War On Christmas?

The question that comes up every year at this time is whether or not there is a war on Christmas. Before we get to that question, let me share with you a part of the Christmas story that I love. It’s when the angels came to announce Jesus’ birth.

“And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” – Luke 2:8-14

Here we see good news of great joy being presented to the common person in the land. Great news guys, the long-awaited Saviour is finally here. You could almost feel the rush of excitement that would have filled the hearts of these shepherds who then went to meet their baby king. 

This is a wonderful and very appropriate message for the season – Good news of Great Joy for all people. It’s Good news of Great joy even for the whole year because of what it means. There should be happiness in our hearts, dancing in the streets and joy in all our homes. So isn’t it interesting that instead of doing what the shepherds did, focusing on the Good news of Great joy, there are many today who view this season as a time for war instead. 

Here’s what I mean. I’ve observed that many have been caught in the throes of a war on semantics. We are seeing and hearing more “Happy Holidays” and less “Merry Christmases.” The “Christmas tree” has turned into being a “Holiday tree.”One television ad plays regularly with carollers singing: “We Wish You A Happy Holiday” to the tune of “We Wish You A Merry Christmas.”

You can certainly see why a general mood of fighting back could prevail. I have seen numerous emails floating around with pictures of Christmas trees lamenting the secularization of Christmas. The underlying tone of these messages so far has been one of anger and partisanship, as if to say: “They can’t take our Christmas away from us!” 

It’s an interesting situation and one we need to consider seriously. If this is a battle, on what level do we fight it? If someone wishes us “Happy Holidays,” do we respond with a hearty “Merry Christmas,” thus striking a blow for the kingdom of God? But I wonder why we expect those who don’t know Jesus personally nor believe he is the son of God, why is it that we almost demand them to celebrate Christmas anyways? It’s not their holiday after all. 

Here’s the thing, the message that the shepherds received was about a baby being born, not a holiday to be birthed. The good news is about Christ, not the fact about whether we call the holiday Christmas or not. I am not in any way saying that we should ban the holiday or even to change the name, but I don’t even think Jesus cares very much about what we or anyone else call an evergreen with lights on it in December.

The fact is that there is and has been a war against God himself ever since Adam sinned in the garden. The attempt from the world to, in the very least ignore the Christmas title and at the very worst attempt to get rid of the Christmas holiday, is really an example of the rejection of Jesus’ gospel message of hope to a lost world. That is why Jesus came – to end the war and to redeem lost mankind. Look at Luke 1:35… 

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy.” – Luke 1:35

What’s in a name? It was William Shakespeare who popularized this question. The line is found in Act 2 Scene 1 of Romeo and Juliet. Juliet is wishing Romeo would change his name and so renounce his family who had been in opposition to their romance. She tries to convince him by asking, “Tis but thy name that is my enemy; O, be some other name! What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”Juliet got it wrong, because a name is important, and can’t be just taken off like a piece of clothing. 

In the Christmas story we see a baby who is born being called ‘Holy’. That is a significant part of the story and here’s one of the reasons why. Holy means pure, good, without any defect or deficiency or blemish. God is both sovereign and holy. Sin is incompatible with God’s nature. The penalty for rejecting God’s sovereignty is separation from God, separation meaning both spiritual death and physical death. 

The tragic story of man’s disobedience is told in Genesis chapter three. Immediately after Adam & Eve disobeyed God’s command they both realized they were guilty. Adam and Eve tried to cover their guilt and shame from God, but they chose a poor cover up, a bunch of leaves that only covered a portion of their bodies. 

Their sin was still exposed & God, being Holy, can’t look on sin. So, God chose skins to completely cover Adam and Eve. “And the Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife, and clothed them.” – Genesis 3:21. The coats of skin that God provided for Adam and Eve represented the righteousness they needed so that they could be in God’s holy presence. 

The animal sacrificed was usually a lamb that had no blemishes or obvious imperfections & was an innocent substitute, an innocent victim. The problem was that this was all temporary and had to be repeated over and over again. What was needed was a perfect, lasting sacrifice because no matter how unblemished the lamb was; it was never going to be perfect enough and was certainly not everlasting or holy. 

Finally, God steps in and provides his own perfect sacrifice to cover our sins once and for all and provide us his righteousness. And we are introduced to this thru a little baby named Jesus who is called Holy. The only one who could be pure, good, without any defect or deficiency or blemish. Now when this baby grows into manhood and gives his life in sacrifice, because he is holy, perfect, without blemish, we can be clothed with his perfect righteousness. 

What’s in a name? In this case it’s the Saviour of the world. That’s the good news of great joy the shepherds received. Not a declaration of a new holiday with turkey and trees covered in lights. 

I don’t know if you ever thought about Christmas in that light before. We usually think of it in such a light sense, after all it’s about a little baby and a jolly happy man in a red suit and we always talk about peace on earth and the fact that it’s Good News, Great Joy! But is that the meaning of the Christmas season? What was the purpose of the Angels’ message to the shepherds? 

Just the other day I put myself in a very dangerous position by climbing up and down ladders onto rooftops, reaching and stretching for boxes in high up shelves in the garage. All this dangerous activity for what? Christmas is coming and Debbie had a list which I had to check twice just to make sure that I did everything on it. Today if you come by my home you will see three Christmas trees in the house, decorations both upstairs and downstairs and stockings hung over the fireplace. But is that what Christmas is about? 

We have this wonderful picture of a baby in a manger, feathery snowflakes, and soft lights all aglow over the fields, and complete Peace on earth as we all join hands around the cosmic tree singing Silent Night, not unlike the Who’s of Whosville. Not that I’m saying that that is a bad picture of Christmas, rather what I’m saying is that Jesus didn’t come into this world to make us peaceful citizens, he came to save us from sure death and the way he was to do this was by coming with a definiteness of purpose – his death for us. That is what the message the angels’ shared with the shepherds is truly about – death. More accurately it’s about Jesus coming to die. Good news of great Joy? Death? 

There was no other way to save us. He had to die, that was the only plan. You see, I was, am and always will be unacceptable to God. I came into this world a sinner, I am a sinner today and on the day that I die I will be a sinner. Out of my heart has, can and will come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, eagerness for lustful pleasure, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. All these vile things come from within; they are what defile you and make you unacceptable to God. 

Except for one amazing fact: The Lamb of God came to earth as a little baby boy, grew up to die, and took away my sins. I’m guilty of breaking the whole law when I break one, but now there is no condemnation for me, because I’m a follower of Christ Jesus. I am a sinner and a saint at exactly the same time because of the redemption that came through Jesus. That came that very first Christmas day 2000 years ago. It’s not about the deer on the lawn, rather it’s about the Lamb on the tree. 

Here’s how you keep Christ in Christmas: you celebrate him as Lord of your life and ruler of your heart, and you love even those who want to take Christmas out of the Holiday equation. Jesus didn’t come to condemn the world, but to save it (John 3:17). He came to forgive sins – mine, yours, everybody’s. 

Jesus came to seek and to save that which was lost. Let’s not let religious pride get in the way of the core message of the gospel. It’s never been us againstthem; it’s us forthem. We mustn’t forget that Jesus came to die for the very people who are trying to secularize our country. 

In our zeal to keep Christ in Christmas, let’s be careful not to go to war against the very people who need him the most – those who don’t know him – which would only serve to alienate them from a relationship with ourselves and with Jesus. People are more likely to be set on the road to salvation by loving, caring believers who are secure in the hope of the real Christ living in their lives, and whose faith is brighter than any Christmas tree

That after all is the message given to the shepherds, and to us – Good News of Great Joy! 

Should Christians Celebrate Christmas?

The debate about whether or not Christians should celebrate Christmas has been raging for centuries. There are equally sincere and committed Christians on both sides of the issue, each with multiple reasons why or why not Christmas should be celebrated.

It’s Really Paganism In A Different Skin

One argument against Christmas is that the traditions surrounding the holiday have origins in paganism. I spent a lot of time searching for reliable information on this topic but found it quite difficult because the origins of many of our traditions are so obscure that sources often contradict one another. Traditions like bells, candles, holly, and yuletide decorations are mentioned in the histories of pagan worship, but the use of these items in your home certainly doesn’t indicate a return to paganism.

While there are definitely pagan roots to some traditions, there are many more traditions associated with the true meaning of Christmas. Bells are played to ring out the great news, candles are lit to remind us that Christ is the Light of the world, a star is placed on the top of a Christmas tree to remember the Star of Bethlehem, and gifts are exchanged to remind us of the gifts of the Magi to Jesus, the greatest gift of God to mankind.

Even still, one of the reasons given to not celebrate the season does seem to carry weight. It seems that the day we currently celebrate the birth of Christ is connected to a pagan festival known as Saturnalia. Keep in mind that often, in these types of arguments, supposed facts are thrown around without establishing the truth behind a claim made.

Such is the case with the argument used to support pagan roots with Easter. The argument against the celebration of Easter is that the word Easter itself, and as a consequence the celebration of that holiday, comes from the worship of the goddess Ishtar. The problem however is that there is no evidence to support that claim, they are just two words that sound similar and so has entered into a kind of ‘Christian urban legend’ as though it was a piece of factual history even though it is not. But in the case of Christmas, the claim that Christmas is connected to the pagan festival Saturnalia, is actually true – but not for the reasons most would think.

The Smoking Gun – Saturnalia

Given the connection, there are some who claim that the ancient celebration of Saturnalia is the smoking gun that proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that Christmas is pagan.

Brief history lesson: The Saturnalia holiday was a week-long Roman festival to honour the god Saturn, starting on December 17, it fell within what we now call the Christmas season. For most of history, debauchery seemed to dominate celebrations of the holiday; in fact, the word Saturnalia became synonymous with immorality and carousing.

Still, though the Christian understanding of Christmas is not about immorality and carousing, some Saturnalia customs do come across as hedonistic perversions of Christmas traditions to the modern eye. For instance, singing from house to house naked (glad we don’t do that one in Canada), feasting excessively, eating baked goods shaped like people, and exchanging bawdy gifts. The truth is that in reality, there’s good historical evidence suggesting that these events were actually reformed, absorbed, and transformed over time as a result of Christmas’ popularity overtaking that of Saturnalia, not Saturnalia customs influencing the Christmas celebrations.

I found it interesting as I did my research, that the early Christian’s motive for celebrating Jesus’ birth on December 25 was the same that inspires modern Christians and churches to hold “Fall Festivals” or “Bible Costume Parties” on October 31. In other words, to provide a spiritually positive alternative to what is perceived as a pagan celebration. Back then, over time as the Roman Empire ‘Christianized’, customs associated with Saturnalia were ‘cleaned up’ and absorbed into the celebration of Christmas.

And it wasn’t just Saturnalia – another Roman holiday, Sol Invictus, was also gradually absorbed by Christmas. Sol Invictus (“Invincible Sun”) celebrated, on December 25, the renewing of the Sun King and was linked to the winter solstice.

It’s no secret then that the date, traditions, and long-term history of Christmas are connected to the pagan holidays of Saturnalia and Sol Invictus. Yet, like a modern Canadian family celebrating a harvest festival and dressing up like a bible character or great reformer of the past on October 31, it’s the people celebrating who decide what the celebration means. Early Christians chose December 25 as the day to celebrate the birth of Jesus and that decision of theirs continues to this day. So, though Christmas and Saturnalia may be historical neighbours with indirect connections, they are not the same holiday, never were, and of course never will be.

Since We Don’t See December 25th In The Bible, We Shouldn’t Celebrate Christmas On That Day 

Furthering the debate are those who point to the fact that the Bible doesn’t give us the date of Christ’s birth – which is certainly true. December 25th may not be even close to the time Jesus was born, and arguments on both sides are legion, some relating to climate in Israel, the practices of shepherds in winter, and the dates of Roman census-taking. While none of these points are without a certain amount of conjecture, the fact remains that the Bible doesn’t tell us when Jesus was born. Some see this as proof positive that God didn’t want us to celebrate the birth, while others see the Bible’s silence on the issue as tacit approval.

Christmas Has Become A Worldly Celebration, So We Should Avoid It As A ‘Set Apart’ People

Finally, some say that because the world celebrates Christmas – though it is becoming more and more politically correct to refer to it as “the holidays”- Christians should avoid it. But let me point out that’s the same argument made by cults that deny Jesus altogether, as well as cults such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses who deny his deity. I personally see the occasion of Christmas as an opportunity to proclaim Christ as “the reason for the season” among the nations, including those trapped in cults.

Ultimately, there’s no legitimate scriptural reason not to celebrate Christmas, while at the same time, no biblical mandate to celebrate it. So, in the end, whether or not to celebrate Christmas really comes down to a personal decision. Whatever you decide to do regarding Christmas, your (or my) views should not be used as a club to beat down or denigrate those with opposing views, nor should either view be used as a badge of honour inducing pride over celebrating or not celebrating. As in all things, we seek wisdom from God who gives it liberally to all who ask (James 1:5) and accept one another in Christian love and grace, regardless of our views.

What Is The True Spirit Of Christmas?

It doesn’t take very long to notice that Christmas is only one week away (unless you don’t own a radio, TV, have no friends and never step a foot outside your door). Everywhere you look you can’t help but see the lights, decorations, and store front signs declaring great deals to entice the dollars out of one’s pocket in order to ‘help’ celebrate the spirit of Christmas.

But what is the spirit of Christmas – really? Is it about turkey and stuffing? Is it about presents and family? Is it about time off from work and the start of the World Junior Hockey tournament? Go Canada! Or is it something more?

If you asked the average person on the street, you may hear answers such as the spirit being about generosity, giving, kindness, world peace, or that it’s a general feeling of emotional goodness to everyone at least once in the year.

I don’t know if I’d necessarily disagree with any of those sentiments but I would have to say that they have only given a glimpse into the true spirit of Christmas. That’s because I believe it’s all about a gift from God which includes parts of those other answers but is so much more as well.

I really think that because the nativity story has become so familiar to many of us it’s easy to forget how profound this gift from God really is. We receive Christmas cards that contain simple, yet startling phrases that should help us recapture the awe of this season yet often they don’t because we have become so used to them, so much so that they’ve lost their impact.

It can be so easy for us to throw around words without taking the time to explain or understand their importance. Words like Emmanuel which means “God with us.” Do we really understand what that means? We sing songs with that word in them, we read cards that use that word, but do we really understand the meaning? Emmanuel literally means, “God is with us”.

That name tells us something amazing about God. He is not some distant deity separated from our daily struggles; rather he uses that name to tell us a very special & deeply meaningful message. What is that message?

Well… if you were to ask me, “Steve, what is your favourite Christmas passage?” I would have to say that other than the Luke passage it’d have to be the chapter three passage that’s found in John’s Gospel, and more specifically the following verse. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whosoever believes in him will not perish but will instead have eternal life.” – John 3:16

John is saying that the creator of the cosmos is deeply interested in us, much like a father getting down on his knees to be with his kids on their level. That’s the picture we have in John 3:16 – God bending down and leaning into our lives as he offers the most incredible Christmas gift to us, his kids.

That’s the meaning behind the name Emmanuel. God is with us and keenly interested. He’s with us when we’re lonely or afraid or hurting or worried, even when we’re stuck in our sins. Emmanuel captures the essence of Christmas. In fact, the spirit of Christmas is really the infinite becoming an infant.

The back story to Christmas is that there had been a broken relationship. In the beginning of the human narrative, Adam & Eve broke the one relationship that meant anything, that all other relationships stemmed from – a relationship with God.

There obviously needed to be a reconciliation. Reconciliation entails the coming together of two parties in order to make right what went wrong in the relationship.

The truth of the matter is that our relationship with God was broken, but not because God said the wrong things, or did the wrong things. Rather, it was we who said and did the wrong things. And we’re still saying the wrong things, doing the wrong things, failing to say and do the right things. And we’re all suffering for it. And it all stems from our selfish desires.

If we are honest with ourselves, we know that we live for self. You can call it selfishness, but I like Luther’s way of talking about it – in Latin. Not because I understand Latin, but because it just sounds cool! “Sin”, Luther says, “is INCURVATUS IN SE”, which means ‘to be curved in upon the self’.

The rupture in our relationship with God occurs when we decide that we are independent, autonomous individuals who are quite capable of living life on our own, thank you very much.

And because of that decision we work to make all of life curved in upon self, such that we are holding up our own little world like little Atlases of Greek myth fame. Problem is however that our personal globes are getting very heavy, because our little worlds are too much for us to bear.

If that is where you are at, finding that the weight of your world on your shoulders is much too heavy a burden to bear, then this Christmas I invite you to accept the message of the season.

The message that the baby Jesus came for all who recognize that they are tired of living INCURVATUS IN SE, and who realize that they can’t continue carrying the weight in their own strength and so are now ready to give up all that load they carry and give it to someone (Jesus) who can and will carry it for them if you give up everything for him.

The spirit of Christmas is a proclamation of good news of great joy from God that tells us that we don’t have to live for ourselves anymore and that we don’t need to carry that heavy weight any longer.

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”  – Isaiah 9:6

Here’s the amazing thing. You see, according to the word of God, we are all sinners which means that left on our own, we would never have sought God because we never would have understood him and would never have recognized him, so he had to come looking for us. That is the inescapable conclusion of the Christmas story.

The Christmas story is about God tracking us down, each and every one of us, to find us and reveal himself to us because he wanted us to know him. Christmas is God coming to us, entering our world, stepping into our time and space because we couldn’t get to him.

He wanted us to know the depth of his love for us, but because words weren’t enough, he came to be with us by taking the form of man, incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ – the Prince of Peace. And as the Prince of Peace we can finally be reconciled with God the father and enjoy peace with him as we were originally created to enjoy.

Over the coming days, focus on and celebrate who Jesus is and all that his coming means. His miraculous birth was the start of something that history will never repeat. And as we are heading toward Christmas day at the end of this very week,  let us focus on the spirit of Christmas – which is only Jesus, which is always Jesus.

Does Christmas Have Pagan Roots And Should That Matter?

A friend recently told me that she and her family don’t celebrate Christmas because it began as a pagan holiday. Is that ‘pagan root’ thing true and if it is, does that mean that we all shouldn’t celebrate Christmas? What is the truth of the matter?

Personally, I look forward to the season. I see it as a natural opportunity to share Christ with the world – especially given that for the most part there is an ‘openness’ to the gospel message during this time of the year like no other time on the calendar. But still, does my friend have a legitimate point? Was the event we now call Christmas originally a “pagan holiday”?

Does it mean then that the gifts we exchange are to be shunned because some Druid somewhere in time offered a gift to his goat as part of some pagan ritual? And does that mean the church should discard all of the Christmas season, along with its lights, tinsel, Christmas carol re-runs and increasing commercialism?

There is no doubt that some of what we now refer to as Christmas traditions can be traced back, in some form, to pagan cultures and celebrations. In fact, December 25, which Christians now herald as Jesus’ birthday, was actually the date on which the Romans celebrated the birth of the sun god.

After the Roman emperor Constantine ‘converted’ to Christianity at the Milvian Bridge in 312, he combined the worship of the sun god with worship of Christ. Many of the Christian leaders at that time accepted Constantine’s conversion in a positive light, irrespective of whether he was sincere or converted for political purposes, and seized on the opportunity to celebrate the “Christ-mass” as a vital part of the process of converting the pagan world.

But even long before Constantine, Christians found ways to redeem local cultures and salvage elements in those cultures that naturally pointed to Christ, whether Hebrew, Syrian, Greek, or Roman. They denounced inhumane pagan practices, but at the same time took over pagan temples and converted them to churches. They replaced the old gods in popular devotion with heroic martyrs of the persecutions. And they replaced the holy days of paganism with festivals of the Christian year.

An example could be the early pagan ritual of lighting candles to drive away the forces of cold and darkness. The Christians of the time adopted that tradition making it their own. Today, is it highly unlikely that our hearts are drawn to those early pagans as we light our candles, rather we rejoice in our Saviour, the Light of the World as John speaks to in his gospel.

“In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.” – John 1:4

As for the Druid offering a gift to his goat. I think it’s safe to say that instead of giving any credence to the history of idolatry, we instead remember, as we should, the gifts given to the Christ-child by the Magi. Jesus was the greatest gift ever given, and therefore his birth is worthy of celebration and gifts worthy to be shared as a symbol of God’s giving heart.

Facts are however, that the beginnings of many Christmas traditions are so obscure that reference books and internet sites contradict one another on the details. Some of our most popular and beloved Christmas symbols are in fact entirely Christian, and were never part of any pagan religion anywhere. At the same time, some Christmas traditions undoubtedly do have their origins in the pagan past.

So, what do we do – or not do? If you are like my friend and are fully convinced that you cannot, in good conscience, observe a particular Christmas tradition, then please, by all means do not observe it. If you are fully convinced that a particular tradition is too steeped in paganism to honour God in any way, by all means forsake that tradition. At the same time, if you are fully convinced that you can honour and worship God through a particular tradition, then please honour and worship God.

I believe that this is an example where the Romans 14 passage applies. One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” – Romans 14:5

In the end, what is important is not the origins of traditions, but their significance to us today as believers in the Son of God. For Christians, we celebrate because of the significance seen in the birth of our Saviour, and the traditions remind us of that momentous event that changed the world forever.

But more importantly, the traditions we share help tell the Christmas story about God tracking us down to find us and reveal himself to a sin filled world because he wanted us to know him. Words weren’t enough and so he came to be with us because we could not get to him. He took the form of man, incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ and lived among us to show us a better way.

Image that, God came as a baby who grew to be a man and walked, talked and fellowshipped with humanity in the person of Jesus – the prince of peace. And as the Prince of Peace we can finally be reconciled with God the father and enjoy peace with him as we were originally created to enjoy.

One final thought. December 25 was not mentioned in the biblical narrative as the day Jesus was born, and, as such, we can’t be dogmatic about it one way or the other. But even if the date is completely wrong, there is still the opportunity for thousands of people who wouldn’t go to church any other time of the year to go on Christmas day and hear the gospel of Christ.

That should count for something I think. That being the case…

Let the celebration begin!