond trying to preempt an entrenched pagan feast, the early Christians saw — not unlike Paul at the Altar to the Unknown God (Acts 17:23) — the early Christians saw in this inchoate pagan impulse something connected with the truly “Conquering Sun of Justice,” the Conquering Son?

I mention the pagan nexus not just out of deference to the Mather boys but in light of the comments the Times story elicited: you learn a lot about America’s movers and shakers by reading “Comments” on NYT stories. Most of them sneered at the Protestant culture warriors declaring their own personal truce from Christmas to stay home by the fire. Many observed that Christmas was always an interloper that could never really stamp out the far more fun pagan celebrations of “Solstice” and “Festivus.” One dismissed the “fiction” of Jesus while pledging his troth to Mithras. The common thread — which may not have been too off-target: “please be quiet, we’re all pagans now.”

Well, aren’t we? Even if the Puritans didn’t celebrate Christmas, I am sure they were at their long service on Dec. 25, 1661, 1667, 1672 and 1678 because they were Sundays. Puritan animosity to Christmas disappeared with Cromwell, but isn’t the paradox that, among some Protestant, the Christmas/Sunday double-header, rather than multiplying the reasons to participate in worship, is treated as canceling each other out: not just Christmas which — as noted — had a mixed reception in Protestantism — but Sunday itself is nixed.

Are we all pagans now?

I have long sputtered on about the irrationality of the U.S. Bishops’ approach to certain holydays which fall on Saturdays or Mondays ceasing to be holydays, e.g., I have an article out on this issue this month. But while they have played fast-and-loose with Jan. 1, the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, even the bishops did not dare apply their incoherent discipline to Christmas. Apparently, on the calendar, our Protestant brethren outdid us.

(By the way, since New Year’s Eve is likely to have revelers out celebrating late on Saturday night, will Protestant sects cancel Jan. 1 Sunday services or — because it’s “only” a Sunday — still hold one?)

What is at issue here — a threat to Protestants and Catholics — is the ecclesiological dimension of worship. Protestants pioneered this toxin in their “personal” approach to religion, but radical individualism got out of Protestant hands to become a religion in itself. In that process, the boundaries of Christian orthodoxy — be they the bright lines once typical of Catholicism or the even gauzier ones of mainline Protestantism — have all faded into some hazy, ethereal “spirituality” in which the individual is his own disciple, guru, master, disciplinarian, and pontiff all rolled into one … and rolled up on the couch, cup of cocoa in hand, “celebrating” presents.

It is imperative that we rediscover the truth that “we are saved in community” (Lumen Gentium, no. 9). This is not just a “Catholic theory.” Scripture itself speaks of incorporation into the Mystical Body of Christ, where the individual members just don’t “do their own thing” but do it in conjunction with the functioning of the overall body (1 Corinthians 12:21-27). That “religious individualism” manifests itself in a whole range of ways (e.g., “I confess my sins to God, what do I need a priest for?”) but in recent times has resulted in the evisceration of any need for any church. I don’t call it a “rugged individualism” because it’s not so much rugged as flaccid, self-indulgent with its vision of a “merciful” and “loving God” who’s primary concern seems to be human “happiness” (as humans define it) and comfort.

If so, make mine Southern Comfort … in the eggnog.

So, are we all pagans now?