My social media feeds have been replete with voices making claims about Christmas and Christianity lately. The true spirit of Christmas should give tax relief. No, it should raise taxes and provide a social welfare state. It should allow for the distinctives of nationalism. It should open borders. And yes, I heard the obligatory pieces on public radio today repeating the old, tired fallacy that Jesus was an illegal immigrant when his parents fled to Egypt with him (He wasn’t, as the Roman world allowed free movement among the territories for all the residents of the different territories, rather like movement within the European Union today).
We also hear about all the meaningful celebrations around the time of Christmas. And some of those celebrations are really neat. I love the idea from Iceland of giving books and spending time reading them. I think chocolate is involved also. That’s a great idea! Families get together for a special meal. I can find no fault with that idea at all. People give gifts to each other. Sometimes the taste or usefulness of those gifts is questionable. Then again, I have been to several people’s fiftieth birthday parties. Frankly, compared to a bag of Depends for a continent person, a bottle of Geritol for someone with no iron deficiency, a bunch of black balloons, and an electronic fart generator, I haven’t received many tasteless and useless Christmas presents. Those who know me best give me books or fun food items I can share with them.
Then we hear about all sorts of alternative celebrations. They have been multiplying in recent years. What intrigues me the most about these is that many are reactions to (and against) a traditional celebration of Christmas. While there may be some which would be founded to take issue with the actual central proclamation of the Christ, it really seems that more are based on a rejection of some of the cultural trappings of a winter celebration that has grown up in the last few hundred years. Others are an attempt to celebrate Christmas without the burden of a religious figure such as the Christ. Sorry, but these look like a consolation prize, a vegan birthday cake.
There’s a difficulty central to all this. It’s that there are really at least two different holidays called Christmas. One is primarily a religious holiday and the other is primarily a secular holiday. A few weeks ago a group of friends gathered around my dining table started asking about this. Several were from a culture where there is very little exposure to Christianity. They were curious, especially since they were being exposed to Christmas for the first time ever in a North American setting.
I pointed out to them that many in the Western world have a celebration called Christmas. It culminates on December 25 with a family gathering and giving of gifts. Marketers, retailers, and the entertainment industry have tried to make the most of this celebration. They are able to generate a large portion of their annual sales in the four to six weeks leading up to the holiday. It’s easily understood as a cultural civic holiday, similar to Independence Day and Thanksgiving.
What was confusing was the fact that, as a Christian, I also celebrate a holiday called Christmas. This one is a religious holiday. It celebrates the Christ, who is God incarnate. Very regularly since about the beginning of the fourth century, and by some prior to that time, Christians would have a special assembly on or about December 25. The date, by the way, was not chosen to imitate Saturnalia or the Winter Solstice. Christians aren’t stupid. They have always known how calendars work. And when the holiday rose to prominence they were making every effort to avoid association with the Roman paganism. The date has never lined up with those other celebrations. This was on purpose. It is a different holiday, and everybody knew that until fairly recently. The observance of Christmas fairly quickly became a twelve day observance, beginning on December 25, lasting into the first week of January.
The Christian holiday of Christmas makes special mention of the Christ who became incarnate, taking on human form, to live under God’s law, but without sin, so that he could take the sin of the world upon himself and provide forgiveness. Christ became flesh and blood so as to give his life, a very human life, as a ransom for all humans who will die in every age. This is a realization of great importance, second in the Christian calendar only to the celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus, which completes his saving work.
Want a great Christmas tradition? This one really rocks. Go to a church. Not Schlocko Community Worship Center. A real church. Find one with a name like Christ the King, like Our Savior, like Emmanuel, like Redeemer, Trinity, or one named after an apostle other than Thomas. Find Christ in Christmas. On Christmas Eve hear and receive God’s words of Law and Gospel. These are the messages that say on our own we are unable to live a life pleasing to the true God, so God himself took on flesh to be pleasing on our behalf. Gather with Christians who hear God’s Word. See how they are nourished with the very body and blood of Jesus in the celebration of communion. Realize that Christians have gathered around the Word and Sacrament celebrated in almost exactly the same way for almost 2,000 years now. Remember that our confession is that God’s proclaimed Word creates and nourishes our faith, by which we receive hope in this life and in eternity. Remember how we, along with the Christians of the first century, recognize that in communion God delivers his Word using physical means along with the proclaimed word. Sing some songs of the Christian faith. Real songs. Songs that have lasted hundreds of years and will certainly outlast you. Songs that remind you of life and hope. Words that you can cling to in your darkest hour, even on your deathbed. There’s Christmas.
Want some good news for Christmas? It isn’t just a day, or even a twelve day season. It’s a life which can endure. That’s the message that millions of people in this generation hear and believe. And those are people who live a life of service to others, who bring good and hope to the world. Would you like to reject Christmas? That’s up to you. But please be aware of what you are rejecting. And let’s not confuse the two different Christmases. Would you like to pursue Christmas? By all means, do it. Receive God’s Word by faith. Pour yourself into the training pursued by new Christians. Look forward to receiving both Word and Sacrament. Keep Christmas from day to day, following the Christ.
A merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!