The Birth and Death of Christmas
Before Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem some two thousand years ago, the entire world was immersed in deep darkness. Only in Israel did the light dispel the darkness, but even there the light was dimmed by the traditions of men. With the rising of the Sun of Righteousness (Malachi 4:2), the Light of the World (John 1:9; 3:19; 8:12; 9:5; 12:46) dawned not only on those sitting in the darkness of Galilee (Isaiah 9:1-7), but on the whole pagan world (Colossians 1:6).
The Old Testament looked forward to the hallowing presence of God extending throughout the whole world. There would come a new covenant (Jeremiah 31:31ff.; Ezekiel 36:24ff.), and all of life would become sacred. Instead of the Levitical principle of the unclean defiling the clean (Leviticus 7:19-21; Haggai 2:12-14), a fountain for cleansing would be opened (Zechariah 13:1). From under the threshold of the temple, the river of God’s presence would flow, deeper and wider as it went, transforming all before it (Ezekiel 47:1-12). What had been inscribed on the miter of the high priest (Exodus 28:36-38), would now be inscribed on the bells of horses, and the work of mothers toiling over meals would now become as sacred as the work of the priests in the Temple (Zechariah 14:20, 21).
As the Apostles took the message of the Messiah to the Jews of the Diaspora, they had a point of contact in the Scriptures of the Old Testament. Upon arrival in a pagan city, Paul sought out the gatherings of the Jews on their Sabbath (Acts 13:14; 16:13; 17:2). Then he would open the Scriptures and proclaim the good news of Jesus the Messiah (Acts 13:42; 18:4). Many non-Jews, hungry for more than their pagan religions offered, assembled with the Jews and were won to the Messiah of Israel (Acts 13:44).
On those occasions when there was no Jewish point of contact, Paul sought out things within the pagan world that hinted that there was more to life than what the ancient gods offered them. Even though God had given the nations over to the demonic principalities and powers (Deuteronomy 4:19, 20; 1 Corinthians 10:20; Galatians 4:8), he had done so with his treasure, Israel, in view (Deuteronomy 32:8), that in the fullness of time (Galatians 4:4) all nations might be blessed in the Seed of Abraham (Galatians 3:13-16). He did not leave himself without witness, doing good to the pagans, giving them rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, filling their hearts with food and gladness (Acts 14:16, 17). He made all nations from one and had determined their epochs and borders in order that they should seek him (Acts 17:26).
While an all-encompassing
depravity marked the whole family of man, the gnarled and broken remnant
of the divine image remained as part of the very essence of human
existence. All of humankind not only retained a basic sense of right and
wrong, their consciences bearing witness to the work of God’s moral law
on their hearts (Romans 2:14-15), but they also held a repressed
knowledge of the true God (Romans 1:18-25). Because God’s temporal
kindness extends to the whole world, pagans spoke truth, such as that
articulated by the poets Aratus, Epimenides, Cleanthes and Menander
(Acts 17:28; 1 Corinthians 15:33; Titus 1:12). It was an imperfect
thing, this pagan truth, and almost always distorted away from God and
his Word, but it formed a backdrop against which the Apostles displayed
the victory of Jesus over the dark powers.
The Apostles had the Old Testament as a model. The old Prophets had used pagan myth to proclaim the power and majesty of the one true God. What are the “gods” of chaos, the dragons of the deep, such as Tiamat (Leviathan, Rahab), compared to Yahweh (Job 9:13; 26:12; 38:8-11; Psalm 74:12ff.; 87:4; 89:10; Isaiah 30:7; 51:9; Ezekiel 29:3)?
It was in such a tradition that
Saint Paul stood one day on Mars Hill and preached the good news of the
dying and rising God to the Athenians. He took as his starting point a
pagan altar: “Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to
proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23). He began with the nugget of truth that
was implicitly preserved within their pagan worship and used that to
preach the victory of the Lord Jesus Christ.
As centuries came and went, the ancient torchbearers of the truth told the old, old story, ever adapting the timeless message to the pagan cultures around them. They pointed to the longings of sinful people—longings that could only be satisfied at the foot of a cross, in the shadow of an empty tomb. Sometimes they took objects of nature, as Saint Patrick is said to have done with the shamrock to present the nature of the one true God. Sometimes they expropriated the pagans’ own nature celebrations to present the great truths about Jesus: his virgin birth, sinless life, substitutionary death and triumphant resurrection. Schaff commented about the ancient Roman, late December festivals that were held “in honor of the sun, who in the winter solstice is, as it were, born anew and begins his conquering march. This phenomenon in nature was regarded as an appropriate symbol of the appearance of the Sun of Righteousness dispelling the long night of sin and error” [Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volume I, (Scribner’s Sons, 1916)].
It is out of that milieu where the
gospel of Christ first dispelled the demonic darkness of the ancient,
pagan world that so many things that we do as Christians have come. For
over a millennium and a half, the pagan festivals have been superseded
by those of Christ. The ancient winter festival came to point to the
incarnation of our Lord Jesus. Even though the eleventh century division
of the Church into East and West separated the day for Christmas, the
pageant itself was never dislodged, not even by the Protestant
Reformation. As he did with so much of the rest of the traditional
clutter that buried the gospel, Luther sought to refine Christmas into a
truly Christian holy day.
Calvin, too, generally the more
thoroughgoing of the two great Reformers, still kept Christmas in
Geneva, much to the consternation of the Scots, who seeing that it had
no explicit biblical warrant, banned it altogether.
Two thousand years have come and
gone since the birth of our Lord. Ever since the ancient Brumaliae were
baptized into Christmas, the believer has been confronted with the
conflict: instead of the triumphant Sun of Righteousness, the Risen
Lord, Jesus Christ, pagan humankind turns to the beatific, ever-Virgin
mother, the Queen of Heaven (Jeremiah 7:18; 44:17ff.). But ours is a
still darker time. Satan appears to have been released from the pit,
once again to deceive the nations and turn them back to their ancient
roots (Revelation 20:1-3, 7-9). The overthrow of Christian civilization
is proceeding apace, and we are reverting to our pagan roots, roots that
were soiled through with demonic things. Christ is being sanitized from
Christmas altogether, and the old pagan roots quickly rise to displace
the biblical Christ with one made according to human imagination. The
nations that once comprised Christendom will no longer tolerate the
public mention of Jesus’ name, but a supernatural figure, a fat elf,
clad in red who winks at sin and gives gifts to those who are good,
Santa Claus, is worshipped throughout the world on Christmas.
Christmas is our blessing and our curse. To the extent that we use Christmas truly to present the Lord Jesus, we follow in the footsteps of those who first brought the gospel to many of our ancestors. But it is a thing that, unbridled by Scripture, takes on a power of its own and leaves in its wake a mountain of debt, depression and debauchery.
For reflections on how my wife and I have struggled with the observance of Christmas, click here.