(November 25, 2019) Dr Jim McClure, straight shooting theologian, shares …
Christmas is almost with us again. Most people enjoy the season but you will always find some people who will mutter and complain about it.
One of the most famous is Ebenezer Scrooge, a character who was invented by Charles Dickens in his book A Christmas Carol. Scrooge was a man who had a cranky and very negative outlook on life and his disapproval of Christmas was expressed in the words, ‘Bah! Humbug!’
And I’ve met some Christians over the years whose attitude to Christmas is very ‘Scroogeish’ (if that is a word). What pops into your mind when you hear the word ‘Christmas’?
The Christmas atmosphere
There are so many things that we associate with Christmas today. Obviously we can’t avoid the secular interpretation of Christmas with Santa Claus and the Christmas tree and lights and presents (many of which we don’t particularly want) and all the other associated secular trappings.
I have to admit that I quite enjoy all that even though most of it bears little resemblance to the real significance of the event. And I also have to admit that, having grown up in the Northern Hemisphere, in Ireland and then ministering in England, where Christmas is a mid-winter celebration, I miss that kind of Christmas atmosphere.
But as Christians the first thing, and the most important thing, we associate with Christmas is the coming of Jesus because that’s what it is really all about. And so –
- the birth of Jesus in a stable and lying in the manger
- Mary and Joseph and the shepherds gazing in awe at the newborn child
- Visit of the wise men to the infant Jesus (although the timing is actually off by a couple of years)
- Christmas carols
– these are all images that readily spring to mind. And all have an important role to play.
Now the surprising thing is that in the early church Christmas was not celebrated as a Christian festival. I don’t mean that the first Christians didn’t believe that Jesus, God’s Son, was born in a stable in Bethlehem. Of course they did!
But in the first couple of centuries ‘Christmas’, as a festival, did not exist. And in the early writings of leading Christians who wrote about the Christian faith, there are no references to the celebrating of Jesus’ birth while there are many references to celebrating his atoning death and glorious resurrection. In fact, about 20 years after the ascension of Jesus, Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth, ‘Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us keep the festival’ (1 Corinthians 5:7-8).
A treasure of extreme importance
So why was the birth of Jesus not celebrated as a festival? I’m sure that part of the reason was that no one was really sure of the exact date on which Jesus was born, although after a few centuries the church settled on two possible dates – the 25th December or the 6th January (although both dates are probably wrong!). Eventually, almost 300 years after Jesus was born, people began to celebrate his birth in mid-winter.
But I want you to understand this – although Jesus’ birth was not celebrated as a calendar event in the early church, it was nevertheless treasured as an event of supreme importance. Some scholars suggest that what Paul wrote in Philippians 2:6-11 was an early Christian hymn. It could have been. Notice the reference to Jesus’ birth that Paul expressed in these words in –
‘Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.’
So as Christmas was not celebrated as a ‘festival’ in the early church, should we celebrate it today? My answer is, ‘Yes! Absolutely yes!’
A uniquely indescribable gift!
Because the birth of Jesus Christ is uniquely wonderful. Nothing like this had ever happened before or since! One can almost hear the breathless wonder of Paul as he wrote about Jesus ‘being in very nature God … being made in human likeness.’ How opposite these two statements appear to be but they become real in the person of Jesus Christ.
Did Paul ignore the significance of the birth of Jesus? He most certainly did not! Did Paul celebrate the birth of Jesus? He most certainly did. Because to Paul the birth of Jesus Christ was an integral part of the divine plane of salvation.
And I believe that as Christians living in today’s increasingly secular and God-rejecting world we need more clearly to affirm and, more exuberantly, rejoice in the Christian message of the birth of Jesus Christ our Lord.
When I reflect on his birth, I find that it can only be explained by using superlative adjectives. I would describe the true Christmas event as –
- And indescribable!
No ‘Bah. Humbug!’ here but a joyful ‘Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!’ (2 Corinthians 9:15).
Dr Jim McClure, author of several books such as the enlightening Grace Revisited and Bible study series, welcomes questions from Christians seeking enlightenment on biblical perspectives.
Grace Revisited is highly recommended – as are Looking for Answers in a Confusing World, Overview of the Old and New Testaments, Love, Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage, The Masonic Deception, Word of Life in the Old and New Testaments and Interpreting the Letter of James. All are available in electronic version in EPUB, Kindle and PDF formats with hyperlinks and offered free. Link for orders and questions: firstname.lastname@example.org