Saturday, 3 December 2011

So This Is Christmas

Photo Credit: Hannah Swithinbank
Have you ever thought it possible that there could actually be God-fearing, born again, and Spirit filled Christians who do not celebrate Christmas? Does that possibility seem strange to you? Does my suggesting this shock you? I would suggest this is not just an anomaly but is actually much more common than many people may suspect.

Many years ago I was a devout Beatles fan, and more specifically, a John Lennon fan. In thinking of this topic I was reminded of John Lennon’s famous Christmas song, “So This Is Christmas (War Is Over).” The first two verses were,
“So this is Christmas, And what have you done? Another year over, And a new one just begun. And so this is Christmas, I hope you have fun. The near and the dear one, The old and the young.” (John Lennon)
But what is this Christmas that he sang about? Is it about "The War Is Over if You Want It" as depicted by John Lennon and Yoko Ono in the early 1970's?  Is it, as suggested by Lennon’s VIDEO associated with this song, about being concerned about victims of war and poverty in the third world? Is it about gift giving and receiving? Is it just about some fat man in a red suit playing with reindeer and little people with pointed ears? Is it a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, as is the traditional Christian view? Is it just an excuse for over eating, for too much drinking, and questionable office parties? Is it, as I’ve often joked about, a conspiracy by the greeting card companies and the toy manufacturers? Is it just another holiday? What is Christmas?

Photo Credit: Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig
This year we got our first Christmas card of the season on the last day of November. It was promptly followed by a discussion between my wife and myself concerning the sender’s use of  “xmas” instead of “Christmas.” We talked about how some people, Christians primarily, balk at “xmas” believing that it is some sort of conspiracy to remove Christ from Christmas. We talked about how other Christians have no problem with “xmas” believing that the letter “x” is really the Greek letter “chi” which looks much like our letter “x.” In their way of thinking, “x” (or “chi”) is just another way of saying “Christ.” While that may be true, I side more with the former on this one. I do not believe that those who use the term “xmas” are for a second thinking of the Greek “chi” as simply a different way to say “Christ.” In that sense, “xmas” is more likely simply laziness or the deliberate act of trying to take Christ out of Christmas.

Others say that Christmas is really “Christ’s Mass,” thus tying the whole event back to the Roman Catholic celebration of the mass of Christmas. So is this what Christmas really is? Perhaps this is what Christmas has evolved into, but earlier history teaches us still something else.

The interesting thing is that, despite the birth narratives in the Gospels, the Christian church didn’t even celebrate Christmas until about its fourth century. For the first few hundred years of its existence, to the best of my knowledge, there is no recorded evidence that the Christian church observed Christmas at all. The church’s primary focus in those days was not the birth of Jesus, but rather His crucifixion and resurrection. Easter and Pentecost were the big observances of the church, not Christmas. So where then did Christmas come from? Perhaps a little history is in order.

Photo Credit: Nick Thompson
Way back in the third century, there was an emperor by the name of “Aurelian” who built a huge temple to the “Unconquered Sun.” This temple essentially became the center of the empire’s religious life. A popular and more western twist of this “sun worship” was centered around the Iranian deity of the Morning Sun, “Mithras.” All of this was a part of a huge pagan revival in the third and fourth centuries known as Neo-Platonism. Historians tell us that this pagan revival had its roots in the teachings of Plotinus (205-270) and that it became a great source of opposition to the claims of Christianity.

By the fourth century, the Christians decided that they needed some way to combat this growing pagan movement. They decided to use the winter solstice (December 25), which (perhaps ironically) also happened to be the pagan deity’s birthday, as the day to celebrate the birth of Jesus. They reasoned, what better way to deal with the popular pagan feasts than to adopt them and convert them into a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ?

And so Christmas was born in Rome approximately 400 years into the church’s existence. But what about other events and customs often associated with Christmas? Epiphany, what some call the eastern Christmas, also had its roots in paganism. It began with the worship of the pagan god Dionysus. Likewise the popular traditions of holly, mistletoe and yule logs, all came out of paganism.

Even the Christmas tree is suspect. Many believe that this tradition came to us from Martin Luther.  Other historical texts speak of the German mystery plays in which there was a “Paradise Tree” which symbolized Eden. Others speak of its “roots” (pun fully intended) in 17th century Strasburg, France. From there it spread throughout northern Europe until it was introduced into Great Britain in about 1841. However, regardless where it came from, the point is that the Christmas tree did not make it’s appearance until fairly recently.

Photo Credit: Darren Cullen
Though the pagan cults that originally led to the birth of Christmas are long since gone, in some ways we could say that paganism continues to be alive and well in many of the observances of Christmas today. Though Christmas was birthed deep in paganism, for many of us the modern version of those ancient pagan rituals has become our normal winter solstice custom and tradition. The consumerism god, Santa Claus, has kept the paganism alive and well for us in our modern culture. In many ways, it has evolved into a new religion, even for those who do not consider themselves religious.

Is all this modern consumerism religion just another innocent tradition? Please understand that I am in no way suggesting that some people are more or less spiritual simply based upon their Christmas traditions, but I am wondering about the possible negative effect of man made traditions on our Christian walk. Jesus actually went so far as to say that “for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God” (Matthew 15:6; ESV). Does this apply to our Christmas traditions as well? I wonder.

The Apostle Paul said, “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ” (Colossians 2:8; NIV). Now I know that I’m going to step on a lot of toes with this, but could it be that in all our attempts to make the Christmas celebration about Christ, we have actually fallen captive to a hollow and deceptive philosophy? Again, I wonder. Even the church gets itself held “captive” to the pull of the consumerism god.

Photo Credit: Jackie, Sister72
People speak about “keeping Christ in Christmas” as if to suggest that He was always in Christmas. Yes, His name is in “Christmas,” but that doesn’t necessarily mean that Christmas had its genesis in Jesus. Among some of the more liberal church groups, the first Sunday of Advent is often viewed as the New Year’s Day of the church calendar. However, as true as all that may be, what I keep coming back to is this 400-year period of time in which the church did not appear to celebrate Christmas. Why was the early church so silent about Jesus’ birth? Perhaps it is because the early church typically has viewed Pentecost as the birth of the church, not Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem.

Then again, perhaps I’m being too harsh and we need not concern ourselves with this. After all, Christmas was created for a good reason, wasn’t it? After all, paganism was alive and well, and was in fact actually gaining momentum in the world, so the creation of Christmas to combat the advance of paganism must have been a good thing, right? Not necessarily. Ends do not always justify the means.

I would suggest that perhaps the creation of Christmas was actually a big negative. Along with the legalization of Christianity under Constantine earlier in the third century, I dare say that Christmas actually became a part of the downward slide of Christianity from the simple organic fellowship that it began as, into the institutionalism that would ultimately become the Roman Catholic Church, and more recently, Protestantism.  At the very least, it’s an ironic coincidence. Still, I will not argue that point; it is just something that I’ve often wondered about.

So there we have a very brief history of the origin of Christmas. Is there a right or a wrong approach for us today? Does all this mean that we should simply throw the whole thing away? Is that what I am suggesting? No, far from it! Consider the words of the Apostle Paul, 
“One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each should be fully convinced in his own mind. He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone. If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living. You, then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat” (Romans 14: 5-10; NIV).
While this text deals primarily with dietary issues, I think there are a couple lessons for us here that we can also apply to the observance of Christmas. First of all, not everyone observes special days and seasons. We would do well to remember that one is not right and the other is not wrong. Lest we forget, in Christ there is freedom. Personally, I do not observe special days. For me, every day is exactly the same; for me every day is the day that the Lord hath made and I will rejoice and be glad in them all equally. However, I do recognize that not everyone thinks that way, and that’s OK.

Photo Credit: Gabor Kiss, littdown
Another lesson from Paul’s text is that none of us lives to himself alone; we all live in community (or ought to). As such, there are bound to be differences of opinion, including the observance of commonly held Christmas traditions. What are we going to do about them? One thing that Paul tells us that we are not to do with them, is to judge each other based on those differences. As Christians, we all belong to the Lord. First and foremost, we are called to walk in love and relationship with each other, even if we think differently on a few points here and there.

Augustine is quoted to have said, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” The observance of Christmas traditions is most definitely a non-essential to the faith, as evidenced by the approximately 400 years in early Christianity in which there was no Christmas observance at all.

So for those who wish to observe the Christmas tradition, go ahead. Yes, it had its roots in paganism, but obviously that is not necessarily what Christians who practice Christmas are observing. Likewise, for those who do not wish to observe the Christmas tradition, feel free not doing so. There is only one wrong view about these non-essentials and that is if they are handled out of love towards those who hold the opposing view. 
“So this is Christmas, And what have you done? Another year over, And a new one just begun. And so this is Christmas, I hope you have fun. The near and the dear one, The old and the young.” (John Lennon)
So this is Christmas. And what have I done about it? Nothing really. Contrary to what some people think, I’m not really a Scrooge. No, perhaps I don’t have your version of “Christmas spirit,” but I do participate with other loved ones in as much as I feel that I need to in order to bring joy and happiness to them. When I do, I do not do so for myself; I do so out of love for them.

Yes, I buy gifts, but I also don’t wait to do so only in the Christmas season; I do so all year long. Yes, I worship Jesus, but I don’t do so only in the Christmas season; I do so all year long. Yes, I think of the Incarnation, but I don’t do so only in the Christmas season; I do so all year long. Yes, I believe in peace on Earth and good will towards man, but I don’t do so only in the Christmas season; I do so all year long. For me, the joy of Christmas, whatever that means, is a 365-day per year observance. For me, every day is a day where I can and do seek to bless another person. I don’t need a special day per year in order to remind me to do that which I should be doing every day of the year.

Is Christmas important to you? Well then all I can say is, in the words of John Lennon, “I hope you have fun.” I also hope that you do not judge too harshly other Christians who perhaps take a different slant on Christmas than you do.

Merry Christmas.