The Christmas Controversy (Pt. 3)
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Let's continue with some important observations and interpretations of the twelve facts I gave you in the beginning. Then we'll conclude with some applications. First, let me give you points one through four again.
Point One: Though the Bible does not mention the date of Jesus’ birth, I would urge caution in drawing conclusions from silence.
Point Two: To say that a festival is post-biblical is not to say necessarily that it is anti-biblical.
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.
Point Four: Eventually the Church substituted the Festival of the Nativity commemorating Christ's birth for the pagan Roman celebration of Sol Invictus.
Point Five: Many insist that Christmas trees are inherently pagan—that they can be traced back to pagan religions that worshipped the Earth goddess and Nature, including trees. Pagan celebrants, it is claimed, brought trees into their homes and decorated them as part of their idolatry.
This last point simply is not true. They did consider the Earth sacred, especially trees, but they did not cut them down. That’s the whole point—the trees are sacred. You don't chop one down and bring it into your house! Pagans did use evergreen boughs in the context of their winter solstice celebrations, and because of these associations the Church in the third century expressly prohibited Christians from using evergreens as decorations for the Nativity.
Other critics of Christmas would take us to Jeremiah to prove that the Bible expressly forbids Christmas trees. They like the text, 10:1-4: Hear the word which the LORD speaks to you, O house of Israel. Thus says the LORD: “Learn not the way of the nations, nor be dismayed at the signs of the heavens because the nations are dismayed at them, for the customs of the peoples are false. A tree from the forest is cut down, and worked with an axe by the hands of a craftsman. Men deck it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so that it cannot move...”
In fact, Jeremiah is not talking about Christmas trees but about idols; crafted wooden idols that were adorned with silver or sometimes overlaid with silver and gold. This becomes clear if you keep reading (verses 5ff): “Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field, and they cannot speak; they have to be carried, for they cannot walk.” (NRSV)
Point Six: Symbols are powerful and important but they are not magical. We must not confuse the power of a symbol for some kind of magical force. Symbols are not absolute, with unchanging significance. Their meaning is related to context and to intentionality.
The Bible, including the Torah, is full of symbols and images. For example, God specifies images to be woven even on the curtains in front of the Holy of Holies; and the Ark of the Covenant had Cherubim, creatures apparently with human faces. So God is not opposed to the use of images per se. He is opposed to “graven images” or idolatry.
The Lord utilizes images for divine purposes. You cannot attend a Passover Seder, for instance, and not be struck by the symbolism of virtually every element in it. Or come to the Table of the Lord and not be moved by the powerful images of Messiah’s shed blood and broken body.
Symbols help define reality for us. They are powerful and important, and convey great truths. But the key to their meaning is always context and kavanah (intention). Thus the same symbol can convey a radically different reality for one person than for another.
Consider the cross. What does it mean to Christians and what does it mean to Jews? For us it is a powerful symbol of the love of God and the sacrifice of his Son on our behalf. For Jews, however, the cross is a terrible reminder of the Crusaders who bore the image upon their shields and tunics as they burnt synagogues and slaughtered innocent Jewish men, women, and children. The cross is a potent symbol of centuries of Christian persecution in the name of Christ of his own Jewish brethren. Same symbol, radically different meanings.
Symbols are powerful, but they are not magical in and of themselves. Their meaning and power are related to context and the intentionality of the user. The Bible does not hold to a magical worldview, whereby certain signs, symbols or secret words independently manipulate reality.
A case in point is found in Acts 17 when the Apostle Paul is in Athens. He uses a pagan altar to the “Unknown God” as a prop for his spiritual message about the true God. Then he quotes a Greek poet—“in him we live and move and have our being” (17:28)—to convey a profound spiritual truth. Was Paul invoking demonic forces by quoting a pagan poet or using an altar? I think not.
My point is simply this, I would dare to suggest that you are far more likely to get caught up in idolatry and indulge in paganism at the Temples of Mammon (also known as “shopping malls”) than you are sitting in your home enjoying the lights on a Christmas tree that reminds you of the Green-Tree Messiah who is altogether righteous!
I would like to close with some applications and recommendations for your prayerful consideration.
FIRST It will help your thinking to distinguish between the Nativity, which is biblical, and the Festival of the Nativity, which is post-biblical. By all means, celebrate the Nativity of our Lord. Rejoice with the angels at the birth of the Messiah. Reflect on the profound significance of the Incarnation, and resolve in your own life to live more incarnationally—for it is the Spirit of Messiah who indwells you and would transform your life to the glory of the Father.
It seems to me the problem is not so much that we celebrate Christmas, but that we don't celebrate it well. In other words, the problem is not that we celebrate, but how we celebrate. Our culture, unchecked consumerism and syrupy sentimentalism tend to dominate our customs. I would urge you this year to find creative ways to celebrate the Nativity of the Lord in spirit and in truth.
Let’s be honest. The merrymaking of our society during this season often is more akin to Saturnalia than to the things of the Spirit. During the Christmas season our homes, sad to say, are noted more for the presents that are there than for the Presence who is there. The spirit of Santa Claus usually is a more notable feature of our celebrations than the Spirit of Christ!
I wish I had time to tell you about the development of Santa Claus; that is quite an interesting story actually. I will only give you this personal aside: From my point of view, Santa Claus is about as relevant to Christ’s birth as rabbits are to his resurrection!
To summarize, then, my first recommendation is to make the Nativity the focus of the season, not the Festivities.
SECOND Consider simplifying and sanctifying the Nativity season this year. Simplify in the spirit of the original Nativity instead of being submerged by consumerism in the service of Mammon. Be redemptive with your giving: buy less and give more. Why not take a portion of your planned gift money and give it to the poor? Redeem your money this year. Give more to charitable causes than you ever have before.
Let us make every effort to focus on Jesus the Messiah—his incarnation, his life, and the joy of his Spirit. Let’s be more concerned about Christ showing up Christmas morning than Santa Claus! May our homes be known for the sweet spirit of Messiah permeating the festivities rather than for the frantic profusion of gifts, foods, and merry-making. Christmas actually is one of the most impressive ways we can bear witness of our Lord to friends and family, and even to our society. So let’s redeem the time.
THIRD Be more informed about the holiday and more respectful of differing points of view. Let us listen to one another's concerns and benefit from one another's cautions. Be very careful about judgmental attitudes towards those whose views or practices differ from yours. Judgmentalism and condescension do not honor the Messiah. Be a little more self-reflective: judge yourself.
I am reminded of a true story told by a friend from Israel. He was on a ministry trip to Florida, and while there visited an impressive (and expensive) new home of a Christian couple. The husband took my friend to the garage to show off his brand-new high-powered boat, parked next to some beautiful cars. As they were talking, something was said about Christmas. “Oh,” said the man, “we’ve given up celebrating Christmas. It’s too pagan!”
What’s wrong with this picture?
Let us examine our own lives this season of the Nativity. For the sake of Messiah and the edifying of our community of faith, let us all reassess the Nativity holiday and celebrate the Incarnation with focus and with great joy, together.
Put another way, what I am saying to you is this ...
To some aspects of this holiday, we need to say “Hallelujah!” To other aspects of this holiday, we need to say “Bah Humbug!” If you agree, speak Hebrew with me and say “Amen”.