The Christmas Controversy (Pt. 2)
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The Festival of the Nativity was not without controversy from the very beginning. That controversy continued through the centuries and is ongoing even today.
Let's continue our study by making some important observations and interpretations of the twelve facts I just gave you.
Point One: Though the Bible does not mention the date of Jesus’ birth, I would urge caution in drawing conclusions from silence. For instance, claiming that it is not mentioned because God doesn’t want us to celebrate Christ’s birth. The date was simply not that important to the early believers; they were far more focused on the death and resurrection of our Lord, which they commemorated in the historical and biblical context of Passover.
Point Two: To say that a festival is post-biblical is not to say necessarily that it is anti-biblical. This is an important distinction. Examples of this principle abound in Jewish tradition and in the New Testament.
For example, nowhere does the Torah (Pentateuch) prescribe that Jews should assemble in a synagogue on Shabbat, a well-established custom within Judaism during the Second Temple period and one that Jesus honors (Luke 4:16). Nor is pronouncing a blessing before a meal stipulated anywhere in the Hebrew Bible (cf. Deut 8:10). The Sages of Israel established the custom, and Jesus carried on the tradition.
Here is another example more pertinent to our discussion. Consider the winter festival of Hanukkah, which is post-biblical (to the Hebrew scriptures). It commemorates the defeat of the Syrian monarch Antiochus Epiphanes in 165 BC by a faithful band of brothers, the Maccabees. We read in the New Testament (John 10:22-23) that Jesus went up to the Temple in Jerusalem for the “Feast of Dedication” or Hanukkah. So the fact that Hanukkah is a post-biblical festival surely does not imply that it is anti-biblical.
By the way, the meaning of this festival shifted over time. In the first century, the focus of Hanukkah was on the military victory of little Israel against the mighty army of the Syrians. After the destruction of the Temple in AD 70 and following the Second Jewish revolt in AD 135, the Rabbis began to downplay the military aspects of the revolt and emphasized instead the more spiritual aspects of Hanukkah—the rededication of the Temple and the supernatural light that God provided for the Menorah. This is a good example of how a festival can shift in meaning, given changing historical circumstances and the spiritual needs of a community.
Note this point also: Hanukkah commemorates a historic event in the life of God’s people that subsequently was established as a festival in order to remember the event. This principle can be applied to the birth (and resurrection) of the Messiah. The Nativity of Jesus was a biblical event that literally changed history. Now, how we wish to commemorate it is open to question and discussion and to creative consideration, but let us at least remember the larger point.
Point Three: Many pagan practices in antiquity are parallel to—and in some cases seem to be the antecedents for—many of our contemporary customs surrounding Christmas. The evidence, however, can be tricky; causality is not always clear and alternative explanations are possible. We need to be cautious.
For example, the weeklong Roman festival of Saturnalia celebrating the war god, Saturn, began on 17 December and culminated on 25 December. During this enormously popular festival, all boundaries of morality were thrown off; drunkenness, lewdness, and licentiousness were the order of the day. Public song was a popular feature of Saturnalia—often singing through the streets in an inebriated or even undressed state. Lights, parties and lewdness were the order of the day. All of this was done in the context of the Roman winter solstice on December 25—a day of festive celebration and invocation of Sol In- victus, the Unconquerable Sun.
The Church Fathers consistently railed against the idolatry and immorality of Saturnalia. Despite their consistent condemnation of the festival, Saturnalia proved tenaciously persistent and pervasive throughout the ancient Roman world. It was both popular and widespread across the Empire.
Point Four: Eventually the Church substituted the Festival of the Nativity commemorating Christ's birth for the pagan Roman celebration of Sol Invictus. The historical record is clear on this point. What is not so obvious, however, is why. Why did the Church Fathers do this? Three factors can be noted.
(A) The date of December 25 already was under consideration as a possible candidate for the birth of Christ. The three key dates from this period—January 6, March 25, and December 25—all circulated widely and were considered relevant to the Nativity of Jesus.
(B) The Church Fathers likely chose December 25 as the Nativity Festival in order to counter paganism, not to utilize it or join into it. They wanted to turn attention away from the “Invincible Sun” toward the “Sun of Righteousness.” Malachi 4:2 was a favorite text of the early church, “But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings” (KJV). Church leaders wanted to shift allegiance away from the universal Roman affirmation, “Caesar is Lord!” to the divine disclosure that “Jesus is Lord!” They wanted people to change from immoral conduct to holy consecration.
(C) The fact that the Festival of the Nativity came to prominence in the 4th century is not a coincidence. The greatest theological and spiritual battle the Church fought was the 4th century heresy of Arianism, which nearly carried the day. What was the core issue? The divinity of Jesus as the Son of God. Was he of the same substance as the Father or only of a similar substance? Was he co-eternal with God or the first-created of all created beings?
Church councils concluded that the Incarnation—the revelation of the eternal Word in-fleshed in Jesus—was a distinctive and defining doctrine of the New Testament. The festival of the Nativity was a way to reinforce the centrality of this preeminent truth in the minds of the people. The fact that the Festival of the Nativity came to prominence in the 4th century, therefore, correlates directly with the emphasis placed on the Incarnation—that in Jesus of Nazareth God was incarnate, come for our salvation.
The Church Fathers also battled the insidious but influential Gnostics (Basilides, for example). Church leaders insisted, contra Gnosticism, that Jesus was in fact born of a woman and was fully man, not just the appearance of one. Drawing attention to his Nativity was a way of emphasizing that essential truth.
The Church in the early centuries had to counter the mere “appearance of Christ” which was the Gnostic view, and the “semi-deity of Christ” which was the Arian view. The Orthodox view was reinforced in the minds of the populace by the celebrating the Festival of the Nativity, and for that reason it became a Christian festival of paramount importance.
In part three, the final installment of The Christmas Controversy, Dwight concludes
with three helpful applications and recommendations for your celebration of incarnation.