When you think of the Classic Christmas, what comes to mind? Thinking about the Classic Christmas, for each of us includes some different elements. Some of these elements include trees, decorations, sending cards, parties, gift-giving, large meals, family fights, and lots of different things. All over the world people celebrate Christmas, and there are differences in our celebrations. But, there are a few things we hold in common. The Classic Christmas for all of us is about traditions, expectation, songs, food, worship, and most of all, Christmas is about baby Jesus lying in his manger.
In a sense, our celebration of Christmas reflects the simplest and most enjoyable aspects of life. We pay special attention to family, traditions, singing, food, and worship this time of year, but if we think about it, these things are what makes our lives worthwhile all year long, there is just a cultural emphasis on it this time of year.
This Christmas, at SCC, we are going to spend some time looking at the “Classic” Christmas bible passages and enjoy this season of celebration with our church, our families, and our friends. In the midst of all the activity, our thoughts will be directed heavenward as we consider all that Jesus’ coming means for us.
First of all, I think it’s helpful to consider the origin of the celebration of the Christmas season. There is nothing about Christmas in the Bible, so why do we celebrate it? There are a lot of mixed reports on how the church worldwide has celebrated Jesus’ birth throughout history. There are records as early as the mid 300’s that talk of Jesus’ birth being in December during the winter solstice. This isn’t to coincide with the pagan holiday observance either. There is an early church theologian that identified Jesus’s birth with the solstice, not because of pagan worship, but because Malachi 4:2 is a prophecy of Jesus saying that the “Sun of righteousness will rise with healing in his wings”. The winter solstice is the turning point when the days begin to get longer. One might say this is when the sun rises to heal the earth of winter and bring springtime. So for this guy, there was a connection between Malachi’s prophecy of Jesus and the changing of the seasons. God designed creation in such a way as to point to his son, and Malachi 4:2 joins the winter solstice in pointing to Jesus.
There is evidence that suggests that at some points the church began to adopt pagan celebrations during the winter solstice and substitute Christian worship for the pagan worship. In other words, they used culturally appropriate methods to communicate the unchanging message. So, for much of the early church, there was no need to “keep Christ in Christmas” because Christianity was infiltrating the various cultural celebrations from the Middle East to Northern Europe. They weren’t trying to “Keep Christ in Christmas”; they were trying to “Put Christ into all Celebrations”. But sometime between 1000-1500, Christmas celebration was widely established in the western world within the church. Many of the traditions that grew out of the Protestant Reformation opposed celebrating Christmas, and in some places it was even outlawed. The Puritans intensely opposed Christmas celebrations. Between 1659 and 1681, Christmas celebrations were outlawed in Massachusetts. In 1855, the New York Times published an article talking about how Baptists and Methodists didn’t regard Christmas as a holy day, so their churches were closed. As late as 1869, public-school kids in Boston could be expelled for skipping class on Christmas Day. For some believers in America history, the concern wasn’t putting Christ back into Christmas, but removing Christmas from Christianity altogether. The background of Christmas celebrations in the church is varied and sporadic.
But, as the saying goes, “That was then and this is now”. All of us grew up in a place where virtually everyone celebrated Christmas. Even today, the overwhelming majority of people in our country still celebrate Christmas. We know there will always be people who don’t believe like us and celebrate different things than us. It seems though, that our society has more and more people who don’t believe like we do. It seems that understanding Christmas with reference to Jesus is being lost in our culture and many people have no idea about the Christian influence in the holiday.
The celebration that overtook pagan celebrations centuries ago is now being over taken by pagan celebrations. So how do we get it back? What exactly is it that we are trying to get back? Should we put a bumper sticker on our cars that says “Keep Christ in Christmas” or “Jesus is the reason for the season”? I somehow doubt that’ll change much, but go ahead if you want. As Christmastime seems to slowly be sinking back into paganism, talking about the way we celebrate will help very little. What I would like for us to consider is not necessarily the way we celebrate, but the reason we celebrate.
For many people, the reason to celebrate is tradition, gift-giving, or family time. All of these things are fine, but why is that what Christmas is all about? But what does this mean for us today? Why is it that you celebrate Christmas? As we approach Christmas, there are some important ideas that should guide us. Why do we celebrate Christmas? Why should we celebrate it?
First, we celebrate because all celebration points to Jesus. In Colossians 2:16-17, there are instructions to these early Christians about the nature of cultural celebrations. It says these festivals and celebrations are “the Shadow” but the substance is Christ. This passage is written in response to people in the early church who were giving other believers a hard time because some didn’t observe customs in the way others thought they should. It’s talking about how believers participate in the celebrations existing within a culture. How does this apply to Christmas? Christmas is a religious custom in our culture. Religious customs and observances are pointing to Christ. They are not the substance, Jesus is. When we celebrate anything, whether it’s a wedding, a birthday, or Christmas, we should be reminded of the celebration that awaits us when Jesus returns. It’s fine to celebrate, but all of our celebrating pales in comparison to what the Bible refers to as The Marriage Supper of the Lamb. Anything worth celebrating is the result of the blessing of God and points us to the time when we live in his blessing and presence forever. So why do we celebrate? All celebration reminds us of how God has blessed us. And if there is anything to celebrate in our lives, it is because of God’s blessing, as it says in James 1:17, The Father is the source of every good and perfect gift. If we have anything worth celebrating, it’s because our heavenly Father cares for us and gives us good things. So when we celebrate, it should be in a way that honors the Lord because all of our celebrating points to him.
Another reason we celebrate Christmas is to display the Gospel. Philippians 2:14-18 says:
14 Do all things without grumbling or disputing, 15 that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, 16 holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. 17 Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. 18 Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me.
The most enduring Christmas tradition is complaining about Christmas. We complain about being so busy, we complain about our family, we complain about the traffic, and the commercialization, and on and on. Christians are awfully good and griping especially when it comes to Christmas. Philippians 2 warns us about this attitude. We have the opportunity to hold out the word of life at Christmastime. People are more open to God this time of year. People who never go to church, will go to Christmas Eve service. People who never think about Jesus will all of a sudden think about him because the holiday is called “Christmas”. Don’t let your Christmas be filled with judgment and complaining, let it be filled with gratitude and worship. Don’t get angry because people don’t say Merry Christmas. Treat them with love and patience. The Christian way of celebrating Christmas isn’t to point people away from Santa, or materialism or saying happy holidays; the Christian way to celebrate Christmas is to point people to Jesus so they find something they can truly celebrate in all of life, not just this time of year. The Christian way to celebrate Christmas is to hold out the word of life, the Gospel, and be lights in the darkness.
We shouldn’t complain about those who aren’t “Keeping Christ in Christmas”. People who don’t know Christ can’t keep him in Christmas. They are doing at Christmas time what they do in all of their lives. They are worshiping other things besides God. Materialism and selfishness are destructive personally and to our society, but the call of the church isn’t to oppose a secularization of what at some points has and has not been a Christian holiday. We proclaim Christ crucified, risen, and coming again. We have the message of the one true God who is worthy of worship. While people all around us are looking everywhere else for fulfillment and meaning this time of year, it is only the church who can say “Look to Jesus”. As people are searching for depth and something real this Christmas, be bold in your faith. Invite someone to church. Ask someone why they celebrate Christmas. Talk about the Lord and how you have found forgiveness, life, and purpose in the Gospel.
Lastly, we celebrate Christmas because there are glimpses of the Kingdom of God everywhere. People decorate. We create beauty. Everyone has a song of worship on their lips as they sing carols. We make plans so we can spend time with friends and family. There are signs of the Kingdom of God everywhere. Radio stations that play the trashiest music all of a sudden burst forth in praise to the Son of God. In the stores where people worship the gods of materialism, there are songs about the Lord being played as if to call people out of their pursuit of lesser things to find what truly matters. And people who never worship God, for no particular reason are moved to go to church on Christmas eve, even if they don’t know why. The excitement and expectation, the songs and stories, the gatherings and gifts are all points of contact where God’s Kingdom of heaven is coming to earth. What we celebrate and enjoy at Christmas points us to the day when God will finally restore his creation and establish his Kingdom. There will be peace on earth and goodwill among men one day.
So this Christmas, celebrate! Celebrate all of the festivities of the Classic Christmas. Give gifts because God has given his Son for us. Gather with family and remember that Christ is our brother and our Father watches over us. Eat and drink and remember that Jesus is the Bread that brings life. Christmas is about baby Jesus, so let’s sing the songs and put up the decorations of the divine baby and proclaim that baby Jesus grew up and he died for us, rose again, and reconciles us to God as Messiah, Prophet, Priest, and King. There was a time when we were far from God, but he has brought us near. This is worth celebrating!