Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Should Christians Celebrate Christmas?

Some Reflections on the Feast of Christmas
by Lyn Perry for Faith Renewal Church

The Annunciation by Paolo de Matteis, 1712
After mentioning a sermon series I was preparing on why we should observe the liturgical calendar, explaining allseven seasons of the Christian year and teaching about their important rolein shaping a maturing Christian, a pastor friend asked me what scriptural basis I had for such a series. His assumption was that observing certain seasons of the year, like Epiphany or Lent, or recognizing specific feast days, like the Annunciation or Transfiguration, were ‘extra biblical’; and since they were not specifically taught in scripture we shouldn’t observe them.

Yet this pastor and the church he served celebrated Advent and Christmas and Easter. To me, this seemed like cherry picking. Because if you think about it, celebrating Christmas isn’t explicitly taught in scripture. And yet it culminates the year for many a church. This is an inconsistent and reductionist approach to say the least. It’s also a tacit nod to secularism. I fear many contemporary evangelical churches (those in the ‘free church’ tradition) take their cues from the world when it comes to holiday expressions. The fact that the annual Christmas pageant is often seen as an end-of-year (!) tradition is case in point. (Advent actually begins the Christian year.)

Recently, however, I was reminded that some Christians don’t observe even Christmas. And for much the same reason my pastor friend looked askance at Lent or Ascension Thursday or the various Saints days (and for the reason I stated above) – it isn’t sanctioned by scripture. I’ve already reflected (here and here and here) on why observing the liturgical year is important for our spiritual health, but a quick one-liner that breaks the power of that argument, for me at least, is the fact that Jesus observed Hanukkah (John 10.22-23), an extra-biblical festival. If Christ, our Lord, participated in a non-biblical festival, surely we have permission to do so as well. Don’t we use the essence of that argument to affirm attending wedding celebrations since, according to John 2, Jesus graced the wedding in Cana with his presence, not to mention turning the water into wine when the wine had run out? Plus, if we only entered into what the scripture expressly authorized we’d be sorely limited in our faith and practice.

A second reason for some to forsake Christmas (and, by association, all the other Christian seasons) comes into play, however. It bolsters the first reason, I think, in the mind of the non-observant believer. And that is the (false) assumption that Christmas – at least the celebration of the feast day on December 25 – began as a pagan holiday. [I say false assumption based on what I’ll summarize below as to the real, albeit theological and pietistic, reason for the December 25 dating of the holiday (owing the details of my summary to Andrew McGowan’s article at Biblical Archeology Review).]  I think we all know of churches that disparage Halloween, assuming wrongly that it’s a pagan holiday. But there are a number of believers who think Christmas and Easter were originally pagan holidays as well. Therefore, in an effort to “abstain from all appearance of evil” (an unfortunate mistranslation of 1 Thessalonians 5.22 by the King James Version), we’re best off, it’s argued, if we stay away from such festivities altogether.

I want to argue that we’re actually best off if we recover the original intent of the early Church, which saw December 25, not as a pagan celebration coopted and transformed for Christian purposes (though that isn’t a bad strategy, per se, for us moderns to utilize if occasion warrants), but as a devotional and worshipful remembrance of the sovereign grace and reign of their Lord.

Here’s what I mean.

Without going into the calculations and change of calendars during the first several centuries of the common era, the consensus of the early Church was that Jesus died on March 25. Based on the assumption that transformative events occurred on the same day, an early tradition puts the conception of Jesus on March 25 as well. This is a devotional explanation, a way to reflect on the salvific connection between the Annunciation of Christ and his death. As Augustine of Hippo wrote in a sermon, On the Trinity (about the year 400): “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…corresponds to the new grave in which he was buried….”

Augustine then tells us that Jesus was born, “according to tradition, upon December the 25th.” It’s easy to see why that date was chosen. It comes nine months after his conception. So the argument that Christmas Day was originally a pagan holiday which we ‘took over’ doesn’t really help us understand the thought process of the early Church. Now we may not agree that this thought process leads us to the actual date – in fact, Jesus probably was born in the late spring, in warmer weather when shepherds could in fact be back out in their fields to watch over their flocks at night. But this is beside the point, isn’t it? The day is not as important as the event. And that event was so transformative for the early followers of Jesus that they drew the natural conclusion we can still make today: the birth of the Messiah and the death, burial, and resurrection of the Messiah are truly one salvific moment in history. We can’t have one without the other.

And so we should celebrate Christmas. It’s a day for worship, acknowledging the sovereign grace (God's gift of His Son) and reign (Christ's victory over death) of our Lord Jesus Christ, thereby making it a truly Christian thing to do.

(Acknowledgement: Here's the source for the dating of Christmas and quote from Augustine.)