Every year I'm asked whether we even should be celebrating Christmas. The questions seem to center on a few key points:
- Jesus wasn't born December 25.
- His birth wasn't exactly as pictured in our nativity scenes.
- We are not commanded to celebrate Christmas, and there is no evidence that the apostles did so.
- There is a pagan connection, even a possible pagan origin, of some of our Christmas traditions.
"Jesus wasn't born December 25."
The date we celebrate, in my opinion, doesn't really matter. Is there any way to know what day Jesus was born? Not really. Yes, based on our Scriptural evidence Jesus was likely born in late fall. But since we don't have a Scripture that gives a precise date, I don't think God is going to hold it against us if we celebrate on a different day. In the U.S., society for the most part comes to a screeching halt one day of the year. What day is that? Dec. 25. (Sure there are things still open, but Wal-Mart even closes down - that says a lot!) So, since I live in this culture, I celebrate Dec. 25 as Christmas Day. If I lived in Eastern Europe where Orthodox tradition prevails, I would celebrate Jan. 7. I believe this falls under Paul's admonition to the Romans regarding the Sabbath:
"One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. each person must be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord..." (Rom. 14:5-6a)"His birth wasn't exactly as pictured in our nativity scenes."
No, it wasn't. The stable was likely a cave, the wise men came later to a house, and there's no reason to assume the animals were looking on with awe. For artistic purposes, the nativity combines all the elements of shepherds and wise men into one. It reflects the heart of the stories of the shepherds and wise men: Worship. They came to worship Jesus. The central point of any nativity is the Babe in the manger. Our scene is a cultural adaptation to our understanding of mangers, from our days as a primarily agricultural society. If Jesus had come to 1700s America, the manger would have looked a lot like the ones we see in the nativities. That's why nativities around the world can look different; they have different perspectives when they approach Scripture. God didn't include pictures, because that wasn't the point. He wanted us to see the worship that took place. So I proudly get out the nativity every year, display at work (in my personal workspace) until my vacation begins, then set it up under the tree. I never fail to get comments on it from Christians and non-Christians alike. There is something about the scene that draws people.
Having said that, I do think it's good to educate the church about which elements of that scene are cultural or aritistic and which are Biblical. Just like watching "The Passion of the Christ" involved a understanding that we were seeing an artistic representation of Mary, and Satan, and the Via Dolorosa ... so viewing a nativity should involve an educated understanding of what lies behind the display. I've even had great conversations with people at work pointing out where Scripture differs from the nativity scene. It's a great way to open dialogue and discuss the heart of the nativity, which is worship.
We are not commanded to celebrate Christmas, and there is no evidence that the apostles did so.
True enough. We are also not commanded to drive cars to church, wear shoes year-round, eat hamburgers, or have a blog. :) I'm pretty sure the apostles did none of those things. The point here is that a lack of a command does not imply the opposite - that it is forbidden. Scripture is written to be valid for ALL people in ALL places and ALL eras. As a result, there are going to be things we have to assess within our culture and determine their place in the larger principles of Scripture. In this case, the question is are we observing it "for the Lord", or is He a veneer for our selfish nature? I thoroughly believe we have to be very intentional to avoid merely allowing Him to be our excuse for a month of gluttony and selfishness.
In our family we have taken some very deliberate steps over the years to make sure we focus on HIM. Each year I ask God to give me a new insight about His birth ... a new way to KNOW Him. We celebrate Advent (a lost tradition among many Protestants, but one that is worth reconsidering) by reading a Scripture every day and lighting a candle with a specific Scriptural focus each Sunday and Christmas night. This season is similar to Lent in that it prepares us for Christmas Day. By the time we get to read the entire Luke 2 Christmas story, I can hardly wait! Additionally, we make sure to purchase Christ-centered cards, include cross-shaped ornaments, and choose movies that are honoring to Him. We say Merry Christmas and listen to Christmas worship music. We enjoy finding inexpensive or homemade gifts - it's fun to see how little we can spend on Christmas gifts. This year we started a diet on Dec. 12 - that's a good way to keep from letting Christmas be a good excuse for gluttony! Giving to others is good any time of the year, but certainly is a great way to fight selfishness. The point isn't so much about what we do - it's that we, like anyone, have to be intentional in the face of commercialism and opportunities for greed.
There is a pagan connection, even a possible pagan origin, of some of our Christmas traditions.
Sure there is. There is also a connection of organ music to bars; overhead projectors were used for movies way before they were used in the church; and American Christians used to sing only the Psalms before someone started giving Christian lyrics to secular songs. The Gospel came in and changed a lot of things in a lot of places in the world. In every culture, when the Gospel comes and people choose to follow Jesus, they'll look around at their society and see things to embrace without reservation, things to reject utterly, and things that have potential if redeemed "for the Lord". For example: African congo drums can without reservation be a part of worship. There is no command to do so, but Africans can freely use their cultural drumbeats for His glory. On the other hand, the cannibalism of the Auca tribe (that killed Jim Eliot and friends) had to be thoroughly rejected. There is just no positive way to bring murder into a Christian worldview! And a lot of things have potential if redeemed "for the Lord" ... such as the organs that were popular in bars in the 1800s that made their way into churches.
The question to ask is the purpose for each element ... and we can't ask that of anyone other than ourselves. We have a tree, and lights, and decorations, to lavishly show love and honor to the One whose birth we are celebrating. We give gifts to show others that they are more important than ourselves and that they are important to God. We bake and sing and act silly as a family to honor an institution that God Himself set up, and we spend time together as a couple to strengthen our marriage to reflect that picture of Christ and the church. It goes on and on ... and it's been a very personal process along the way.
Christmas is under attack by the world for a reason. As Christians, we can either pick up stones or embrace the opportunity to keep a day set apart to honor Jesus' birth. If we choose to keep Christmas, we certainly will face challenges and have to make some hard choices. We can't compromise its meaning or hide our worship. We can't give in to the world's ways of commercialism and greed and gluttony. But we can find ways to honor Christ's birth and observe it "for the Lord."
That's why I celebrate Christmas.