May Day and Christian freedom

The first day of May is roughly half-way between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. For more than two thousand years, this date has been marked by celebrations in Europe and in North America. Romans marked Floralia, Celts observed Beltane, and Germans commemorated Walpurgis on or near this date. While many neopagans try to restore these ancient celebrations, some Christian groups make the day an occasion to remember Mary the mother of Jesus and/or Joseph her husband. Meanwhile labor groups, socialists, and communists all mark the first of May as International Workers’ Day.

For some people in North America, the expression “May Day” is associated with a call for help, since the same syllables spoken in French mean, “Help me.” In one May Day tradition, children or families leave baskets of flowers or sweet treats by the front doors of their neighbors or their friends. Another involves dancing around a pole while winding colorful streamers around that pole to celebrate the springtime. About the only May Day celebration I observe is to set the alarm to awaken me with a song for May Day, “The Merry Month of May,” from the musical Camelot.

A few Christians are opposed to any event or ceremony remembering a date once used to honor pagan gods. Drawing inspiration from God’s prohibition of mixing Canaanite religious practices with the worship of the true God, such Christians oppose even Christmas trees and Easter eggs. They fear that such worldly traditions dilute the meaning of Christian beliefs. They note that most of the earliest Christian communities established in North America ignored–and in some cases banned–the celebration of Christmas. In particular, the maypole appears to resemble the Asherah pole of the Canaanites. God’s prophets severely criticized those Israelites who took part in the custom of the Asherah pole.

Clearly, any effort to honor any god other than the true God is idolatry. Christians should oppose efforts to revive ancient religions, be they Greek and Roman, Celtic and Germanic, Egyptian, Babylonian, or Canaanite. Does this mean, though, that any practice even remotely associated with false religion must be banned among Christians? Does God’s Old Testament position against the Canaanites mean that Christians today should be like the Taliban and ISIS, destroying historic treasures and works of art because they were created to honor false gods?

Paul told the Colossians, “let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath” (Colossians 2:16). Although the immediate context of those words applies more to Jewish holidays such as the Passover, I am convinced that Paul would say the same thing about Christmas trees, Easter eggs, carved pumpkins, and even maypoles. Paul proclaimed Christian freedom. He counseled that such freedom be practiced with restraint, that love for one another should prevail over doing what one is free to do. But Jesus can be honored with traditions that once had pagan meanings. Nothing in creation is so tainted by false religion that it cannot be reinterpreted to proclaim the true message of the Living God.

For Paul, the test case involved meat sold in city markets. That meat generally had first been offered on an altar to a pagan God. Paul did not forbid Christians to buy and eat such meat. He told the Romans and the Corinthians that each believer should follow his or her conscience. Those who feared that buying and eating such meat honored a false god should not buy and eat it. Those who saw that meat is meat and it did not matter where it had been were free to buy and eat. Paul added, though, that those who were untroubled by the past history of the meat should not eat it in the presence of those who were troubled. Out of love for fellow Christians, one should abstain from eating meat when those Christians are around. In their absence, freedom to eat meat was not restricted.

Many aspects of modern life seem tainted to some Christians. Because their consciences are troubled, fellow Christians lovingly limit their freedom to partake of worldly pleasures in the presence of those who are troubled. No kind person would drink wine or beer in the presence of a recovering alcoholic, one still struggling to resist the temptation to drink to excess. In the same way, any Christian is free to enjoy rock music, Harry Potter books and movies, Dungeons and Dragons, dancing, playing card games, or anything else that is not specifically prohibited by God’s commandments. A Christian is free to decorate a Christmas tree, color and hide Easter eggs, carve pumpkins for Halloween, and even celebrate May Day–so long as that Christian is careful not to offend others by these celebrations.

Christ’s victory over evil has set us free from the power of evil. As the redeemed, we are the property of God, and we wish to do nothing that brings shame to his name. Bear in mind, though, that Christians bring shame to God’s name by legalism, defining Christianity by rules and regulations rather than by free forgiveness and purifying grace. To the pure, all things are pure. Any Christian is free to fast–to deny one’s self alcoholic beverages or meat or rock music or books about magicians–but no Christian is free to demand the same fast from others. Whatever we do, we do it in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, bringing glory to God through his name. J.