A Happy What?
Why bother with Christmas
THE makers of cards cater for us all. They print them with different messages. Some say Seasons Greetings; some mention the New Year; others mention Peace and Joy; some are blank; and some include the more traditional greeting, Merry Christmas. The options, it seems, are numerous.
WE do not hear people wish us a Happy Winter Festival. A few may say Happy Winter Solstice. And some, because they want to be politically correct, merely wish us a Happy Holiday.
What do you make of it all? Can you separate fact from fiction?
Some claim that Christians took over a festival celebrated on 17 December each year by the citizens of the ancient Roman Empire. Over time the revelry associated with Saturnalia extended from one day to as many as seven days. But to say that Christians took it over is to assert something that cannot be proved.
Others point to a third century Christian who died on 6 December 343 AD. His name was Nicholas and is also known as Nicholas of Bari. He was born on 15 March 270 AD. He became Bishop of Myra, an ancient Greek city of Asia Minor (modern day Turkey). His parents were wealthy and died when he was young.
Being a follower of Jesus, he took seriously the advice given to a rich young ruler. In response to the ruler’s question about eternal life, Jesus said that, ‘if you will be perfect, sell what you possess and give to the poor’ (Matthew 19.21). Nicholas used all that he inherited to help the poor and sick. His reputation as a person who was generous to those in need, his love for children, and his care for sailors is well known.He suffered during a period of Roman persecution and for a while he was exiled and imprisoned. His generosity and kindness are still remembered. The term Santa Claus is derived from his name. But to say that Nicholas of Myra or even Father Christmas (the modern day Santa Claus and giver of presents) are what Christmas is all about is to miss the point.
So what is Christmas about? The 20th century author and scholar, C S Lewis, calls it the time of the year when we are encouraged to focus on ‘the central event in the history of the earth.’
We know that some do not like the way people in the West organise the calendar. Traditionally we have used the letters BC and AD. BC stands for Before Christ, and AD for Anno Domini. Quite why we use an English term for the years before the birth of Jesus and a Latin term for the years since his birth has perplexed some. We cannot be certain but it may well be that we did it because, for an obvious reason, we would all be confused if we called the years before Christ’s birth Ante Dominum, the Latin term for them!
Some would prefer to go by another religious calendar be it Chinese, Jewish or Muslim. But that would mean radical change. Hence some, who want to avoid any reference to the Lord Jesus Christ have sought to introduce two new abbreviations, BCE (Before the Common Era) and CE (Common Era). However, as you will quickly recognise, the new letters beg the question, What marks the change from before the common era to the common era? The answer is clear. It is the birth of Jesus Christ.
We do not claim that our calendar is 100% accurate. There are good grounds to argue that the Lord Jesus was probably born at or about the year 4 BC. However, what we do know is that our calendars – regardless of whether a person uses BC and AD or BCE and CE to mark the years – point to the fact that the birth of Christ is the centre point of all history.
That is something that Christians quickly see. God’s people in ancient times looked and longed for the first coming of Jesus Christ. Since he came they look back with deep gratitude to God that he kept his promise. They also look forward expectantly for his second coming. For God has made known to mankind that the whole of history is moving forward to the time when Christ will return to judge the living and the dead. On that day the final state of things will be brought into being. The earth and cosmos will cease to exist in their present form. The new heaven and earth will be ushered in and God’s people will inherit the kingdom God has prepared for them. In it they shall dwell for ever with Jesus Christ.
2 Why Christmas?
There is no evidence that Christians celebrated Christmas before the 4th century. And the date of 25 December does not appear to have been used until the year 354 AD. Up until that date it seems that 6 January was a date on which Christians celebrated the baptism of Jesus. Many also celebrated his birth but, it seems, they did not have a separated occasion for his birth until the middle years of the 4th century. Today Christmas is celebrated in the West on 25 December but in the East many celebrate Christmas on 6 January. Neither date coincides with the Roman festival of Saturnalia. This fact supports the view that Christians did not replace Saturnalia with Christmas.
However, there is evidence that some of the customs associated with Christmas are similar to those associated with non-Christian winter festivals. In England, for example, after devotions on Christmas Eve, candles would be lit, a big log was put on a fire (the Christmas or Yule log) and parties took place. In the houses of the wealthy a person was appointed the Lord of Misrule. His duty was to oversee the activities. In Scotland a similar person was called the Abbot of Unreason. However that practice was abolished in 1555 by an Act of Parliament.
These details show that for years people have been pulled in one of two directions when it comes to celebrate Christmas. Naturally speaking many want to focus on parties and similar revelry. Others, Christians in particular, want to celebrate the central event of history. Instead of being preoccupied with parties and presents, they seek to use the occasion as a season of thanksgiving.
Yes, they seek to be kind and generous toward others. And, yes, they may enjoy a special meal at which candles are lit and crackers pulled. But their hearts and minds are centred on Christ Jesus.
Like the early Christians, they use Christmas to celebrate the fact that when the time had fully come God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son. And they do so knowing that all who believe on Christ will never perish but enjoy eternal life. Yes, they know that it is appointed that men and women will die and that they as individuals will sooner or later breath their last breath here on earth. Yet, they also know that all who belong to Jesus Christ shall rise from the dead on the last day and that their souls will be reunited with their resurrection body.
Moreover, they know that because the eternal Word or Son of God took humanity to himself in the womb of Mary, and he did so that, once born, he would live the perfect life men and women can never live. Jesus of Nazareth took full humanity to himself. As a man he was just like you and me except without sin. And then, after some 30 years here on earth, he set his face steadfastly to go to Jerusalem where he would see betrayal, trials, mocking and then crucifixion. Why? Why did he come to die such a cruel death? Because it was the only way that sinful people could come to know God and intimate fellowship and communion with him.
Ours sins come between us and God. And there is nothing that any of us can do to see them removed. We stand guilty before a holy God. We have not loved him with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. And we cannot do so. But Christ could and did. He did so on behalf of people just like you and me. The perfect One lived the perfect life sinners can never live. And the perfect One took upon himself the guilt of the numerous imperfections – each and every one of them – of the imperfect people in whose place he died. He did so to satisfy the justice of God. And in him God’s justice is satisfied. In him they have great cause to be happy.
Those for whom Christ died have Christ’s perfection reckoned as theirs the moment they take hold of him through faith. They entrust themselves to him like a little child taking hold of a parent’s hand. And they willingly allow him to lead them, guide them, and protect them during their short life here on earth. That, they know, is what faith entails. And what do they discover? As John Newton puts it: solid joys and lasting treasure. Such is the fruit of trusting in the God who was veiled in flesh and came with men to dwell. And, as Charles Wesley went on to write, he lay his glory by and was:
born that man no more may die,
born to raise the sons of earth,
born to give them second birth.
Happy What? Happy Christmas.
George Curry 9 December 2018