Most families have treasured Christmas traditions. The sending and receiving of Christmas cards. Buying Christmas gifts. Searching for and decorating the perfect tree. Attending the Christmas Eve Candlelight service. Gathering the whole extended family together for a turkey dinner.
But it must seem strange to those from other religious backgrounds that evangelical Christians have no rigid religious rituals that they must observe. This will be especially so for Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or Shinto friends for whom external rituals are prescribed. Our Orthodox, Ukrainian or Roman Catholic friends may even consider this lack of ritual as an erosion of faith. And for some this dearth of fixed traditions may indeed indicate disinterest or a lack of faith in the reality of Christmas.
But to understand gospel freedom from ritual, we must consider the differences between the Old and New Testaments; the old and new covenants. Out of a pagan culture rife with superstition, human sacrifice, cruelty and oppression God called Abraham to be the progenitor of a purified people living in a just society—Israel. God gave to Moses the laws for this new nation. To remind them of the Lord’s centrality in national life, God gave them daily rituals, Sabbath rules, and seven festivals which the people were required to keep: Passover, Unleavened Bread, Firstfruits, Weeks or Pentecost, Trumpets or Rosh Hashanah, Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur, and Tabernacles. To these festivals Jews later added a seven day long festival, Chanukah, to celebrate the re-dedication of the temple in 165 BC after its desecration by the Syrians. Clearly, obedience to law and ritual was mandated for those under the old covenant.
However, in the New Testament we search in vain for required rituals. There is nothing about how to celebrate Christmas, Easter, or Pentecost. We are free to innovate. Only two important ordinances—baptism and communion—are mentioned.
Why this lack of prescribed rituals in the new covenant? Because external religiosity always fails to generate genuine devotion. God’s purpose in the old covenant was to demonstrate how external ritual and law is powerless to make us holy; is totally incapable of changing our fallen natures. Israel’s utter failure to keep the old covenant paved the way for something new.
Jeremiah and Ezekieh saw this problem and predicted a new covenant: “The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel…I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts”(Heb. 8:8,10). Hebrews explains, “By calling this covenant new, he has made the first one obsolete”(Heb. 8:13).
Jesus came to introduce this new covenant, but in doing so repeatedly clashed with those who loved the external trappings of religion found in the old covenant. Jesus said, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men”(Matt. 15:8-9). “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean…inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness”(Matt. 23:27). Very tough words.
Clearly, obeying God’s law of love from heart and mind is the key to being a new covenant person. But the problem, as the whole Old Testament points out, has no human solution. “The heart is deceitful and desperately wicked”(Jer. 17:9). For real devotion to occur, we need heart surgery and mental transformation. Jesus explained this to Nicodemus. “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again….of the Spirit”(John 3:3,5).
Paul explained what being born again means to Titus. “But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared [through Christ’s coming at Christmas] he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior”(Titus 3:4-6).
The new covenant question is not have you kept the traditions but have you been reborn through the Holy Spirit? How does this come about? The instant, you or I, sincerely pray to God confessing our sins and believe in our hearts that Jesus died and rose again for our salvation, the Holy Spirit changes us from within. He creates a new heart that loves God and others. The work of transforming our lifestyle really begins.
Jesus came at Christmas to establish a new covenant people who worship God from the heart. Sadly, we often tend to prefer ritual and law over heart devotion. When some of the early church leaders sought to re-impose the old covenant laws, Peter stood and said: “”Why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear”(Acts 15:10)?
And so we find no Christmas or Easter rituals in the New Testament. A call to celebration and worship? Yes! And a challenge to infuse everything we do with heart devotion to the glorious Triune God. Lord, with your help, may all our celebrations come from deep within.