Celebrating God's Incarnation
Celebrating God’s Incarnation
The views about Christians celebrating Christmas and Advent seem to proliferate in today’s deconstructionist and post-modern world. I don’t pretend to have the final word, but my desire here is to encourage one another in the freedom Christ gives us to celebrate, or not, without feeling judged or being judgmental.
1. I firmly believe the choice of whether or not to celebrate is up to you, my fellow child of God.
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. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. (Romans 14:5–6, NIV)
Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. (Colossians 2:16-17, NIV)
You see, celebrating or not celebrating is not the issue. Rather, God is concerned with the attitude or our hearts. After all, even from before Jesus, the prophet Isaiah condemned the way the Jews had been celebrating God’s appointed feasts (Isaiah 1:14-15). We have freedom, but it is to be used to glorify God, not to please ourselves or cause others to stumble (Gal 5:13, 1 Peter 2:16, 1 Corinthians 8:9).
2. There is some really poor teaching out there tying Christmas to a celebration based on pagan ideals. Motivations of teachers who advocate this perspective likely vary - to discredit Christianity, their own superiority (spiritual pride}, jealousy of our joy and freedom, or even possibly well meaning attempts to please God, but which have the effect of instituting (or re instituting) commands that Jesus Himself came to fulfill or remove. Those holding these contrarian views will need to answer for themselves. What I mostly can say is that such views are divisive and often separate rather than unite believers, which is a big deal to God (see Romans 1-2, 1 Corinthians 1, Ephesians 4:1-6).
I will contend that an honest review of history should make it clear that Christmas is not a replacement for a pagan holiday - with two such "candidates" noted in the following:
Saturnalia (Babylonian and Roman Holiday)
An agricultural festival (“satus” means sowing) celebrating the end of autumn planting season, dating in Roman records from as early as 217 BC.
The festival grew in duration and moved to progressively later dates.
Initially, a 2-day event staring December 17, eventually stretching to 7 days and straddling the winter solstice (Dec 20-21).
Roman calendar changes moved the climax of week long festival to December 25th.
Sol Invictus (Roman Holiday)
This Roman festival was evidently incorporated into the earlier Saturnalia cult.
The Emperor Aurelius first declared this holiday in 274 AD. Initially, it was not universally accepted, but grew in importance over the following century.
Rather than being replaced by Christmas after Constantine’s conversion in 312 AD (and eventual adoption of Christianity as the state religion in 325 AD), it was still being celebrated in the late 4th century alongside Christmas.
Christmas (Christian Holiday)
A single day event on December 25, which is 3 or 4 days after the solstice.
Had it been the desire to replace Saturnalia/Sol Invictus, Christmas would either be earlier, be on the solstice itself or last for more than just 1 day. (NOTE: The ancients were quite adept at identifying celestial events and had it been their desire to mark the time of Christ’s birth with such a heavenly event, this 3-4 day “mistake” is unfathomable).
In 202 AD, some 70 years before Sol Invictus, December 25 is referenced as a celebration of Christ’s birth by Hippolytus of Rome in his Commentary on Daniel:
“For the first advent of our Lord in the flesh, when he was born in Bethlehem, eight days before the kalends of January [December 25th], the 4th day of the week [Wednesday], while Augustus was in his forty-second year, [2 or 3 BC] but from Adam five thousand and five hundred years. He suffered in the thirty third year, 8 days before the kalends of April [March 25th], the Day of Preparation, the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar [29 or 30 AD], while Rufus and Roubellion and Gaius Caesar, for the 4th time, and Gaius Cestius Saturninus were consuls.”
The selection of December 25 as Christ’s birthday is based on a Jewish tradition known as the “integral year”, which held that prophets of God were conceived and died on the same date. Since it is known that Jesus died on March 25, this theory would have meant he was conceived on that date 33 years earlier. Adding a normal 9-month gestation period yields his birth on December 25. As explained by Augustine:
“For He is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also He suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which He was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which He was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before nor since. But He was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th.”
The Roman Empire officially instituted the holiday of Christmas in 354 AD. However, based on the foregoing, this was only recognizing what Christians had already understood to be Christ’s birthday for at least a century and a half. (This political decision should be seen much as the process in which a society and its leaders select what holidays are important to celebrate to support the values and ideals of their society.)
Unsurprisingly, the ancients always celebrated solar and lunar events since they were of great importance to their understanding of seasons and agricultural cycles. In fact, as the Hebrew Bible clearly shows, even God set up festivals to coincide with lunar cycles to help mark the times. Rather it seems the pagans observed God's handiwork, but misdirected their worship to heavenly bodies or creatures instead of giving glory to the Creator, who created the heavens.
Furthermore, just because Christ’s birth, by tradition, falls near (but not on!) one of these celestial events, we should not assume it is a “replacement” for religious purposes. Historical documents do not give a strong indication of such motives by leaders of the day (Church or State) for selecting December 25 as Christmas. We should resist reading modern interpretations of secular/religious motivations backwards and putting words in the mouths of others which they never uttered themselves.
3. Whether there are old pagan influences and modern commercial and secular corruptions of the true meaning of Christmas are irrelevant. Just as we do not abandon the sign of God’s rainbow after the flood because others have appropriated the symbol, neither should we give up December 25th or the importance of celebrating God’s sending of His Son to save mankind as a result. God is able to redeem. Every day is a gift from Him, and He is greater than the one who is in the world trying to steal, destroy and kill. I for one will not let the devil and his willing (or even unwilling) accomplices steal the joy and peace that Jesus came to give, on Christmas or any other day
Whatever the actual calendar date of Jesus’ birth, we know this much - Nothing in Scripture forbids us from recognizing or celebrating the incarnation of God’s Son Jesus. The first Christmas was certainly celebrated. Angels showed up to tell the Shepherds, give signs to the wise men, and sing “Glory to God in the highest!” (Luke 2:13-15). Would God now actually prohibit us from doing the same, whatever the date might be?
So this Christmas celebrate, or don’t. It’s your decision and you should follow your convictions. But whichever you do, do it for God’s glory and don’t judge, look down upon, or criticize others who, in the freedom given to each of us in Christ and by His Holy Spirit, may not do it the same way or at the same time as you. And always, to God be the glory.
~ Pastor Ben