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Is the Senate working during Christmas holidays sacrilegious?

Senators Kyl and DeMint claimed working up to the Christmas holiday defiles Christianity's holy day. But Jesus made clear that 'helping your neighbor' trumps 'keeping the Sabbath day holy.' Not addressing legislation to promote peace and care for others would be the real sacrilege.

By Greg Garrett / December 20, 2010

Waco, Texas

When I was sixteen years old, I worked in a grocery store. My parents were divorced, money was tight, and I needed the job to pay for my car and insurance. So when my manager told me I was working on Christmas Eve, I couldn’t put up much fuss.

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“Son, I know full well it’s a holiday,” this good Oklahoma Southern Baptist told me when I asked about the schedule. “But people still got to eat.”

Last week, Senators John Kyl (R) of Arizona and Jim DeMint (R) of South Carolina expressed their indignation that the US Senate would be working during the days leading up to Christmas – what they consider to be part of the Christmas holidays.

Sen. Kyl argued that Senate Majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada was offering disrespect to “one of the two holiest days for Christians,” and Sen. DeMint called it “sacrilegious” to vote on a spending bill and nuclear arms control treaty during Christmastime. Sen. Reid, for his part, argued that many of his constituents would be working during the holidays. Why shouldn’t the Senate finish its work?

Although America is not a theocracy, Christianity is still culturally dominant, and, this time of year, especially, culturally prominent, so the question is worth exploring: Is it sacrilegious for the United States Senate to work during the Christmas holidays?

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What does the good book say?

Theologians seek to understand ethical and religious questions by looking first at holy scriptures, then at the Christian tradition and shared experience. In many cases this time of year (as with whether or not public Christmas displays should be allowed, or whether saying “Merry Christmas” is a holier alternative that “Happy Holidays”) the scriptural record has little to say about knotty cultural problems. In the case of holy days, however, the Bible actually speaks up, although what it says requires interpretation.

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If Senators DeMint and Kyl are sincere in their concern, they seem to be referring to a tradition originating in the Hebrew Bible (called by many Christians the Old Testament), wherein the Sabbath was set aside as a day holy to God and on which no work should be done. For Jews and Christians alike the Hebrew Bible has authority, but for Christians, a more authoritative question has to be, What did Jesus have to say about this question?

In the Christian Testament (called by many Christians the New Testament), Jesus is represented as constantly at odds with religious leaders who argued for the absolute sanctity of God’s holy day.

Holiness mattered to Jesus – but human life and dignity mattered more.

True Christian values

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