Not like Christmas?
It will not be long past when someone will invariably say, “It wasn’t very like Christmas this year”. Such a common refrain presents the opportunity to make the enquiry, “What is Christmas meant to be like?” Is it a time to sing carols? Is it a time to be with the family?
What is Christmas and how is the church to view this “holy” day? How are people who love Jesus to react to this time of the year when the world professes to honour His birth? Some react by advocating that it is time to put Christ back into Christmas.
But the question arises, “Was He ever there in the first place?”
To answer these questions we will consider the origins of this mid-winter festival. The first mention of Christmas being celebrated is in a Roman almanac. It indicates that the festival was observed by the church in Rome in the year 336A.D. It is commonly accepted that the Emperor Constantine was influential in the institution of a Christian feast to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. He needed something to take the place of the pagan festivals which were popular throughout the Empire.
December 25 was an opportune date, not because Christ was born on that date (historians and astrologers date the birth of Christ as May 17th) but because it was regarded as the birthday of the Iranian god Mithra. The date was also chosen in order that the festival of Christmas might prove a rival to the popular pagan festival of the “unconquered sun” at the winter solstice.
Christmas therefore owes it’s origin to a Roman Emperor who sought to maintain his popularity throughout the empire by making a compromise between the pagan festivals of mid-winter and the celebration of Christ’s birth.
It is because of this background that we can trace many of the customs, associated with Christmas, to pagan origins. For example, in the Roman world, the Saturnalia (celebrated on Dec 17) was a time of merry-making and exchanging gifts, and in the New Year houses were decorated with greenery and lights.
No Biblical Warrant
This brief history of the origin of Christmas demonstrates for us that it exists today, not because it was instituted by our Lord or authorised by His apostles, but because of the decree of a Roman Emperor who established it for rather unworthy motives.
Members of the Church of Christ are not obliged to submit to every decree of man. “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). The standard of the Christian Church is God’s Word. It is our rule of faith and conduct and when it is studied we see that it is silent with regard to the celebration of our Lord’s birthday.
Therefore it can be stated quite categorically, that there is no biblical warrant for Christ’s church to recognise a festival in honour of Christ’s birth. This is not only true of Christmas but it also holds true for other occasions such as Easter and Pentecost, etc. There are only two regular celebrations which are given to Christ’s Church.
The first is the Lord’s day, which is the weekly celebration of Christ’s victory over death as the triumphant Lord of the Sabbath.
The second is the Lord’s Supper which is the appointed memorial of Christ’s atoning death on behalf of His people.
Beyond these two the New Testament does not encourage us to go. Rather the New Testament denounces all other religious festivals as foolish and unscriptural, e.g. Galatians 4:9-11; Colossians 2:16-17
Some will argue that there is nothing wrong with the Church celebrating the birth of Christ since the New Testament does not forbid it. In response to this it must be said that when something was never practiced in the New Testament Church it would be unnecessary to forbid it.
In this connection we also need to remember the “regulative principle of worship”. This Biblical principle is incorporated in the Westminster Confession of Faith (chapter 21, paragraph 1) and states “Whatever is not commanded in Scripture is forbidden”. The New Testament silence in regard to the spiritual observance of Christ’s birth should be sufficient and final evidence to the Church that it is to have no place in its life. It is not a God-approved way of honouring Christ.
New Testament Emphasis
The attitude of Jesus in the New Testament demonstrates that He always sought to turn attention away from making much of His human origins. “As Jesus was saying these things a woman in the crowd called out, ‘Blessed is the mother who gave birth and nursed you’. He replied ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.’” (Luke 11:27-28, cf Matthew 12:46-50).
Our Lord did not want people to remember Him as a baby who came into the world in a miraculous way. He commanded people to remember Him as the eternal Son of God who gave His life as a ransom for many. 1 Corinthians 11:24-27 is His authoritative Word, “This do in remembrance of me…For as often as ye eat this bread and drink this cup ye do show the Lord’s death till he come”.
Christians are to keep before their minds the fact of Christ’s death. This is our Lord’s request and in the pages of the New testament we see how the New Testament Church put this into practice, e.g. Acts 2:42. The remembrance, however, of Christ’s substitutionary death is not popular with a society which is proud and arrogant about its good works and achievements.
As Duncan Lowe points out, “How readily and patronizingly is the world willing to entertain the idea of God as a baby – because God in that form is no threat to them and they can imagine that somehow such a God can be fooled into accepting them on their own terms (c.f. the words of the carol, “I played my drum for Him, The baby smiled for me”).
Jesus is Lord
How the World loves to sentimentalise over a baby, but how it hates to be obedient to Christ the King. The Christ we worship today is not a baby, but is risen, exalted and glorified.
The apostle Paul presents Christ in His present position in Philippians 2:9-11. Jesus has now a name which is above every name – the name LORD. He is the Christ the Christian Church must present to a lost community.
To join with liberals, pagans and atheists in “Christmas worship” is to betray the Lord who bought us and is a denial of His exclusive claim that there is no other way of salvation but through Him (John 14:6).
The practical implications of this teaching for Christians in the 21st Century must now be considered. Christians recognise that although they are not of the world they are in the world. This does not mean that sinful and evil practices must be followed.
On the contrary, Scripture clearly commands, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). Concerning Christmas God’s people should seek to use this mid-winter holiday for a God honouring and a God glorifying purpose.
Many use it as a time for family reunion, a time when the family (parents with their children) can have fun and games together. How great a blessing this can be in an age when the family as an institution, us under such severe attack from society. The theological objections to Christmas as a religious festival in no way stand in the way of having parties or family get-togethers.
It should also be remembered that one should not be legalistic with regard to the manner by which a particular family makes use of this holiday season. Should there be decorations or no decorations? Should there be a tree or no tree? Should there be the traditional exchange of greeting cards and presents?
Since these have pagan origins some may have conscientious objections to them. Many of these things come into the area of Christian liberty and as such each family and each individual must decide before God what they should or should not do with a good conscience. Romans 14:10-13 has a bearing on this subject. Commenting on these verses Charles Hodge says, “If a man is ‘our’ brother, if God had received him, if he acts from a sincere desire to do the divine will, he should not be condemned, though he may think certain things right which we think wrong; nor should he be despised if he trammels his conscience with unnecessary scruples”.
Opportunity for Hospitality
Although certain aspects of Christmas come into the area of Christian liberty, yet there are other aspects which must be forthrightly condemned since they are directly opposed to the revealed will of God.
Some people forget the proper stewardship of money at this time of the year, allowing themselves to become victims of the commercial vultures who make a ‘killing’ at Christmas. Others forget the sin of intemperance. Drunkenness is increasing at an appalling rate and is the cause of many road accidents and heartache to many.
Gluttony is a sin which many of God’s people ignore. Many act like the rich man in our Lord’s parable and dine sumptuously forgetting those who are without, like Lazarus, who had no company and very little food.
What an opportunity to follow the example of the master and bring into the home the orphan, the widow or the stranger and share with them the good things God has provided.
One aspect of Christmas which is receiving a lot of publicity this generation is the myth of Santa Claus. This publicity is simply for commercial purposes and as such must be condemned.
But what about the moral basis for Santa Claus? Every God-fearing parent must consider this question. Is there not a note of deception in leading children to believe in a mythical figure whom parents strive to convince is real, e.g. the disappearance of supper and the appearance of presents? Is there not falshehood involved in this deception which finds itself condemned by the ninth commandment.
There is of course a place for fiction and make-believe in a child’s life, but Christian parents ought to be honest where fact ends and fantasy begins. “Lie not one to another”, should be sufficient admonition from the Scriptures. Claire Lynn, writing from her own experiences advises, “Let your child know that there is a story about Santa Claus, even as there are stories about fairies, but teach your child that there really is no such person who comes down the chimney on Christmas Eve to place the gifts around the tree. Teach your child that the reason you have gifts at Christmas is that you love on another and want to give something to show that you do, even as God loved the world and gave His only begotten Son (John 3:16).
Must we not speak truth to our little ones? Let them know from infancy that “every good and perfect gift is from above”. When parents openly demonstrate love and affection for their children stronger family relationships will be promoted?
What about Christmas this year? In working out our approach to this mid-winter festival we must follow Biblical principles and directives. We must be aware of the blasphemous way the world makes use of our Redeemer in order to accumulate earthly riches.