<Background: A friend of mine was visiting people in the neighborhood here in Baguio. He met a man who is part of a religious group here in the Philippines known as Iglesia ni Cristo (INC). This group was founded over here. Theologically, it is basically Arian. Soteriologically, it is Particularist (meaning salvation is mediated through their organization on only through their organization). Not talking about INC today. The man gave my friend a magazine from their group. It had a bit of that “Friendly-Confrontative” thing going as Jehovah’s Witness magazine-style materials.>
The title of the main article on the magazine listed above was “Lent: Christian or Pagan.” Of course, one can call almost everything from the Christian church as pagan. Very little trappings of institutional Christianity are in the primitive church. In fact, there are no real holidays recorded. One might argue that there are some holidays that may be implied from the Bible. These are:
- Jewish holidays. Although they are not directly indicated in the NT text, the predominance of the Jewish believers in the early church, and the fact that the church was recognized as being founded on a Jewish holiday probably meant that many Christians celebrated these holidays regardless of whether the assembly as a whole did. (Some Christians today are starting to practice the Jewish holidays as the only legitimate Christian holidays. Although this seems flawed, if one accepts an either/or attitude about holidays, one can see where it comes from.)
- Birth of Christ. Although we don’t really know whether the early church celebrated “Christmas” we know that two of the four gospels shared considerable details about the Birth of Christ, and both emphasize the celebratory nature of this event. Based on this, it is hard to see how Christmas cannot be seen as deeply rooted in Christianity— regardless of pagan influences.
- Resurrection of Christ. The early church celebrated weekly the Lord’s Day– the resurrection of Christ. Did they practice the celebration yearly? I don’t know, but pilgrimages to the open tomb went way back in church history so clearly celebration on some level wasn’t limited to a weekly event.
- Additional period celebrations included Eucharist and Love Feast, although these were weekly, not yearly.
- Pentecost. It is certainly a Jewish holiday, but did the church recognize it as a Christian holiday in the primitive church? Again, the emphasis on it in Acts 2 suggests that the church recognized its importance. Tertullian (160-220) recognized Pentecost as a Christian holiday.
Some like to quote Tertullian (chapter 2 in “To the Martyrs”) to point out the strong divide between pagan and Christian in terms of holiday.
You have no occasion to look on strange gods, you do not run against their images; you have no part in heathen holidays, even by mere bodily mingling in them; you are not annoyed by the foul fumes of idolatrous solemnities; you are not pained by the noise of the public shows, nor by the atrocity or madness or immodesty of their celebrants; your eyes do not fall on stews and brothels; you are free from causes of offense, from temptations, from unholy reminiscences; you are free now from persecution too.
Those that bring up this passage miss the point, in one reads the broader context. Tertullian is providing comfort to those Christians who are in prison. Tertullian is letting them know that prison isn’t so bad for a Christian. He later compares prison for a Christian to desert for a prophet— a place of asceticism to grow in faith. As such, Tertullian isn’t saying that prison is an inherent good, but that prison does have some advantages. Likewise, it does as if he is saying that pagan celebrations are bad in and of themselves, but are bad in so much as sinful activities are done during them.
Tertullian, in “On Idolatry, Chapter XIV” gives further warning about Christian involvement in pagan hoidays. The wording is again a bit open to interpretation. It seems to say that we are to have positive relationships with pagans, not negative. It seems to be assumed that pagan holidays would involve a lot of sinful behavior. Reading a part of this passage you see a bit of the nuance that sounds a bit like Chapter 5 of the Epistle to Diognetus,
“To live with heathens is lawful, to die with them is not. Let us live with all; let us be glad with them, out of community of nature, not of superstition. We are peers in soul, not in discipline; fellow-possessors of the world, not of error. But if we have no right of communion in matters of this kind with strangers, how far more wicked to celebrate them among brethren!”
This is a bit open to interpretation, but it is pretty clear that interaction between Christians and Pagans are to be positive and friendly, but we are not to take in pagan beliefs or sinful behaviors into the church. Because Saturnalia is brought up specifically (a celebration of considerable lewdness commonly), some writers have tried to say that Christmas cannot be celebrated. However, there seems to be little connection between Christmas as Saturnalia behaviorally, belief-wise, and even chronologically. It seems to be a made up controversy.
But one might take it further. What if Saturnalia WAS brought into the church. Suppose it was modified when it came into the church. I am making up something just for the point of example. The modifications might include:
- Changing the name. Saturnalia is tied to the Roman god Saturn. So it could have a new name. Suppose the church called it. Winterfast (not Winterfest).
- Changing the meaning. Unlike the original meaning, Winterfast can represent a time of self-denial. In the Northern Hemisphere, at least, this time of year is a time of death and little sunlight and warmth. (I hope it is clear that the Winter Solstice is not a pagan event or a Christian event. It is a solar event.)
- Changing the behavior. Saturnalia was a time of feasting, so maybe Winterfast would be one of fasting.
- Creating new symbols. Winterfast could create whole new symbols that express the event in a meaningful way to the celebrants.
- Redefining old symbols. Use some symbols that are part of Saturnalia but given them entirely new contexts and meanings.
So in this case, if Saturnalia came into the church with a new name, new meaning, new behaviors, new symbols, and redefined symbols, to what extent is it still Saturnalia. Maybe it is something new. And if it is on a different day, finding a connection between the two has become silly and argumentative.
We can take the meandering above to consider three views of holidays:
- Full incorporation of Pagan holidays into the church. This probably doesn’t really exist per se. Coming into the church the meaning, practice, and symbols have pretty much always changed considerably. Halloween looks a lot like this one… although the history of Halloween (All Hallow’s Eve) is much more complex than some would suggest.
- Christian holidays with absolutely no pagan roots. This is probably an impossibility as well. The Lord’s Day celebration (a weekly celebration) might have no pagan roots. Perhaps the only yearly holiday that the early church practiced without pagan roots was Pentecost. And even Pentecost (Feast of Weeks) is a festival tied to the wheat harvest. Since harvest festivals are very much pagan in origin, it almost certainly fell in line with other pagan harvest festivals at one time or another. So perhaps this doesn’t count either.
- A third option is to do what was done above with “Winterfast.” Take a celebration, pagan or otherwise, and change it in so many ways that it has no real similarity to its “pagan origins.” Based on articles scattered all over the Web, it is pretty clear that this won’t satisfy some people.
- Below is a fourth option. This option is from Pope Gregory the Great as instructions for what has been called the Gregorian Mission to Great Britain:
“The heathen temples of these people need not be destroyed, only the idols which are to be found in them… If the temples are well built, it s a good idea to detach them from the service of the devil, and to adapt them for the worship of the true God… And since the people are accustomed, when they assemble for sacrifice, to kill many oxen in sacrifice to the devils, it seems reasonable to appoint a festival for the people by way of exchange. The people must learn to slay their cattle not in honour of the devil, but in honour of God and for their own food; when they have eaten and are full, then they must render thanks to the giver of all good things. If we allow them these outward joys, they are more likely to find their way to the true inner joy… It is doubtless impossible to cut off all abuses at once from rough hearts, just as the man who sets out to climb a high mountain does not advance by leaps and bounds, but goes upward step by step and pace by pace.”
Letter by Pope Gregory (18 July 601) to Mellitus. (A History of Christian Missions by Stephen Neill, London: Penguin Books, 1990), pg 58
This is classic accommodation. Accepts the celebration as something that is not bad. But the meanings are to be changed so that it is directed to God rather than somewhere else— and that which is sinful is removed or gradually cut off. One might argue that this is quite in line even with what Tertullian was talking about– living in the world but not of it.
So let’s bring back that original question. Is Lent Christian or Pagan? The INC is also against Christmas because they see it as pagan. (Curiously, I have seen them have an “End of the Year” celebration— something with more pagan and less Christian basis than Christmas. However, this issue has usually be used to try to demonstrate denominational superiority rather than embrace virtue.) Truth is, that entirely pagan and entirely Christian are not really options. If the meanings and symbols of a celebration are Christian, calling it Pagan makes no sense. And since it is pretty much impossible to find a celebration that Christians celebrate (or even could celebrate) that doesn’t line up in some manner or other with pagan celebrations at some point in history, totally Christian is not really an option.
If one does not want to celebrate anything (some Christian groups do sort of go this route) that is fine. Otherwise, the realistic choice is
Christian AND Pagan
I don’t celebrate Lent myself, because I am not from that tradition. However, I can see it as a positive part of the liturgical calendar (as long as the revelries of Fat Tuesday don’t spoil it).
I feel that it is time to get past the silliness that hits us every year— especially about Christmas. The connections between Christmas and pagan feasts are actually much weaker than some people suggest. But of course the connections are there. That is not a bad thing. The same can be said of Easter, Lent, Thanksgiving (if one chooses to look at it as a Christian holiday), Epiphany, or pretty much any other day you would choose. How can we redeem cultural symbols and days?