Christmas is celebrated on December 25. Because of our calendar, this date occurs on different days of the week. About every seven years Christmas falls on a Sunday. It averages every seven years but Sunday Christmases follow a 28-year pattern: it occurs on a Sunday, then again in eleven years, then six years, five years, and six years again. The pattern then repeats. It would happen every seven years were it not for leap years. Because of the quirks of our calendar and a year not being a multiple of seven days, it works out this way.
New City launched as a new church on Easter Sunday, 2011. Christmas that year was on a Sunday. Christmas in 2005 was also a Sunday but we have to go back to 1994 to find the previous Sunday Christmas. With this we can see the pattern. The year 1994 starts the 28-year cycle. Eleven years later Christmas was on a Sunday (2005), then six years (2011), then five years (2016), and here we are, six years later (2022) with a Sunday Christmas. The cycle starts again so the next Sunday Christmas won’t be until 2033! (I’ll probably write another article about this then.)
You may have heard of churches canceling services on Christmas Sunday in order to spend time with family that morning. None of us is directly responsible for other churches so I will not comment on their decisions to cancel the gathered assembly. Instead, I would like to explain why we do not cancel our services, but I will do so by addressing one argument I came across recently. This argument was made in support of a church canceling Christmas day service, along with five others throughout the year.
The argument is this: by canceling services throughout the year, this particular church is making the point that we should not elevate “Sunday Gatherings as the most important expression of church”. I’ll be honest: I am baffled by this argument. The gathered assembly is the fullest expression of what it means to be the gathered assembly. Let me be clear: it is not the only expression of what it means to be Christ’s church, but it certainly is the fullest expression of it.
Consider why we assemble in the first place. In Matthew 16 Jesus announced to his disciples that he was going to build his assembly. This was immediately after Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ. Jesus said, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my assembly.” Not a single disciple batted an eye. If someone were to declare to you that he or she would build an assembly, you’d bat an eye! “I’m sorry…your what?”
The very idea of assembly was baked into the consciousness of the people of Israel from their beginning as God’s people. In Deuteronomy, for example, Moses is near the end of his life. The Israelites are nearing the end of their time in the wilderness. Much of that first generation had died in the wilderness and they were getting closer to entering the land under Joshua. Moses is recounting all that God had done for them up to that point. He writes this:
And the LORD gave me the two tablets of stone written with the finger of God, and on them were all the words that the LORD had spoken with you on the mountain out of the midst of the fire on the day of the assembly.Deuteronomy 9:10 ESV
Moses refers to “the day of the assembly” and everyone there knew what that day was, even though most of them would not have been alive when that particular day took place. It was the day all Israel gathered in assembly at Mount Sinai. There God made a covenant with them and made them his people. When Joshua led the people into the land he had been instructed to renew the covenant. Here’s what we read in Joshua 8 at this covenant-renewal ceremony.
There was not a word of all that Moses commanded that Joshua did not read before all the assembly of Israel, and the women, and the little ones, and the sojourners who lived among them.Joshua 8:35 ESV
Here Joshua refers to Israel as the assembly. When they gathered together as a people in order to renew the covenant, they were united with all Israel going back to the day of the assembly. Over and over again throughout the Old Testament Israel is referred to as “the assembly”. It’s the Hebrew word qahal, which the Septuagint translates with ekklesia. This is the word the New Testament uses, which most translations render as “church”. When Jesus announced to his disciples that he would build his church—assembly, his qahal, his ekklesia—they didn’t bat an eye because they had been longing for Messiah to come and usher in the long-promised new covenant era. Of course the new covenant would be an assembly!
The old covenant assembly pointed back to the day of assembly, the day at Mount Sinai. The new covenant assembly doesn’t merely point back. It is a present reality that occurs every single time followers of Jesus assemble in his name. At Mount Sinai the Lord was present in a unique and powerful way, but the people feared his presence. They didn’t want to hear God’s voice so they pleaded with Moses to act as an intermediary for them. Our experience in the assembly is rather different. One of my favorite texts in all of Scripture is a description of our experience in the assembly of Christ.
For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.Hebrews 12:18–24 ESV
Israel trembled in fear at the presence of God for despite the covenant, God was still holy and they were not. In an incredible contrast, when followers of Jesus assemble in his name, God—”the judge of all”—is present, yet there is no fear and trembling. Why? Because the blood of Jesus speaks a better word than the blood of Abel, for Abel’s blood cried out to God for vengeance. Jesus’ blood makes no such cry. Instead, his blood cries out mercy and forgiveness and grace.
Every week we have the incredible privilege to assemble together in the Lord’s name, and when we do he has promised that he is there in our midst. This promise is found in Matthew 18. There he was speaking of church discipline, of lovingly calling a wayward sinner to repentance. He promises to the church that when it assembles in his name he is present in a unique and powerful way. He is God and so he is present everywhere, yet he specifically mentions the assembly gathered in his name as the locus of his presence. While he is present everywhere, his presence is uniquely manifested in his assembly.
What “triggers” this manifested presence is assembling in his name. He is present when a group of believers come together to study Scripture. He is present when two believers chat when they run into each other at the grocery store. He is present when Christians gather together for a meal in one of their homes. The difference is he is uniquely and powerfully present in his gathered assembly.
I cannot think of a good reason to avoid assembling together in the presence of the Lord, which includes all those who have died and are with him now. It includes the angels who celebrate in his presence, and therefore in our presence. When two or more are gathered in Jesus’ name, he enters into their assembly, and his blood proclaims his gospel to them.
I recognize the importance of family. I understand the wonder of watching children open presents on Christmas morning. I genuinely appreciate the joy of having the whole family together to share a Christmas meal. I am not minimizing the importance of family time. There is something greater: the gathered assembly. Jesus said he would build his assembly. The gathered assembly, then, is the fullest expression of what it means to be his gathered assembly.
When we gather together in his name every Sunday, we do so because God became one of us that he might present himself as the final offering for sin. We do so because his blood speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. We do so because when God enters into our presence there is no fear and trembling. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ. Every Sunday we celebrate the truth of what we believe:
We believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit
and born of the Virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again.
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
When we gather in his name every Sunday he enters into our presence. Jesus comes to church with us every single week! Barring catastrophe, why would we want to cancel meeting with Jesus in this unique and powerful way? Why would we choose to not celebrate with the saints who have gone on before us and who are with the Lord and since the Lord comes to us, they come to us? When the Lord enters his assembly, angels gather with us and their voices join our voices as we celebrate and worship the one who was born to a virgin named Mary, who was laid in a manger, who was worshiped by shepherds and kings, who gave his life for ours?
The truth is we celebrate Christmas every Sunday, whether the calendar matches or not. Just because a particular Sunday celebration happens to be December 25 is not a good reason to avoid gathering together in his name. Being Sunday, it is a great day to assemble together in the Lord’s presence. Christmas Day is the perfect day to assemble in his name as his people, very people he came to save, for in his assembly we celebrate God become man, crucified, risen, and ascended, soon to come again.