Celebrating Saint Valentine’s Day

The Truth

We don’t know very much for certain about Valentine (Latin Valentinus) other than it seems his death was on February 14. His name comes from the Latin valens which means strong. Pope Gelasius established a feast in his name in AD 496 but admitted lacking details about his life. There may be more than one martyr named Valentine but similar accounts of their lives lead us to think they refer to one man.

One account reports that Valentine served as a priest in Rome and was condemned by Emperor Claudius II who had forbidden marriage in order to strengthen his military. Valentine performed marriages anyway, was taken prisoner, and though initially liked by Claudius was eventually beaten with clubs and stones and beheaded around 270 after sharing the gospel with the Emperor. Other stories have him refusing to sacrifice to pagan gods, effectively praying for healing for his jailer’s blind daughter, and leaving a note signed “Your Valentine” for her on the day of his execution. Continue reading

Merry in Advance: An Advent Primer

Advent means “coming” and consists of the four weeks leading up to Christmas. Many Christians want to celebrate this wonderful season but don’t know where to begin and are weary of some traditions for good reason.

The coming of Jesus Christ is all about hope, nicely summed up by Paul in Romans 15:12: “And again Isaiah says, “The root of Jesse will come, even he who arises to rule the Gentiles; in him will the Gentiles hope.” May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.”

What the Bible marks as a season of hope–remembering Jesus’ first coming (which Israel anticipated with hope) or looking forward to his second coming–parts of the church mark as a season of repentance. This is not to say that hope isn’t consistent with repentance, but it’s odd when the Old Covenant calendar had one set day of affliction (Yom Kippur, Lev. 16), for the church in the New Covenant to multiply fast days. Continue reading

Why the Reformation was Too Glad to Be True

Happy Reformation Day! Like the Grinch, Stanley Hauerwas doesn’t celebrate because he doesn’t like to remember there are divisions in the church–to celebrate, he says, is to admit failure. But it’s not. To celebrate it in a way that invites all Christians to join is to celebrate the possibility of progress, the Holy Spirit’s sure and ongoing work in the church, and our unity in Christ. This is a holyday for all churches, just as justification by faith is a treasure for the whole church, even those confused on the subject. Christians are justified by faith, not by believing in justification by faith. The whole church is given the gift of the Reformation whether they complain about it or not.

What did the church actually recover at the Reformation? Too much to describe, but here are three big’uns: Gospel, Bible, Worship. One of the best things the reformers did was recognize the church must be always reforming, semper reformanda, so it’s a good exercise for churches and Christians to ask themselves if we’ve received these gifts or if we’ve forgotten them. Continue reading

Happy Halloween!

Here is a great post on the history of Halloween over at Mablog. Many Christian holidays have pagan names like Easter. You know, that Anglo-Saxon goddess of the dawn, Eostre, who was worshipped in the month of April by my ancestors. We kept the name but changed the feast to worship the creator instead of the creation. Worked out really well. No one today, except a tiny band neopagans playing dress-up, thinks they are worshipping Eostre on Easter. No one thinks the bunnies and eggs have any spiritual significance other than giving kids a good time doing stuff as they celebrate the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. So Easter is a Christian holiday with a pagan name, although the name has been effectively co-opted and presents no problem. Speaking of her is like mentioning Epaphroditus in the Bible–the guy whose name indicates he used to worship the goddess Aphrodite via prostitute at the temple in Corinth. His name is a sign of gospel conquest, and surely Eostre is free to worship Jesus as well.

Other holidays like Halloween actually have Christian names but have come to be thought of as pagan festivals. As the article cited mentions, All Saints’ Day is November 1st, the day when the church remembers all those who gave their lives in service of the gospel. In Britain this day is called All Hallows’. All Hallows’ Eve, from which we get Halloween, has become for some the equivalent of Mardis Gras before Lent, a day of dissipation in preparation for self control, however much sense that makes. For Halloween, the idea is to let the devils run wild before the saints arrive. The corruptions of Mardis Gras and Halloween are similar in this respect. Maybe I wasn’t paying attention, but when I was a kid I don’t remember Halloween costume shops displaying kinky underwear in the front window.

But however that is the case now, we shouldn’t let the abuse of the thing take away its good use anymore than frat boys drowned in Pabst Blue Ribbon should discourage tossing a good pint. Clearly it’s a good idea to avoid the macabre and perverse on Halloween. My wife pointed out to me a fake corpse hanging by a rope from the side of a house in our neighborhood. Why do people otherwise not nastily morbid do this stuff for “fun” once a year? Yay death! Obviously we want no part of that, but we do want to celebrate what we believe, namely, that God has poured out his Spirit on billions of Christians, past and present, who are given the righteousness of Christ and therefore made saints. The defiled woman has become the purified bride of Christ, and leave it to the kids to really get into it.

October 31st is also Reformation Day, the day Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the church door at Wittenburg. The Reformation was as much a reformation of church culture as it was of church doctrine, so it’s fitting that we make this day a celebration that spills out to our neighbors and friends. Marriage (and its bed), food, drink and fellowship fell out of the Reformation. I would argue for fun costumes, loud and interesting, and better candy at your house than your neighbor’s. I love greeting people at the door, taking the kids around, and celebrating. It’s like saying Merry Christmas to people. some who don’t know what they’re celebrating or intentionally aren’t. I still want them to have a merry one whether they do or not. Same here. Happy All Hallow’s Eve, Merry Reformation Day, and Happy Halloween!



Big River

Robert Letham’s book The Westminster Assembly: Reading Its Theology in Historical Context is superb, showing the breadth of the Reformed faith in the seventeenth century. Of course not everyone within this broad faith believed it was–Luther not only disagreed with Zwingli at Marburg, he declared him and his followers not to be Christians. More common today are those who want to huddle around the word “Reformed”, limiting it to their small stream which is in fact just one offshoot of a massive theological Columbia River. Letham leaves no room for such provincialism:

Regarding the article on justification, Twisse, Gataker, and Richard Vines–like Robert Rollock (1559-99) and Johannes Piscator (1546-1625) before them–argued strongly that only the passive obedience of Christ is imputed for justification. Other opposed them, led by Featley. The vote went in favor of Christ’s “whole obedience,” with “3 <or 4> only dissenting.” James I’s request that the controversy between Molinaeus and Tilenus on the imputation of the active obedience of Christ not be discussed in his realm was read to the Assembly, although there is some doubt as to whether the whole of it was read or only part. James cautioned against making it an issue on the ground that it was a new matter, not decided by any council, nor handled by the Fathers or scholastics. (p39)

The imputation of Christ’s active obedience was a divided question but not a divisive question. We know this because men on both sides of the issue worked together and signed the Confession. Our tradition is bigger than many think, and big enough to include those who want to draw the circle tightly around themselves, although the irony is not lost that they fence out the authors of one of the central confessions of Reformed faith.

All Saint’s & All Soul’s

There are a number of good articles out there for understanding All Hallow’s Eve (Halloween), Reformation Day, and All Saint’s Day. Here are one, two, three excellent ones that will make you wrestle with the issues.

All Saint’s Day is Nov. 1st, a day dedicated to remembering all the Christian martyrs. It’s appropriate to give thanks for the seed that went into the ground and grew us up. Too often Protestants treat All Saint’s like another gaudy Roman Catholic addition to the calendar. Ironically, it’s an antidote to the Rococofied celebrations for a different saint taking place every five minutes in the city of seven hills. Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on Halloween, the eve of All Saint’s precisely because it was the time to celebrate and continue the church’s victory over Satan, sin and death. None of his Theses rejected All Saint’s, just the covetous superstition of indulgences that marked it at that time.

Any church or group of churches recovering a sense of history and true catholicity has to be discerning. What should we recover, leave alone, repent of, or consider for a while before we employ? Bible study and more Bible study is called for. If you like All Saint’s Day (and I think you should), you should reject (with equal joy!) the following day, November 2, All Soul’s Day. In 1048, Saint Odilo, the Abbot of Cluny, had a vision (derision?) of the saints suffering in purgatory. His vision directed him to perform masses on behalf of said dead, thus freeing them from purgatory. By the end of the 13th century, All Soul’s was a staple in the Western church until Luther lit the match on Oct. 31, 1517 that blew up the idolatry of the church.

God’s Light Artillery

Many often lament the unchurched state of northwest United States. It feels like a different world from other parts of the country where churches on every corner reflect an understanding of the world that is, on the surface at least (or at most?), Christian. We easily forget how young our country is and how the spread of the faith to the West has always been slow. I’m looking at a map here of the US in 1850. It’s only half settled, and Texas is the westernmost state. Every western state is less Christianized (138-288 Religious Adherents per 1,000 people) than the rest of the states. Frontiersmen were generally not church planters. Alexis de Tocqueville saw them as “adventurers impatient of any sort of yoke, greedy for wealth, and often outcasts from the States in which they were born. They arrive in the depths of the wilderness without knowing one another. There is nothing of tradition, family feeling, or example to restrain them.” Perhaps this is overstated. It came from a Frenchman afterall.

The Methodist preacher went after these wild lands and grew the church so effectively that historians have called the nineteenth century the Methodist Age. Nancy Pearcey describes them:

By contrast [to state supported clergy], the Methodist circuit preachers became a legend on the frontier. They traveled constantly, virtually living in the saddle. They were willing to preach to tiny frontier outposts, even to individual households. Most were single (they were on the road too often to maintain a family), worked for almost no money, and literally died young form the sheer hardship of their lives. One minister dubbed them God’s “light artillery,” perfectly adapted to the frontier. They had a reputation for braving terrible conditions and bad weather, so that during particularly bad storms it used to be said, “There’s nobody out tonight but crows and Methodist preachers.”

Physical danger is no longer the issue in the unchurched west, and now the church needs men who will put roots downward that will bear fruit upward for generations. The need is dire for new artillery.

House to House

This Lord’s Day is Pentecost Sunday, an annual reminder that the Christian church went international, or at least expanded exponentially to all nations when the Holy Spirit empowered it. It was only three centuries later that this group of roughly 3000 people would make-up, conservatively, half the inhabitants of the empire and so see the legalization of Christianity under Constantine. Continue reading