"Is Christmas Christian?"
Now, some of you will recognize this text and the subject of this sermon. Two years ago, also on the first Sunday of Advent, I preached on the same text and the same subject. But since then I have had still further occasion to think about the celebration of Christmas and Easter and other Christian holidays. And my thinking has continued to develop as I have read the works of both critics and advocates of the church's celebration of these holidays, especially Christmas, as it is the greatest of these holidays and the one that Christians pay the most attention to.
As advent begins I want us to think about its celebration. In particular I want us to celebrate it with thoughtfulness and intention as a great Christian holiday. To do that we need a theology of Christmas. I do not mean a theology of the incarnation or of the birth of Jesus Christ. I am speaking of a theology of the celebration of Christmas as a season of the year and a holiday with all of its music, its decoration, its gift giving, and its happy associations in almost every family circle. And I want, in developing that theology, also to show you how we are to read the Bible and learn from it our way of life, not only with regard to celebrations and holidays, but everything else as well.
As I said, I have been thinking about this and have come to feel increasingly --more definitely than I did two years ago -- that the celebration of Christmas is not just proper and important, but eminently biblical and necessary. But you are aware, perhaps, that many in our tradition (Puritans, Scottish Presbyterians, etc.) through the centuries have not thought so. Some of our own men still today feel very strongly that in the celebration of Advent and of Christmas the church is simply capitulating to the world. They argue that in celebrating this popular holiday Christians are betraying the Lord with a kiss, justifying their delight in the celebration of what is really just a pagan holiday by overlaying the celebration with a thin veneer of Christian associations. They love not the Lord in Christmas but love Christmas itself and use the Lord to justify that love.
One of the young men who has gone from us into the ministry has an elder who feels strongly that the modern celebration of Christmas is not only not Christian, but is anti-Christian. He will not have a Christmas tree in his house, because he thinks it a pagan symbol. And this man is not alone. Many thoughtful Christians share his point of view.
And their argument is not to be sniffed at. It has substance and requires a careful response. The argument against the Christian celebration of Christmas comes largely in two parts.
First, it is pointed out that the Scripture nowhere commands Christians to celebrate Christmas, nowhere even mentions such a celebration. So, they argue, Christmas is a human invention and does not belong in the worship of God. For we in the Reformed Church believe -- and we do believe this -- that only that is to be done in the worship of Almighty God that has the positive sanction of God's Word. As a church we accept the truth of that position. God alone can teach us how he is to be worshipped. To invent our own approach is just as much a violation of the second commandment as it would be to bow down to idols. The Bible teaches us that clearly enough. And it is true that the Bible never mentions any such celebration as Christmas. So then, how can we justify its celebration as part of our worship of God. How can we speak of Advent Sundays and Christmas Sundays? How can we justify the selection of hymns and choral music that we make at this time of the year? How can we claim that what we are doing in giving and receiving gifts, in decorating Christmas trees in our living rooms, in lighting our homes, has any connection whatsoever with the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ? How can we claim that any of this pleases God?
As a matter of fact, I am sure that we are right to do these things and that, in fact, the Scripture adds its own imprimatur to our Christmas celebration. I will say it plainly: I believe that Christmas is a biblical obligation.
Its manner of celebration is not a matter of commandment, but that it should be celebrated is, in my judgment, the teaching of the Bible.
For, you see, while the Bible does not mention Christmas or Easter by name, -- it says very little about the worship of the NT church as a matter of fact -- it does teach us to remember and to celebrate with great feasts the central events in the history of our salvation.
Some of our friends argue that the Bible would have explicitly to command us to celebrate Christmas for us to have a right to do so. Now, don't be quick to dismiss these folk. At least they are taking the Bible seriously as the rule of our worship of God. Far too few Christians today are doing that and the result of that indifference to Holy Scripture has been disaster for Christian worship. But, here is their mistake, in my judgment.
The Scripture directs us in our worship of God in many other ways than by specific commandments to do this or not to do that. No commandment, for example, can be found that a Sabbath worship service is to include a sermon or even the singing of hymns. But by many illustrations and by the clear implication of much other teaching in many places we rightly conclude that both sermon and hymn singing belong to the Sabbath worship of the church. There is no command anywhere to include women and children in the Lord's Supper worship of the church. The first Lord's Supper, the only one described in any detail, included only men. But we are, of course, completely correct in our assumption that the Scripture intends us to include the whole membership of the church in that worship.
Well, so it is with feasts and holidays in commemoration of the great moments in the history of our salvation. This is why I chose once again to read Esther 9:18-28. It is, I judge, the locus classicus for this question of feasts and holidays, the text that more than any other should direct our thinking concerning the celebration of Christmas.
And the reason for that is this: God did not directly appoint the celebration of Purim. Now Passover and Tabernacles were also feasts of Israel's annual calendar of worship, but God himself had appointed and commanded that Israel observe those feasts. But the feast of Purim, the celebration and commemoration of God's deliverance of his people in Persia from a plot to murder them all, was the creation of the church itself, as we read in vv. 18, 27 and 31. There was nothing about this feast in the Law of Moses, the Jews in Jerusalem and Judea would have known nothing about it until later. No book of Holy Scripture commands its celebration, and yet, in the Bible, it is clearly regarded as a good, a natural, even a wonderful thing that an annual feast should have been appointed for such a purpose. As, as we read in v. 27, this new feast became a religious obligation of the Jews. It was not in the law, but it was to be observed.
What is more, and perhaps even more important for our purpose another such feast was instituted among the Jews during the period between Esther and the NT. As you may remember, during the middle of the second century B.C., the temple in Jerusalem was profaned by Antiochus Epiphanes, a king who had conquered Judea. As a result of the heroic resistance of a band of Jewish guerrilla fighters, the Maccabees, eventually Jerusalem was liberated and the temple purified and rededicated. An annual feast was appointed to celebrate that God-given deliverance as well. It was called the Feast of Dedication or the Feast of Lights and it is the Jewish holiday we know today as Hanukkah (which is Hebrew for "dedication"). This too was a feast with no standing in the Law of Moses. The church created it in commemoration of what God had done for her. But, -- and here is the point -- our Savior himself observed this feast, as we read in John 10:22. No doubt he also observed Purim and did so, as a boy, with the same childhood glee with which our children look forward to Christmas.
Now the simple logic of the Scripture in all of this is that if the Exodus from Egypt was remembered annually with a great feast -- God enshrining the connection between his saving acts and great memorial feasts in his law -- and if the deliverance of the Jews in Persia was celebrated annually with a great holiday, and if the victory God gave the Maccabees was commemorated each year with a feast, how much more should the people of God celebrate and commemorate the greatest event in the history of the world, the event that rescued all of the people of God, in every age, from eternal death?
It would be utterly untrue, unfaithful to the pattern of Holy Scripture not to celebrate annually the incarnation of the Son of God! For what is perfectly clear is that the Bible never tells us to stop doing what God's people did with God's approval, namely, to remember his greatest works with holidays. The commandment enshrined in all of this biblical teaching is that God's people should remember the history of salvation with great feasts and holidays.
Second, the critics of the church's celebration of Christmas argue that the accoutrements, the accompaniments of Christmas are not Christian at all, but pagan in origin and meaning. The 25th of December was originally a Roman pagan holiday in worship of the sun. Christmas trees, lights, Santa Claus, and so on have no more to do with Christianity than does the Easter bunny with the resurrection of the Lord. By accepting these things, we inject paganism into our worship of Jesus Christ.
Well that is a caution worth hearing. And we would all be better off if we got rid of Santa Claus and returned instead to St. Nicholas, the early Christian saint known for his love for and generosity to children. The Feast of Tabernacles in the period of the Judges and afterwards became the most popular feast of the year precisely because it fell at the same time as the great Canaanite new year festival. Both were fixed at the time of the Autumn harvest of summer fruit. Many of the pagan elements of the Canaanite feast found their way into the Israelite feast and corrupted it. So it is not an empty concern the Christian opposers of Christmas raise in pointing out the pagan origin of Christmas customs. Who would argue that American consumerism does not threaten Christian gift-giving at Christmas.
Now, it should be said, as an aside, that some of the claims made for the pagan origin of various Christmas customs are themselves at best unproven, at worst highly dubious. Perhaps the colors red and green come from ancient magic and fertility cults. Perhaps Christmas trees were originally Druid idols. But perhaps not. In any case, the origin of the Christian celebration of Christmas is quite uncertain both as to date and to circumstances, even the reason for settling on December 25 is not really certain.
But, it should be said directly that the presence of pagan elements in a Christian celebration does not necessarily corrupt that celebration and render it unacceptable for Christians. If Christmas were placed on purpose on the 25th of December to replace the pagan festival to the sun, how is that different from the Lord placing Tabernacles -- which, after all was a remembrance of the wilderness journey of Israel, not a new Year's celebration -- at the time of paganism's new year festival? And is it not interesting that Tabernacles made much of the enjoyment of food just harvested from the vines and the trees, just as the pagans had done at their festival?
Think of how many other ways God accommodated his worship to already existing customs and, by so doing, sanctified and purified those customs. The architecture of Solomon's temple was taken in most respects from the standard architecture of pagan temples in the ANE. Many of the rites and ceremonies that God appointed for Israel's worship already existed in pagan forms, but by changes were sanctified to holy use.
It would certainly be difficult to prove that pretty trees and lights and ornaments cannot be sanctified to Christian use. Beauty and good cheer of all kinds are a feature of all the great feasts of the Bible. Giving gifts had no particular connection with the history of Esther and Mordecai, but was included in the custom of the feast as a means of increasing everyone's pleasure! It is one of the reasons we love God that he gives gifts to men. Everyone loves giving and receiving gifts. It is an entirely Christian instinct to include the giving and receiving of gifts as part of a celebration of our salvation: you find it here at Purim; you find it in the Christmas history of the wise men and the gifts they gave to the newborn King, and you find it in St. Nicholas who gave gifts to children.
To claim that pagan elements incorporated in Christian worship invalidates that worship is an argument that tells against biblical feasts themselves and seems to suggest that pagans have a greater right to beautiful and charming things that do the sons and daughters of their creator.
So, there is a justification for the celebration of advent and Christmas as biblical feasts and as that which Christians should enjoy and practice as part of their Christian faith and worship.
But I want to conclude with the second half of a biblical theology of Christmas, the benefits of such a feast. We said that it was a commemoration and a celebration of what God has done. But to what ends do we commemorate and celebrate?
First, we should say that such feasts as Christmas and Easter bear witness to ourselves and to the world of this history of God's salvation.
Our faith is a faith based on events in history, on things that actually happened, on real people, and especially a real person, his supernatural birth, his sinless life, his death, and his resurrection from the dead.
It is essential that this truth, this historical reality and foundation never be lost. As soon as Christianity becomes simply another religious idea, it becomes the same as every other religion and has no more virtue or power than they. No, we believe things that happened, in this world, on days such as this very day. [So Passover, Tabernacles, Purim, Dedication].
The feasts of the Christian calendar are demonstrations of that same historicity. We in America celebrate the 4th of July because of what happened on that day in 1776. We celebrate Christmas because God the Son was born of a virgin and Easter because he rose from the dead.
It is the great witness of the Christian faith to the world that had not Jesus been born of a virgin in long ago Bethlehem, there would be no such celebration as Christmas and even the unbelieving world would lose its happiest time of the year.
You see, nothing can create something like Christmas except extraordinary events in the world. The 4th of July is child's play compared to the 25th of December. And Labor Day and Memorial Day cannot be mentioned in the same breath. Those holidays celebrate ideas -- Christmas remembers the most extraordinary event in the history of the world, the only thing that has ever really happened, as Dorothy Sayers put it. No wonder Christmas towers above all the other holidays and always will!
Auguste Compte, the father of modern humanism, once expressed the hope that, as the power of the Christian faith waned, humanist feasts would appear to replace the old religious ones such as Christmas and Easter. G.K. Chesterton professed mock disappointment that none such feasts were forthcoming. He was always glad for another holiday, he said. He would be happy to light a fire on Charles Darwin day or hang up his stocking on the eve of Victor Hugo's birthday or sing carols about the infancy of Henrik Ibsen or trim a tree to celebrate human potential day. There is no thrill in such things as there is in the real history that we remember at Christmas. Let the world know what happened long ago, what event lies beneath our faith and remains the only hope of the world. Let them know it in our feast which they can't help but borrow, because it is so much better than anything they can do!
Second, such a feast as Christmas is an engine of joy in the Christian life. The Lord wants his people to be happy. He gave them a pattern of feasts to help them be happy. For they have great reason to be happy, even in this sin-sick world of death.
It is inappropriate, it is not fitting that Christians should not rise above the sorrows of life for some especially grand fun and gaiety, given what God has done for them and promised to them in the world to come. It is all so surpassingly beautiful and glorious: our salvation and our Savior. No wonder there should be feasts remembering it. Daniel Baker, the great preacher of the south, once wrote his son: "See to it, my son, that you enjoy religion and that you enjoy it every day." Every day, absolutely. But the Lord has shown us that to enjoy it every day, we must enjoy some days even more than others. That was his way from the beginning.
And, I am sure of this, the Lord is saying to us this Advent season, as sure as he said to his people through Nehemiah: "Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This time is sacred to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength." [Neh. 8:10] Joy in real things, happy things, beautiful things, altogether human things, because such is our faith and our heavenly Father's love and goodness.
There is our theology of Advent and Christmas. It is no use having a theology if it is not practiced. You practice it: making Christmas and the Christmas season both your witness and your joy and that of your family. Children, mothers, and especially fathers, see to it, and the joy of the Lord will be your strength!