Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A Brief Rant on "The First Christmas"

I typically try to keep my posts more substantive and edifying, but I need some outlet for a brief bit of nit-picking.

I am an annoying stickler for language. I understand the annoyance others experience, but remain nonetheless undeterred. Why? Words create perceptions. It's axiomatic. Just ask a drunkard if he'd prefer to be called an "alcoholic," or whether an adulterer would prefer to refer to his "affair," or (as has recently been highlighted) whether Mormons would rather be described as cult-members or "Latter-Day Christians." Words create perceptions, which is why we should choose ours carefully.

With that in mind, I am unnerved by the unrelenting references to "The First Christmas" or "The Story of Christmas" or "The Christmas Narrative" this time of year. You want to tell the story of Christmas? Fine. It goes something like this: Romans had a pagan celebration of the winter solstice surrounding Saturn's fertility cult that involved trees, lights, gifts, and parties - sound familiar? So, when the Roman Empire mandated Christianity to a pagan populace in the mid fourth century, they amalgamated their holidays with Christian themes and picked December 25th for the solstice turned celebration of the birth of Jesus. In contrast to the very early annual celebration of the resurrection (you know it as "Easter," better, Resurrection Sunday), Christians never celebrated the incarnation until this point. Later, around the 11th century, it was dubbed "Christmas," which is from "The Christ Mass." Yep, the Mass.

And that is the "story of Christmas" or "the first Christmas" or "the Christmas narrative." The plain fact is that the "first Christmas" was held hundreds of years after our Lord Jesus had died on the cross and ascended into heaven. Are there Roman Catholic priests or altars in Luke 2? Do any of the Gospels give a recounting of the Mass? Was Jesus born anywhere near the month of December? If the answer to all these (and other) questions is "No," then quit referring to the birth of our Lord as "Christmas"!

Now, before I am hastily labeled a hopeless curmudgeon, I would direct you to explicit proof to the contrary: the 7ft tree in my living room. Truth be told, I love the lights and the trees and my wife's pumpkin pies (with extra homemade whip cream on top!). But what does it have to do with the humiliation of our Lord Jesus, who became poor for our sakes, took the form of a bond-servant, and was born of a virgin in first century Bethlehem? Absolutely nothing.

Tell the story of Christ. Shout it from the mountaintops! And use every cultural opportunity to declare that all people everywhere must repent before Jesus or be judged by Him (Acts 17:30-31). Just please quit referring to His coming as "Christmas." It's confusing. People have no idea what trees and parties and gifts have to do with the Savior of the world, and because we sinners prefer the former to Jesus Himself, the real meaning of His incarnation is quickly lost in a sea of twinkling lights.

It's not the "First Christmas," it's the coming of the Savior. It is not the "Christmas Narrative," it is the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is not the "Story of Christmas," it is the good news of the Son of Man who came to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many.

The last thing you ever want to do is confuse people about Jesus.


  1. woah, did you really hit "publish" on this? Wow, you go, Steve :-)

    You know you've got some "amen's" goin' on over here. It's the incarnation, and it should be celebrated 24/7. To reduce it to red and green packages tied up with string is sacrilege.

  2. Thanks, Sharon. Well, I did title it "rant," so I figured that covered necessary due diligence.

    I celebrate and enjoy Christmas as a cultural holiday, just like I celebrate Labor Day, Fourth of July, or even Thanksgiving, last week (except for the Niners' horrendous showing, it was a great day).

    And I think we should take the opportunity of this month to speak with people about the Gospel since they do so unwittingly. Concerts and events aimed to evangelize are fine.

    But I just really want Christian teachers and authors (who frankly should know better) to quit referring to the coming of our Lord and Savior as "Christmas."

    So, that's the platform I'm running-on into 2012. Let the race begin!

  3. Great entry Steve, most entellegent (take THAT you curmudgeons out there!)

    I have but one SLIGHT reservation for holding out for the traditional 25th Christmas YEARLY celebration...and no, it's not because it allows me and the Mrs. to enjoy yet another viewing of the Elf movie...

    Christmas fulfills NT prophesy. In Luke 2:48 Mary says,

    "for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed.."

    Big disclaimer: I'm not celebrating Mary in this. She is not the primary reason for the season. Jesus is. All I'm saying is, how interesting it is that amid all the hype, even coming from various parts of Rome, the Lukan prophesy is coming to pass. Thus Mary's name is so preserved in history because of how she was blessed in carrying the Messiah in her virgin womb. It seems Christmas, in a strange way, keeps this 2000 year old prediction repeatedly fulfilled for EVERY generation.

    Wow. Praise God for His Infallibility Word.

    Jon Szabo

  4. Thanks, Jon, interesting thoughts. My Reformed Radar buzzes a bit when we hint at the Papist idolatry of Mary fulfilling "blessed" in Luke 2:48 - I doubt Mary would like the "props" she receives from Roman Catholicism - but I think I understand what you're saying.

    By the way, we're Elf devotees too - "Buddy the Elf, what's your favorite color?" We'll have to get together for a screening sometime.

    Thanks, brother!

  5. Thanks Steve, We Shall. Sorry about the bad spelling mistakes...Live on Buddy!

  6. May I use your blog to offer up my own perspective on this topic? : )
    As a student of hermeneutics, wouldn’t you agree that context is king, especially historical-grammatical, context? Trying to reclaim the original meaning of the word “Christmas” is like trying to reclaim the word “cool” to mean anything other than “less than cold”. People will just look at you funny.
    In no time in my 40 years of life (that’s right, 4-0), except in the last few years when this topic is discussed again, have I understood Christmas to mean anything but a celebration of the birth of Christ, not some pagan celebration of the winter solstice or Catholic counter movement. My point being that when people hear the word Christmas, they do no associate it with some pagan ritual holiday or the fact that Christmas was actually never celebrated until the Catholics invented it. They may have back then, but today I think people associate the word Christmas with the birth of Christ. Ask any pagan on the street what Christmas means to them and most will say either it’s a time to celebrate family, peace, Black Friday, Cyber Monday. Ask pagans or Christians why Christians celebrate it, they would more than likely say “the birth of Christ”, not some pagan holiday or Catholic secular cultural counter-movement. The fact that you included in your post a little bit of history on the origins of Christmas proves my point: you may have felt we needed a reminder because we had forgotten Christmas’ origins. We have! If fact, most people don’t even know this history. None but a few cringe when they hear the word Christmas used to refer to the birth of Christ.
    Let me offer this suggestion: I think more confusion today results when unbelievers find Christians NOT celebrating Christmas or when they try to remind people of its origins (peace, brother). “Huh? Isn’t this the time of year you guys celebrate the birth of Christ?” they’ll say. Hear me out: I am not arguing that Christians ought to celebrate Christmas or not care about words and language; that is up to their conscience and priorities. My point here is that the culture assumes this is more “our holiday”, not some pagan ritual or Catholic secular cultural counter-movement. So yes, “use every cultural opportunity to declare that all people everywhere must repent before Jesus or be judged by Him”.
    This may have been a worthy discussion hundreds of years ago (as I am sure it was), but today? I’m gettin’ funny looks already. : ) I think you have a stronger argument if you were to argue that Christmas has come to mean “get all you can while the sales are on” than you do arguing its winter solstice pagan roots.
    Something I’m curious to hear your thoughts on is whether or not Christians should set a special day aside to celebrate the birth of Christ at all. We all agree that every day is a day to celebrate His incarnation! Yet is it inappropriate or even unbiblical to set a special day aside, specifically since Scripture gives no instruction to do so.

  7. Woah! That took up a lot of space...: )

  8. That did take up a lot of space, Matt. Would love to talk through this with you all over a festive beverage :-)

    Your observation about "confusion" over us weirdos who don't celebrate Christmas is a good one. We have non-believing family members, co-workers and friends who LOVE them some Christmas. Part of the reason we "opt-out" is to highlight the irony since our witness to the gospel is clear the other 354 days of the year.

  9. Thanks, Matt. (And again, as a caveat, our family does celebrate Christmas - of course, we also celebrate the 4th of July even though it recalls an inexcusably wicked violation of Romans 13).

    I probably wasn't clear enough in the post - it was only a "rant," after all - but the narrow point was that we should not read present-day language back into the biblical text.

    So, I concur that the confusion lay not in the history of its development (I added that to highlight that the "First Christmas" is not in the NT), but in the present-day elements and their association with our Lord. People do not understand what trees and lights and shopping have to do with Jesus - it's confusing. My own experience before becoming a Christian would be one example (but too long for a comment).

    So - to your well-put observation - when we associate Jesus with "get all you can" sales, the Gospel is lost in the melee. When unbelievers hear us say Jesus is celebrated at Christmas and in their minds Christmas = "Black Friday," I do not believe that to be helpful. So, my concern is that Christian teachers / authors should be making statements to the effect of "Luke 2 is the First Christmas" because of those unavoidable associations.

    To your last question, Matt, which is a good one - should we celebrate a holiday not prescribed in Scripture? Jesus celebrated a "non-biblical" holiday in John 10:21-22 in the "Feast of Dedication," which we know as Hanukkah. So there may be some precedent. Whether that should mark the corporate and public worship of the Church is another issue that I'll leave for now.

    Historically, Christians never celebrated the birth of Christ until the later blossoming of Roman Catholicism around the 11th century (largely a "not good" development in church history, to be sure). Now, this is sharply contrasted with the celebration of Easter (Resurrection Day) very early in the Church - the standardization of which was set at the Council of Nicaea (4th cent.). I find this contrast enormously telling - without the Resurrection, the Incarnation is just a miraculous event. Notice how even in Phil 2:5-8, one of the most salient texts on the Incarnation, it is inextricably linked to Jesus' death and resurrection. This is a rebuke to the usual trajectory of this season, where emotions are stirred over a baby in the manger. But that is not the same as exalting the cross at Calvary - which was the whole point(see Mat 20:28). Only by acknowledging both, do we grasp any sense of meaning for either.

    In fact, most would probably be surprised to know that Protestant Christians did not begin to celebrate Christmas until the early 1900's (yes, barely 100 years ago!). It was largely an economic / marketing scheme by the development of the (new) department stores. For most of our heritage, Christmas was derided as Catholic mysticism and sinful indulgence. It's actually kind of funny that we lament how Christmas has "devolved" into indulgence, when really that has been the story of Christmas from the get-go. It has not devolved as much as it has remained what it has always been.

    Again, thanks, Matt. I think I have successfully exceeded your comment (one of the attorney's I interned at said the lawyer who files the most paper work wins!), but I hope it is helpful. I certainly have no intention of binding anyone's conscience, but I want to raise questions about how we speak about Jesus to the world - always an important issue. Press on, brother.

  10. Thanks, Sharon. Though our families differ in our practice, we share the same theory here.

    I especially like your statement "to highlight the irony" - that is an element of evangelism that the Church has seemed to have lost. We try so hard to relate to others for the sake of the Gospel (which is not inherently bad), that we too often forget that non-relating to others for the Gospel is just as (if not more) powerful. I believe, we need to "highlight" our separation more than we do.

    This comes up frequently, I observe, in relation to worship on the Lord's Day. For example, Christians often do not attend corporate worship because they have non-Christian family / friends visiting, and they want to spend time with them. Now, I do not impugn the motives of such believers in anyway. However, what would be more impacting for the sake of the Gospel to your unbelieving family / friends? Telling them, in effect, that you're going to skip the worship of Jesus because they are in your home or telling them that you're going to worship Jesus irrespective of who's in your home becuase He is worth more than any?

    We need to ask ourselves these questions more often - in evangelism, do we relate or separate? Both have their place.

  11. Love the discussion! If I were sitting with each one of you separately, I think I'd agree with each wholeheartedly, LOL. Good points all around.

    Personally, I think whatever angle you spin on Christmas/not-Christmas, God will use you to glorify Himself. He's so "cool" like that :)

  12. He's absolutely cool like that! SDG.

    It's almost like:

    6 He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God. 7 For not one of us lives for himself, and not one dies for himself; 8 for if we live, we live for the Lord, or if we die, we die for the Lord; therefore whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s (Rom 14:6-8).

    In "Humbug!" or "Ho ho!" we are the Lord's!