Reclaiming Christmas.

December 25, 2017.

I started to begin this post with several criticisms that people often levy at the celebration of Christmas, but I decided that this organization detracted from the point that I would like to make in this post. Throughout my life in the tradition I grew up in I have been taught time and again that we shouldn’t celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday because there is no biblical precedent commanding us to do so. It is through this lens that biased me towards a negative start. But I want this post to be positive, as I believe we have an opportunity to proclaim good news to the world. Thus, I will begin with the heart of my message and relegate my thoughts and answers to three common criticisms to appendixes. If you have a disagreement with celebrating Christmas as a religious holiday on theological grounds, please see the appendixes for my thoughts.

Over the past few Christmases I have been reflecting on what I should think about/do with Christmas, and I have developed some thoughts that I would like to share with you today in hopes of growing in Christ and better representing Him to the world. This is just my personal opinion, but I think I can lay out some good reasoning for my proposal at the end.

The Commercialization of Christmas.

Other than what I deal with in the appendixes, I do think that there is a fair criticism that can be levied against Christmas as we celebrate it today (at least in America, as this is really the only place on which I can really comment). Christmas in the minds of many, if not the majority, has little if anything to do with Christ Himself. We have turned Christmas into a secular, commercialized celebration of materialism- a far cry from the celebration of the Messiah. Though there are echos of meaning past (pun intended), and Jesus is still honored by in most Christmas services, we as a culture have lost most of the connection (practically speaking) to Christ. We have traded Jesus and his gift of grace through self sacrifice for semi-divine[1] mythical figures who bring physical presents.

I think there are a number of reasons that this separation of the secular holiday of Christmas from the religious celebration of the birth of Christ, such as an American focus on materialism in general, tensions between protestant, evangelical and catholic faiths, and the adoption of the holiday by the secular world. However, I think part of the reason for this lies with us. Those of us who have allowed materialism to overtake our celebration of Christmas, and those of us who reject the idea of celebrating Christmas as a religious holiday but celebrate it as a secular holiday. We can expect the secular world to separate Jesus from Christmas. But when we do it as well, there is no resistance against the commercializing of Christmas at all. It’s all to easy to blame the rest of culture; I think we should start our critique by analyzing how our own actions affect the culture at large.

Now don’t get me wrong. There are still many great things that are associated with this time of year. People are generally more willing to give to others (specifically those who are poor and oppressed). People generally try to be happier and more kind. There is a sense of good will and joy in the air. All of these are good things, and they all stem from the true meaning that Christmas is supposed to hold in Christianity. I’m not saying all is lost; what I am saying is that I think we can do better.

I believe it’s time we reclaim Christmas. Not because evil corporations are waging “war on Christmas” (please, let’s not re-live the Starbucks nonsense of Christmases past), nor because the secular world “shouldn’t use our holiday”, or any other common accusation/complaint that is often thrown at other people. We need to reclaim Christmas for ourselves, because often it is we who have lost the true meaning and opportunity to teach about Jesus even among our own families and friends. In doing so, we will be able to use this unique time that the world is more prone/open to thinking about Jesus to proclaim the good news that brings the peace and good tidings that we sing about.

That being said, we must then ask, “What exactly are we celebrating when we observe Christmas?”

The beginning of Hope.

Christmas is understandably associated with the birth of Jesus (see Appendix II for discussion about the actual date of Jesus’ birth). But Christmas is about so much more than a birth event. I think this is where we begin to loose the meaning of Christmas. We focus the celebration on the actual birth of Jesus and young infancy of Jesus (this is satirically portrayed in the movie Talladega Nights). And this is not without warrant, for in this the angels also rejoiced:

And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,

 “Glory to God in the highest,
    and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
(Luke 2:10-14)

But there was a reason that the angels rejoiced at the birth of this child. There was a reason that Mary praises God with the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) when she is carrying Jesus. There was a reason that Zechariah blessed the Lord with his prophecy about the child that was to be born (Luke 1:67-79). It was not simply because a child was born. It was because God had become incarnate, in order to offer salvation to all. There is a Christmas song that I think perfectly encapsulates this idea, and for this reason it is one of my favorites: “Mary did you know?”

Mary did you know that your baby boy will one day walk on water?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?
This child that you’ve delivered, will soon deliver you

There is good news to be told, but the good news does not end with the birth of a child. Rather, we celebrate his birth because of what it signifies: The Light has come to the world, to defeat the powers of sin and death. As prophesied in Isaiah:

Arise, shine, for your light has come,

    and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For behold, darkness shall cover the earth,
    and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
    and his glory will be seen upon you.
And nations shall come to your light,
    and kings to the brightness of your rising.”
(Isaiah 60:1-3)

A popular contemporary song says, “Light of the world, you stepped down into darkness…”, here and later echoing the ancient hymn in Philippians 2:4-11. Jesus is the light of the world (John 8:12), and with his birth God’s plan of redemption has begun. And this is good news for the world which darkness has consumed.

This is why Mary exults in praise. The anticipation of the coming Messiah had grown to a critical point in the first century. The Jewish people were ready and waiting for their Savior to come and deliver them from the hands of their Roman oppressors. And Mary was chosen to be the one through who their salvation would come. But even they weren’t ready for who Jesus was and what He was going to do. The plan of God was not only to save the Jews, but rather to bring salvation to all the world.

But this salvation would only be possible through the incarnation- God becoming man. In this, the birth of Jesus is integrally connected with his ministry, sacrifice and resurrection. God had to become man, to suffer what we suffer, to directly face the powers of sin death, and to ultimately win the victory for us (for more on this, see this post). This is what the celebration of Christmas points to. When this is our focus on Christmas, we can join with the angels in praise saying “Glory to God in the highest!” for unto us a Savior has been born.

Reclaiming Christmas.

Here I think we have an opportunity to reclaim the true meaning of Christmas and to use this opportunity to proclaim the good news to the world. As I said previously, all has not been lost. There is still a spirit of good will and a heightened focus on Jesus around this time of year. But we as Christians, whether through conformity, complacency or objection, have allowed the good news that the celebration of Christmas proclaims to get lost in the milieu of traditional myths and the praise of materialism. It is time for us to begin anew in associating Christmas with the hope of the world.[2] We don’t do this by yelling at the culture at large. We do this through our own thinking and celebration of Christmas. As in all things, we intentionally seek to magnify Christ. In so doing, we set an example to our family, our friends and those who have yet to receive the good news.

Does this mean we have to shun all traditions? I don’t necessarily thinks so. What we do need to do, however, is de-emphasize them in favor of the celebration of Jesus. This could indeed mean that we get rid of them all together if they interfere with, or even detract from, the good news. That’s a decision that each family will have to draw, but I believe we must make this decision through how the traditions reflect Christ, as with everything we do.

I think we underestimate the influence we could have here. People around the world celebrate Christmas. In many areas they truly don’t know why, other than it’s a big holiday in the West. What we do can send a message far and wide. I propose we take this opportunity to once again teach the world why we celebrate Christmas, not only through our words, but perhaps more importantly through our actions. Let us sing praises to the incarnate King. Let us proclaim His message through the celebration of His birth. Let us embrace the good will spirit of the season and show the world the Love of God, through whom this spirit comes.

Suggested Reading: Luke 1-2, Revelation 12, Philippians 2.

Glory to God in the highest, for unto us a Savior has been born!

-Walter

Appendix I: Pagan Origins.

Perhaps one of the most levied criticisms against Christmas from both believers and non-believers alike is the alleged pagan origins of Christmas. I will not rehearse the alleged origins here (mainly because I haven’t looked into them all that closely, since I think they miss the point), but even a cursory search will give you ample (and likely very confusing/conflicting) information about people’s ideas of how Christmas originated. Many claims associate it with the pagan festival for the “Birth of the Unconquered Sun” which was inaugurated by Aurelian on the winter solstice of AD 274 (falling on December 25th). However, according to an article by William J. Tighe, there is evidence to suggest that the origins of Christmas actually come from an earlier period in which ancient Christians were trying to determine the date of the crucifixion.[3] I will not go into detail here of Tighe’s arguments, but I find that they produce a sound rationale for both December 25th and January 6th (Epiphany) as dates originating among early Christians.

I think this objection misses the point of Christmas that most of Christendom puts forth (or perhaps, the point we should be putting forth; more on this in a moment). Even if it turns out that the date of Christmas originated from a re-purposed pagan festival (though I find Tighe’s argument persuasive), it is certainly not that pagan festival that Christians celebrate in Christmas. On Christmas day, Christians do not sing songs to the “Unconquered Son”. We do not emulate the feasts of the pagans. There is no remembrance of the Roman cult in the minds of Christians around the world today on December 25th. What is celebrated (as we will discuss further later) is the birth of the one that we contend came to be a Savior to the world. Just as certain words change their meanings with time such that the original meaning has nothing at all to do with the current meaning, the actual origins of the date of Christmas has little to do with what Christmas is today (unless, ironically, Tighe is right and Christmas really did stem from an ancient idea of the birth date of Christmas, which is what is still celebrated today).

Appendix II: The Date of Jesus’ Birth

Even if this explanation of the origin of Christmas is correct, we know that this particular date that early Christians came up with for the crucifixion could not have been the correct date, because it didn’t fall on the Friday of Passover in the year indicated (see Tighe’s article in footnote 3 one for more information). Which brings us to a second accusation that I often hear levied at Christmas: Christmas entails the celebration of the birth of Christ, but Jesus wasn’t actually born on December 25th. This is true. The fact of the matter is that no one knows with great certainty when the birth of Jesus occurred.[4]I do not think this poses a problem to choosing a day to dedicate to the celebration of the birth of the Savior and the hope that was inaugurated with through this birth.

Most of the Christians that I know who celebrate Christmas know that Jesus wasn’t actually born on Christmas day. Yet another cursory search would easily yield ample evidence that it is highly unlikely that Jesus was born on December 25th. But this is not the point. We often choose arbitrary dates to celebrate many things. President’s Day was chosen to honor US Presidents, based originally on President Washington’s birthday. Today we don’t celebrate this day on Washington’s actual birthday (Feb. 22), though it is still referred to as such. Further, days such as Mother’s day and Father’s day are days we set aside to honor mothers and fathers that do not correspond to any specific date that is relevant to us. Actually, the origin of the date of Mother’s Day comes from the memorial service for the mother of the founder of Mother’s Day, Anna Jarvis. Obviously when we celebrate mothers on this day, we are not all calling back to this memorial service, nor do the great majority of people who celebrate this day in America have any idea how it originated. That’s not the point.

As I contended earlier, Christmas celebrates not only the birth of Jesus, but the significance of the beginning of a new age of hope and life. We can celebrate this at any point in the year, and there is no real reason that December 25th can’t serve as a time to celebrate this hope. Actually, it could be seen as rather fitting to hold a celebration of hope in the dead of winter, a time of year in which hope might be most needed.

Appendix III: Religious holidays.

This appendix is dedicated to the objection that I hear most often in my fellowship, and it is the only one that seems to have a biblical argument attached to it. Usually when people I know object to celebrating Christmas “as a religious holiday”, they do so because we are never given a command or example (or necessary inference…) in the New Testament to set aside a particular day to celebrate the birth of Christ. If this is not an issue for you, feel free to skip to the next section, which is the heart of what I am trying to say.

Thus, since there is no biblical precedent, we shouldn’t celebrate it. Some would go so far as to say it is wrong or sinful to celebrate it as such. I used to be in this camp. However, I think there is clear biblical teaching that goes against this position outright. For this, we must turn to Romans 14.

As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand. One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.”
(Romans 14:1-6)

In this chapter (and beyond), Paul is discussing matters of opinion, particularly in what foods people could eat and what days people could celebrate “religiously”.[5] In context, it is likely that Paul (or his audience) is referring to specific Jewish holy days (though it is hard to say with certainty), but I believe the principle set forth here cast a wider net. Paul did not seem to limit his idea to these holy days, but leaves his statement general enough to apply to any day one might esteem higher than another, specifically as to observe the day in honor of the Lord. It seems clear to me that a Christian’s observance of Christmas in honor of the Lord as a “religious holiday” would be a direct, practical application of this passage today. We are not to pass judgment on one another about which days we do or do not observe. We should be fully convinced in our own minds, but accept the convictions of our fellow brethren as well. I don’t know if there could be a more clear biblical answer to this criticism than this.

_____________________________________________

[1]Please note here that the purpose of this adjective is not to condemn a cherished tradition, but only to bring attention to the divine qualities of omniscience and omnipotence we often ascribe to Santa Claus, his elves and reindeer. I don’t believe that this is actually the intent of those who participate in the tradition.
[2] Note here that if it is your conviction to not celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday, I am not saying that your conviction is wrong or trying to pressure you into doing so (see Appendix III). I am only trying to lay out a rational for celebrating Christmas and point out the opportunity it could bring to share the good news. I will say, however, that my personal opinion is that if you do not celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday, then you should also consider not celebrating it as a secular holiday either, simply because of the mixed message it sends to the culture at large and the further push towards materialism and de-emphasis of Jesus that this position could bring. This is just my opinion, however, as I think you could infer from the post.
[3] http://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=16-10-012-v#continue
[4] For an interesting take on the actual date of the birth of Christ, see this article or podcast by Dr. Michael Heiser.
[5]Note here that I think you could make the argument that this applies not only to “holidays”, but to any day we might “esteem as better” than others. But that is a discussion for another day.

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