Reflections on Christmas 2.0 (Christmas 2017)
1. HISTORICAL FACTS
1.1. There is no evidence of Christmas or celebration of Christ’s birth by the Apostles or 1st churches.
- There is not the slightest reference in the NT to either the date of Jesus’ birth or its celebration by early Christians. Even the wise men – those most commonly associated with Jesus’ birth, do not make their trip until several years after his birth and with no indication that they are doing so because it is His birthday. Though their gifts are often associated with the Christmas tradition, they gave them because Jesus was a king (not again-because it was His birthday).
1.2. The 2nd century Christian theologian, Origen mocked the celebration of birthdays since it was the invention of pagans whose hope resided in this world.
- In contrast, early Christians celebrated the day a brother or sister went home to be with the Lord. This (they determined) to be the day worth remembering. IOW: not the day of their birth into this world, but their birth into the next.
- “The day on which a saint died was considered more significant than his or her birth, as it ushered him or her into the kingdom of heaven.” – Dan Graves (Christianity.com)
1.3. As far as we can tell, no-one in the first three centuries of Christianity celebrated Christmas or considered the date of Christ’s birth to be December 25th.
- (For example), In discussing the possibilities of Jesus birthdate, the 2nd century Christian theologian, Clement of Alexandria makes no mention of December 25th:
- “There are those who have determined not only the year of our Lord’s birth, but also the day; and they say that it took place in the 28th year of Augustus, and in the 25th day of [the Egyptian month] Pachon [May 20 in our calendar] … And treating of His Passion, with very great accuracy, some say that it took place in the 16th year of Tiberius, on the 25th of Phamenoth [March 21]; and others on the 25th of Pharmuthi [April 21] and others say that on the 19th of Pharmuthi [April 15] the Savior suffered. Further, others say that He was born on the 24th or 25th of Pharmuthi [April 20 or 21].”
1.4. It wasn’t until the 3rd and 4th century that Jesus’ birth began to be associated with December 25th.
- “Around 200 A.D. [i.e. 3rd century] Tertullian of Carthage reported the calculation that the 14th of Nisan (the day of the crucifixion according to the Gospel of John) in the year Jesus died was equivalent to March 25 in the Roman (solar) calendar. March 25 is, of course, nine months before December 25; it was later recognized as the Feast of the Annunciation—the commemoration of Jesus’ conception. Thus, Jesus was believed to have been conceived and crucified on the same day of the year. Exactly nine months later, Jesus was born, on December 25. This idea appears in an anonymous Christian treatise titled On Solstices and Equinoxes, which appears to come from fourth-century North Africa. The treatise states: ‘Therefore our Lord was conceived on the eighth of the kalends of April in the month of March [March 25], which is the day of the passion of the Lord and of his conception. For on that day he was conceived on the same he suffered.’ Based on this, the treatise dates Jesus’ birth to the winter solstice.
- [The 4th century theologian], Augustine, was [also] familiar with this association. In On the Trinity he writes: ‘For he [Jesus] is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also he suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which he was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which he was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before him nor since. But he was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th.’” – Andrew McGowan (Bible History Daily)
1.5. (In addition), It wasn’t until the middle of the 4th century that any reference can be found to the celebration of Christmas as a holiday.
- “In an old list of Roman bishops, compiled in A. D. 354 these words appear for A.D. 336: ‘December 25th, Christ born in Bethlehem, Judea. This day, December 25, 336, is the first recorded celebration of Christmas.” – Dan Graves (Christianity.com)
- The reason for the new celebration was the Roman empire’s, first (self-declared) Christian leader, Constantine – who not only Christened the empire (and its holidays), but turned the Faith into a lucrative business. In many respects, Constantine is the father of commercialized (or corrupted) Christianity.
1.6. Scholars believe Christmas (December 25th) to simply be the “Christianizing” of the Roman festival of Saturnalia since Christmas borrows both its day of celebration and many of its traditions.
- “From the mid-fourth century on, we do find Christians deliberately adapting and Christianizing pagan festivals. A famous proponent of this practice was Pope Gregory the Great, who, in a letter written in 601 C.E. to a Christian missionary in Britain, recommended that local pagan temples not be destroyed but be converted into churches, and that pagan festivals be celebrated as feasts of Christian martyrs.” -Andrew McGowan (Bible History Daily)
- “The interchange of presents between friends is a like characteristic of Christmas and the Saturnalia, and must have been adopted by Christians from the pagans, as the admonition of Tertullian plainly shows” – Bibliotheca Sacra (Vol 12, p 153-155).
- “It was a public holiday celebrated around December 25th in the family home. A time for feasting, goodwill, generosity to the poor, the exchange of gifts and the decoration of trees. But it wasn’t Christmas. This was Saturnalia, the pagan Roman winter solstice festival. The first-century AD poet Gaius Valerius Catullus described Saturnalia as ‘the best of times’: dress codes were relaxed, small gifts such as dolls, candles and caged birds were exchanged. Saturnalia saw the inversion of social roles. The wealthy were expected to pay the month’s rent for those who couldn’t afford it, masters and slaves to swap clothes.” – Matt Salusbury (History Today)
1.7. The Reformers, Puritans and first American leaders all forbid Christians from observing Christmas.
- They believed its practice to be too influenced by paganism and false religion.
- “[17th century American] Governor [William] Bradford actually threatened New Englanders with work, jail or fines if they were caught observing Christmas.” – Dan Graves (Christianity.com)
1.8. The social gospel of liberalism and the Salvation Army have more to do with the popularity of Christmas than possibly anything else.
- By the late 19th and early 20th century, liberalist theology had begun to penetrate the ranks within America’s mainline conservative churches and denominations. The effect was pastors changing the gospel from sin/rebellion against God as man’s problem and repentance and submission to Christ as God as the solution, to solving society’s problems through social work (i.e. welfare programs, government subsidized housing, soup kitchens, etc.). This liberal message was known as the social gospel. The reason for the new approach was primarily due to the liberalists’ two main beliefs: 1) a person’s environment/upbringing (e.g. poverty, government oppression, racism, poor education or living conditions) is the true culprit behind their bad behavior. People therefore are victims, not ultimately responsible for their situation. 2) Jesus was not God, but simply a good man empowered by God to solve humanity’s social suffering through His examples of feeding and healing the poor. Bolstered by this less offensive message and mission, the church not only became the beggar’s bank, the hobo’s handout, and the lazy man’s retreat, but also a new way for church members to soothe their guilty consciences and feel good about themselves without the need for real repentance from real sin or true submission to Jesus as (true) God. Though liberalism’s false gospel message is the foundation for the preaching and ministries of most American churches, liberalism and the social gospel owes the majority of its success in this country to its biggest “church”, the Salvation Army and its greatest charitable invention, Christmas. Through its Red Kettle Christmas program (1891), the idea of gift-giving and charity became the new meaning and major emphasis of Jesus’ birth. It was the gift/donation “in His name” (not Jesus Himself) that became the path to peace on earth. The influence of the Salvation’s Army’s Christmas invention however did not end there. It’s panhandling for the poor provided fresh ideas to the retailers in front of whose shops they stood ringing their bells. Soon Christmas would be the gift-giving super-feel good social holiday of every human-being, as retailers also got into the holiday spirit by stocking special gift-worthy products at Christmas. As early as the 1920’s, retailers and charitable organizations were earning one-third to one-half their sales revenue during the Christmas season.
2. BIBLICAL REFLECTIONS: How should knowledge of the historical facts about the Christmas holiday affect us? How does Jesus want us to respond?
2.1. Knowing the history of Christmas should make us careful about how we “put Christ back into Christmas” since He has not revealed that He was ever in it (to begin with).
- It is a common mantra this time of the year (“put Christ back in Christmas”). But was He ever there? Or should we even care? (As we saw) Scripture does not provide us with enough information to be certain of when He was born. And as a far as the first church goes, celebrating Jesus’ birth wasn’t even on the radar. As such, all activity or affirmations associated with “putting Christ back in Christmas” (cards, comments, sermons!) are nothing more than a grand example of people being guilty of two things:
- (Deu 29:29) = Don’t act like you know what you don’t know (and more importantly), don’t act on such ignorance.
- Our lives (decisions and actions) are to be based solely on what God has revealed (thru Special and General Revelation). Anything (then) more than that, is sin (the sin of presumption – acting like we know what we don’t know —which is ultimately idolatry – 1Sa 15:23).
- Just as we do not allow our children to believe in the Christmas myths of Santa Claus, or flying reindeer (or “Elf on a shelf”), so also we must not promote the myth of Christmas as Jesus’ birthday (since once more we don’t have any evidence to support that as true – the very definition of a myth!).
2.1.2. The abuse of legalism
- Anytime I attempt to affect the consciences of others by making something that is amoral (i.e. not a matter of morality/ right and wrong) into a moral issue (i.e. a matter of right and wrong), I am guilty of abuse. I am abusing those people through the legislation of legalism (i.e. making moral something that is amoral). Scripture condemns such actions and people (Rom 14:1-6; Mat 15:1-9).
- This then is what is most definitely happening through the propagation of that statement, “put Christ back in Christmas” since what is being implied through such statements is that it is sinful/wrong to forego celebrating the birth of Christ on Christmas. Yet (once more) never does the Bible ever indicate when Christ was born NOR that we need to observe it. Abusive legalistic goofiness at its holiday finest is instead what is going on!
2.2. Knowing the history of Christmas should make us mindful that it is the days of Jesus’ death and resurrection (not His birth) that He wants us to celebrate as special.
- Hence the reason the Sabbath changed from Saturday to Sunday (the day of Jesus’ resurrection) and why (on every resurrection day/Sunday) we partake of the Lord’s Table (the sacrament associated with Jesus’ death – 1Co 11:26). IOW: Jesus’ birth is not the portion of Jesus’ life that God wants us to spend time thinking about (or proclaiming), but His death (and resurrection) – since it through those events that we GAIN the ability to come into saving relationship w/God. So (then) it is the end of Jesus life (not the beginning) that matters. As such:
2.2.1. It makes sense that the early church (before Christianity’s commercialization under Constantine) gave no thought (or time) to the trivial matters of Jesus’ birth.
2.2.2. How ironic (and sad) the message becomes for those who only come to church on Christmas since by doing so, they know Jesus according to what doesn’t (rather than what does) matter.
2.2.3. We as Christians must not allow ourselves to be caught up in the commercially hyped (false) version of Christianity of today which (like its Constantinian predecessor) attempts to find its identity in Christ’s birth (but rather) remember that this too (our identity) is also found in Jesus’ death and resurrection (think about your baptism: we are not baptized into Christ’s birth -but His death and resurrection – Rom 6).
2.2.4. Both of the church’s sacraments (then) find their focus in the end of Christ’s life (not the beginning). There is no sacrament for His birth (so why again a holiday commemorating His birth?
2.3. Knowing the history of Christmas should be incredibly freeing for us since it allows us to enjoy the secular festivities without:
2.3.1. Feeling guilty about all the secular stuff.
- The season of Christmas is a wonderful time to appreciate, recognize and enjoy many of the incredible gifts God has given to us through various secular traditions (e.g. the beautiful display of lights, the delicious Christmas dishes and desserts, the days off granted by most employers for rest, recreation and spending of time w/love ones, the giving of gifts to one another, watching Christmas holiday movies). As Christians this should also be a time of thanksgiving to our God since it is God Who has given us all such things (incl. secular holidays) to enjoy (1Ti 4:4). There is nothing wrong w/enjoying the fun and festive things of our culture (as long as they are not causing us to sin) (e.g. Act 14:17).
2.3.2. The need to “Christianize” it through cheesy nativity scenes, Christmas plays or Jesus birthday parties.
- As a matter of fact, It is (these perfectly fine -yet secular traditions and our participation in them) that God oftentimes uses as a means to building relationships w/ the lost so that we can introduce them to the glory of the real Jesus (i.e. not the commercialized/corrupt, cheesy and very false Jesus portrayed in the many churches who have bought into the commercialized and corrupted version of Christianity) (1Co 10:27-33).
2.4. Knowing the history of Christmas should be incredibly freeing for us since it allows us to enjoy Christmas traditions of the church (during the Christmas season) without:
2.4.1. Turning the historical event of Christ’s birth into sermons that could double as a hallmark movie.
- So much of the preaching that happens during Christmas is nothing more than massive embellishment of the Scriptural account of Christ’s birth for the purpose of feeding the emotions and stoking the fires of sentimental sappiness. IOW: It is THE time of the year when more pastors will decide to throw out the tools of accurate interpretation and take such creative license with God’s Word that what gets preached neither glorifies Christ nor represents what the biblical author was attempting to communicate. It is instead all for the purpose of stirring the emotions and stoking the fires of sentimental sappiness.
2.4.2. Feeling the need to do a soup kitchen or give something to the Salvation Army or the lazy homeless, hobos and panhandlers.
- We have a horrible problem in this country of getting completely wrong what constitutes the best way to get rebellious people who are down-trodden and suffering because of their rebellion and unwillingness to do what the rest of society has to do to rise above the challenges of life (which is to take responsibility for my actions, work hard, obey the rules and conform their lives to those other things which are consistent with success and getting ahead in society – the way they look or smell or talk or dress, or even what they choose to listen to -or do in their free time). The best way is not to “show them mercy” thru giving them what is currently being refused to them because of their rebellion (since by doing so, what we are essentially saying is that if you rebel long enough, your rebellion will actually be rewarded). We are also saying that though it doesn’t work that way for us (i.e. we have to conform and obey and work and take responsibility) to not be in their situation, it does for them. IOW: It is a double-standard (one law for them, one for us). In both cases, what we have done is what God’s Word says we are NEVER EVER to do—and that is stand in the way of (or subvert) equity or justice. Not only because that is at its very core the heart of all evil (the foundation of all evil is the subversion of all justice), but justice is also (according to the Bible) is the only way the wicked ever learn, and therefore the only hope they have from stopping their rebellion and truly getting out of their crummy crappy situation. So don’t feel bad about refusing to promote the problem and stand in the way of justice – both of which happen when we give to such things (2Th 3:10).
2.5. Knowing the history of Christmas should cause us to look with fresh eyes upon the Gospel message of Jesus’ birth.
- There are two accounts of Jesus’ birth in Scripture, and in both the message to be associated w/this birth is the same. (Mat 1:21; Luk 2: 11-14)
- Did you get the message? It is not, “You shall remember this day as special” or “God loves babies” or “Tis the season to know that God is okay w/all the bad people in the world (so give each other gifts and money to the lazy panhandlers)” It is instead, a promise (not to the world of people who remain rebels) but God’s people (those with whom He is pleased) that they do have a Savior (one who will save them from their sins) and give them the best gift of all (peace with God).
This is the purpose for which Jesus was born…This is how the Bible communicates its message. It is a very exclusive message—a message for God’s people alone—which means if you are going to associate Jesus w/this season (or attempt to attach any significance of His birth to your own life) then this is what you must become—His people. And that only happens by becoming a part of His Body (the church), a part of those who know Him not only as Savior—but also Lord.
 Origen, Homily On Leviticus 8.
 Clement, Stromateis