CHRISTMAS SALE: Prices Marked Down

December 13, 1998

Christmas is celebrated by believers and nonbelievers alike. Some choose to make it a time of reflection on the Incarnation and its implications; others simply enjoy a day off, good food, and gift exchanges. Some lament the commercialization of the day; others get caught up in the excitement of it. Some participate in extra events of devotion and worship; others get smashed out of their gourds. From the beginning of its observance, Christmas has been a study in contradictions.

It will probably surprise many Christians to find out that Christmas wasn’t celebrated widely until the fifth century. There is no mandate in the New Testament for an observance of the birth of Jesus. Indeed, the central message of the Christian faith is that the One crucified for our sins has been raised from the dead. From the earliest days of the church, this event has been memorialized and proclaimed in the Lord’s Supper. Then, far sooner than the Christmas observance, the Christian church began an annual springtime celebration of the resurrection that we know as Easter.

We don’t know when the church began keeping Christmas. The first documented reference is from the year 354 and appears on a Roman calendar that designates December 25 as the day of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem of Judea.

Christmas: A Theological History

If the resurrection is the cardinal doctrine of Christian faith (cf. 1 Cor. 15:3-4, 12-19), why was the celebration of Jesus’ birth initiated? Two or three reasons seem to make sense from what we know for certain.

First, it was probably part of the larger Christian response to the church’s first heresy. Strange as it may seem to moderns, the first heretical doctrine about Jesus in church history was not a denial of his deity but of his real humanity. Influenced more by Greek philosophy than biblical data, Docetists said that Christ was a spirit and did not have a flesh-and-blood body. Before the New Testament documents were completed, this falsehood was beginning to appear. Thus the apostle John wrote: "Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world" (1 John 4:1-3). Then, shortly after this stern warning, the same apostle wrote: "Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist. . . . If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take him into your house or welcome him. Anyone who welcomes him shares in his wicked work" (2 John 7, 10-11). If Jesus had no material body, there was no suffering, no death, no resurrection — thus no gospel! On the other hand, celebrating the birth of Jesus from Mary’s womb was a means by which orthodox believers could emphasize the fact of Jesus’ identification with us. It was a "holy day" on which the following central truth of Christianity could be declared to all: "Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death — that is, the devil — and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death" (Heb. 2:14-15). Christmas was a theological statement of major significance in the context of the church’s struggle with heretics.

Second, most scholars also understand that Christmas was one of several deliberate attempts to "Christianize" a pagan festival. The Christian faith, after all, was not born into a religious vacuum. Pagan religions and mystery cults that competed with Christianity for the minds and hearts of people had a number of festivals in place before the establishment of the church. From the middle of December through the first of January, the Romans paid homage to their gods with drunken celebrations. They marked the winter solstice, when days began to lengthen. In 274, Emperor Aurelian decreed December 25 — the solstice on the Julian calendar — as natalis solis invicti (i.e., birth of the invincible sun). It was to be a festival honoring the sun god Mithra. The Christians appear to have challenged paganism head on by taking that date for their Nativity festival. They immersed a popular festival in the biblical symbolism that describes Jesus as God "true light" (cf. John 1:9) and the "Sun of Righteousness" (cf. Mal. 4:2; Eph. 5:14) to a world wrapped in darkness.

Third, the simplest of Christians probably looked for and invented any possible avenue for honoring their Lord Jesus Christ. If there had been no threatening heresy to combat or popular festival to claim and cleanse, I am convinced they would have eventually sought to institutionalize so beautiful a story of divine providence and love. The first two factors already named likely led to the quick, widespread, and enduring appeal of Christmas. This one more nearly accounts for the "warm fuzzies" it inspires among those who know nothing of these technical details about its theological history.

To illustrate how the Christmas story touches the human heart, consider the following story that is circulating on the Internet this year. Because I cannot trace it to its source, I don’t know whether it tells of an actual event or is a parable. Whether history or parable, it is a poignant testimony to the power of the biblical account of Christ’s birth.

In 1994, two Americans answered an invitation from the Russian Department of Education to teach morals and ethics using biblical principles in the public schools. They were invited to teach at prisons, businesses, the fire and police departments and a large orphanage. About 100 boys and girls who had been abandoned, abused, and left in the care of a government-run program were in the orphanage. They relate the following story in their own words . . .

It was nearing the holiday season, 1994, time for our orphans to hear for the first time the traditional story of Christmas. We told them about Mary and Joseph arriving in Bethlehem. Finding no room in the inn, the couple went to a stable, where the baby Jesus was born and placed in a manger.

Throughout the story, the children and orphanage staff sat in amazement as they listened. Some sat on the edges of their stools, trying to grasp every word.

Completing the story, we gave the children three small pieces of cardboard to make a crude manger. Each child was given a small paper square, cut from yellow napkins I had brought with me. No colored paper was available in the city. Following instructions, the children tore the paper and carefully laid strips in the manger for straw. Small squares of flannel (cut from a worn-out nightgown an American lady was throwing away as she left Russia) were used for the baby's blanket. A doll-like baby was cut from tan felt we had brought from the United States.

The orphans were busy assembling their manger as I walked among them to see if they needed any help. All went well until I got to one table where little Misha sat — he looked to be about 6 years old and had finished his project. As I looked at the little boy's manger, I was startled to see not one, but two babies in the manger.

Quickly, I called for the translator to ask the lad why there were two babies in the manger. Crossing his arms in front of him and looking at his completed manger scene, the child began to repeat the story very seriously. For such a young boy, who had only heard the Christmas story once, he related the happenings accurately — until he came to the part where Mary put the baby Jesus in the manger.

Then Misha started to ad lib. He made up his own ending to the story as he said, "And when Maria laid the baby in the manger, Jesus looked at me and asked me if I had a place to stay. I told him I have no mamma and I have no papa, so I don't have any place to stay.

Then Jesus told me I could stay with him. But I told him I couldn't, because I didn't have a gift to give him like everybody else did. But I wanted to stay with Jesus so much, so I thought about what I had that maybe I could use for a gift. I thought maybe if I kept him warm, that would be a good gift.

So I asked Jesus, "If I keep you warm, will that be a good enough gift?"

And Jesus told me, "If you keep me warm, that will be the best gift anybody ever gave me."

"So I got into the manger, and then Jesus looked at me and he told me I could stay with him — for always."

As little Misha finished his story, his eyes brimmed full of tears that splashed down his little cheeks. Putting his hand over his face, his head dropped to the table and his shoulders shook as he sobbed and sobbed. The little orphan had found someone who would never abandon nor abuse him, someone who would stay with him — for always.

Objections to Christmas

While the more devout believers likely have celebrated Christmas as a silent, holy night from the beginning, not all have done so. By the fifth century, much of the church was more profane than holy. After Emperor Constantine proclaimed Christianity the religion of the empire in the fourth century, "joining the church" became not only socially acceptable but socially advantageous. The level of general piety that had been all but insured by the persecution of Christians quickly began to give way to shallow, uninformed faith.

Thus it should surprise no one that Christmas had more features of Roman party indulgence than Christian faith affirmation for many of the pagans-just-become-Christians. They kept the day much as the Romans had — in gluttonous feasts and drunken public partying. The medieval Christmas celebration probably looked more like Mardi Gras than a church service.

December 25 as the date for celebrating the birth of Christ spread from Rome across Egypt to Europe. Along the route, it became intertwined with other customs and festivals that altered the language and ceremonies of Christmas. For example, it absorbed a Scandinavian winter festival known as "yule." Thus we sometimes refer to the Christmas season as "yuletide." By 1050, the words Christes maesse (i.e., festival of Christ) had entered the English language. From the thirteenth century on, practically all of Europe observed a memorial to Jesus’ birth on December 25.

After the example of the Magi who paid homage to the Christ child with gifts, Christmas ancient and modern includes the giving of presents — as well as parties, eating, and drinking. The excesses, abuses, and pagan-like aspects of everything that has come to be associated with Christmas have always bothered devout believers. Gregory of Nazianzus, a fourth-century bishop of Constantinople, weighed in against "feasting to excess, dancing, and crowning the doors" and encouraged instead a celebration of Christ’s birth "after a heavenly and not after an earthly manner."

An Anglican cleric named Henry Bourne said in 1725 that the way most people behaved at Christmas was "a scandal to religion and an encouraging of wickedness." For many, he claimed, Christmas was little more than "a pretense for drunkenness and rioting and wantonness." The Puritans protested observing Christmas at all. They pointed out that it was nothing but a pagan festival covered with a veneer of Christianity and succeeded in having it banned for a brief time.

In the early American colonies, this same sharp study in contrasts continued. Some celebrated Christmas as a midwinter occasion for socializing, eating, and drinking. New England Puritans flatly refused to observe Christmas. Many Protestant churches in America were influenced by the Puritans to reject Christmas celebration altogether. No trees. No gifts. No mangers. No carols.

Thus the church had come full circle. The early church had sought to redeem and Christianize public festivals. Now the church was on record in opposition to religion being tied to festivals, parties, and the giving of gifts. Cotton Mather, a famous New England minister, denounced Christmas merrymaking as "an affront unto the grace of God."

"Religious Christmas Stuff"

Mike Moore grew up in the same near-Puritan, anti-Christmas sentiment I did. Several years back he wrote a piece entitled "Religious Christmas Stuff" that I treasure. It tells about a day when he and his best friend were playing in a December snowbank. Both boys were seven years old, and their conversation turned to thoughts of Christmas. Donny asked, "Mike, I was wonderin’, is Christmas really Jesus’ birthday?"

"No! No! No!" I blurted out, scorning Don for his blatant ignorance. "It’s not his birthday and don’t let anyone tell you differently. No one knows when his birthday is!"

Don sat there for awhile almost embarrassed that he had even asked. He knew better than to argue theological issues with a guy who went to church on Wednesday nights, but under his breath he mumbled, "If nobody knew when my birthday was, I wouldn’t mind if they just picked a day."

I still remember what Donny mumbled that day in a snowbank. Donny, who had never been to church a day in his life, saw a smiling Jesus who said, "Go ahead, just pick a day" and I saw a frowning Jesus yelling, "No! No! No! For the last time, it’s not my birthday!"

Do we really think that he cringes when we sing about mangers? When he hears songs about Bethlehem and Wise Men, does he pull his hair and say, "It never says three, it never says three . . ." I doubt it. I really doubt it.

Fifteen years later, I wonder if Don remembers what I told him. I hope not, because he now has a two-year old who might ask him the same question.

What a shame if that’s the only thing he remembers about his friend who went to church three times a week.

Christmas 1998

Each year I try to underscore the Christmas season for you by pleading for you to keep it thoughtfully, reverently, Christianly. I am not a Puritan cleric! So I don’t inveigh against it and encourage you to turn away from either Santa Claus or the Babe of Bethlehem. I simply encourage you to participate in either or both "to the Lord" (cf. Rom. 14:5-6).

It is far easier to tell the Christmas Story from Matthew and Luke and to discern its spiritual content than to see something Christian in Santa.

Yes, it is now traditional and expected for at least some of the Christian response to this season of the year to be a warning against excess. Too much debt accumulated, too much food eaten, too much stress encountered — these things deserve to be warned against. But there’s no reason for any Christian to be a Scrooge against Christmas. The parties, food, trees, and gifts are great fun. They just mustn’t be allowed to overshadow the spiritual theme of this special time for believers.

Indeed, isn’t there something spiritual and holy discernable in the smiles and kisses, splashes of extravagance and piles of trash, sparkling lights and family memories? "May I find in moments such as these an echo of those ‘tidings of great joy’?" asked J. Barrie Shepherd. "I wonder, would the Christ-child, if he sat beneath our sparkling tree, condemn as crass and empty all he saw? Or might he laugh and cheer and clap his sticky hands to see his miracle take place again and life become abundant shared in love?"


Even if one sees more of Santa than Jesus in the Christmas holiday as we celebrate it in America, I can still see a spiritual lesson for all of us. I see the story of a Christmas bargain for every shopper. I understand how the price has been marked down — no, slashed — on the thing I need most. For the Christian message at every season of the year is the gospel of God’s grace.

What is heaven worth to you? What would you have to do to be worthy of it? Indeed, have you done enough to be saved? Wait! These are our human questions about salvation. Here, on the other hand, is the heavenly affirmation: "The free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 6:23b).

Earlier this week, a lady at Woodmont Hills told me about an episode with her grandson. He recently hit his "trying threes" and was being less than a perfect little angel one day. She had corrected him a time or two, and he just kept on trying her patience. He finally pushed her over the line, and she blurted out, "You know it’s almost Christmas, and Santa’s making his list of who’s been ‘naughty’ and ‘nice.’ If you keep this up . . ." Then it dawned on her that she was doing a terrible thing. She was teaching her grandson about a conditional love in order to correct him. Have some parents and preachers taught the love of God on this model?

A God who loved only the "nice" among us would have nobody to love, for we are all sinners. The message of the gospel is that Christ died for the "naughty" who had no hope of eternal life! "While we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:8b).

God has come in the non-threatening form of an infant to give us his free gift. Having paid the full price for our salvation in his own body on the cross, he invites us to share in his magnanimity of his grace forever. Talk about the perfect gift!

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