Why celebrate Christmas? Are you not sick and tired of the crass commercialisation of this festival? All the marketing of goods that say “buy me!” All the stressful shopping, all the food and drink, the glitzy lights, the expenditure and debt. What do we mean when we say “Happy Christmas”? Is it over indulgence and unhappy hangover?
What does this have to do with “Christ’s mass” – the Christian celebration (“mass”) of the historic birth of the “Christ” (Messiah-King)? Jesus was born as God’s promised King to save the world. Jesus (Hebrew Yeshuah) means “The Lord saves” from sin and consequential judgment. All who trust him by coming under his Kingship are saved.
How can we recover and celebrate THAT historic event, THAT message? Was Jesus really born on 25 December? When and how did contemporary Christmas originate?
Jesus’ first followers spread the good news of his birth and life, death and resurrection, by presenting their message in the cultural forms they came into contact with. E.g. they re-interpreted pagan festivals by infusing the symbols with Christian meaning to convey the good news of Jesus. There is no historic/biblical record of the date of Jesus’ birth. No one knows. The earliest record of Christmas is in the Philocalian Calendar of 354, citing its celebration on 25 December 336 in Rome. Scholars say it was the Christianization of the Roman festival of The Birthday of the Unconquered Sun: at the winter solstice (25 December) the sun began to show an increase in light. Motivated by evangelism (and political power!) the Church in Rome re-interpreted it as The Feast of the Nativity of the Sun of Righteousness: the birthday of God’s Light that drives back the darkness of sin and evil. This particular “Christ’s mass”, with the four weeks of advent added later, gained acceptance in the Christian west (Eastern Orthodox celebrate on 6 January).
And the customs/trappings of Christmas? The merry making and exchange of gifts came from the Roman Saturnalia Festival (17-24 December). Christians used it to celebrate Christ’s birth as God’s ultimate gift of himself to the world. The greenery and lights came from the Kelands of January and its solar associations (1 January, the Roman new year). Christians used these symbols to say Christ’s birth brings light and new life. Santa Claus and his reindeers derive from Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra (4th century). Little is known of him except that he brought gifts on his sled to children on his feast day, 6 December. He became the patron saint of Russia, of children and of sailors. So giving gifts to children and feeding people in need became associated with Christmas.
So then, why celebrate Christmas? Most people uncritically celebrate it as the festive season party without knowing its origin and meaning. Many Christians go the whole hog (or turkey!) with all the razzmatazz! But many are tired of the commercial hype and exploitation – an idolatry of materialist hedonism. Some Christians don’t celebrate Christmas for this reason, or because they object to the pagan origins (why the Puritans suppressed Christmas). Some “Jewish roots” Christians preach against Christmas, using Hanukah Festival of Lights (Dedication of the Temple) to celebrate Yeshuah’s birth.
And me? I choose to celebrate Christmas in keeping with the best of church tradition, with the original motivation of evangelism and service. I choose to teach and explain the origin and meaning of Christmas, and its current expression in (western) society and in the Church. I choose to lead the people I pastor into a fully aware celebration of Jesus Christ. Santa Claus, presents, lights and trees are neither here nor there, as long as one truly celebrates Christ’s birth and it’s meaning, and rejects the glitzy commercial debt-inducing drunken idolatry. The question is: how can we re-interpret the Christ event in fresh ways in our postmodern culture for evangelism and social service?
Christmas is THE good news, THE hope of the world: God became human to save us, and the planet. The Mystery of The Incarnation is that the eternal God, Creator of all things, took on flesh and blood and lived among us. Most mysterious and beautiful is the way he came: the baby of Bethlehem, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born in a stable, wrapped in cloth, laid in a feeding trough, announced by singing angels and poor shepherds. This is God! Savior-King of Israel and the nations. Light of the world. His name is Jesus.
The Catholics traditionally celebrate three masses for Christ’s birth:
1) The eternal “generating” or “begetting” of the pre-incarnate Son from the bosom of the Father by his Spirit of Love
2) The birth of Christ from the womb of Mary by the same Holy Spirit,
3) The mystical birth and formation of Christ in the soul of the believer by God’s Spirit.
The second has traditionally been used as a prototype or model of the third – Mary has been the supreme example or model of the believer, of the Church. When angel Gabriel came to young (teenage) Mary calling her “highly favored… the Lord is with you… you will be with child and give birth to Jesus, God’s Messiah-King… he will rule and reign forever”, she had one question: “how will this be since I’m a virgin?” The answer: the Holy Spirit will come on you and do what is humanly impossible. She responded in pure faith: “I am the Lord’s servant, may it be to me as you have said!” She simply believed, trusting God and his messenger. She was open to God’s wildest possibilities and service. Her life – and the world – was forever changed for good.
Think of Mary as the model of Christian discipleship. Imagine how it all happened, how God prepared her, how the Spirit came on her, how the Christ-life began in her, how his formation increasingly affected not only her body and mind, but profoundly challenged her relationships and world. Her entire life was taken over and defined by Jesus’ person and presence, by his mission in and through her into the broken world all around her.
The meaning of Christmas is that God sends his messengers with the good news that the Christ has come, born into our world through human flesh, in you and me! The young and innocent, the humble and believing, those open to God’s wildest possibilities and good service – they are the ones to whom he comes, in whom he is conceived and formed, in whom he lives and operates to save and change the world. Paul’s Christian faith was the mystical/incarnational experience of “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27). It profoundly motivated his life and ministry: “My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ be formed in you” (Galatians 4:19).
Are you open to Jesus being born in you? To the spiritual formation of his life and character in you – that will progressively take over your life – transforming you and the world around you into his image and likeness? Will you celebrate Christmas as it was intended, by offering your body, soul and spirit to God as his dwelling place, that he may share his life and shine his light into the dark world… through you?
(My sources for the historical background were biblical dictionaries, such as The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, and also Wikipedia)