Friday, December 25, 2015

A Christmas "meditation"

I am to a large degree ambivalent about Christmas. Perhaps it's easy to have mixed feelings about a holiday that brings out such wild extremes in people. Some great acts of random kindness are associated with and arise from the "spirit" of Christmas -- while otherwise "normal" people can pummel and maul each other over the last item on the shelf at Wal-Mart. Christians on one end of the spectrum rigorously rage against Christmas as a pagan heathen holiday. Christians on the other end of the spectrum breathlessly battle with the world to keep Christ in Christmas. The cunning crusade knows no bounds, vanquishing all "opponents" of Christmas, whether on the right or the left, whether holding biblical or secular reasons.

There is no scripture that commands Christians to observe Christmas (or the birthday of Jesus). It is evidently also true that there are some pagan roots behind some of the Christmas traditions. There is not, however, one singular origin of Christmas. It is a pastiche of all sorts of religious traditions and folk customs from around the world. It is not a "Christian" holiday. In the U.S. it is a religious, secular and national holiday.

As people of the book, we should not easily dismiss the fact that there is no command to celebrate as a custom the birth of Jesus. We are given commands to observe his death, burial and resurrection in our baptism, to memorialize his body and blood in the communion, and we remember him (and resurrection) in our gathering on the first day of the week. But Christmas is just not there. However, one needs to carefully consider some precepts and examples found in the New Testament before going hog wild in hatred of the day.

It seems that folks in the early church who were Jews continued to celebrate, without compunction, days that were part of their culture and heritage. Notice Acts 2:1-2; 18:21; 20:6, 16; 21:22-24; 27:9 for examples. Some believe that the unnamed feast Jesus went up to in John 5:1 was the feast Purim (and occurred before Passover, cf. John 6:3) and that the feast of dedication in John 10:22 was Hanukkah. These were not feasts of the law, but later cultural feast added to the Jews to commemorate past events. Could this suggest that national or cultural holidays are not immediately suspect? Further, Paul shows some ambivalence toward the celebration of days in his writing to the Romans. For example, in Romans 14:5-6 it is written, “One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind. He that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord; and he that regardeth not the day, to the Lord he doth not regard it. He that eateth, eateth to the Lord, for he giveth God thanks; and he that eateth not, to the Lord he eateth not, and giveth God thanks.” Not only this, but he seems to connect this to his teaching about eating meats offered to idols. If one is not condemned for buying at the market and eating meat that only a few days before was part of an idolatrous temple service (cf. 1 Cor. 8:6-8), how likely is it that one is condemned for some long lost pagan connection that he or she knows nothing about?

We are descendants of pagans; there is no doubt that some of that has trickled down to our culture. Much of it we accept with little thought. The days of our week and names of our months are based on pagan gods, yet most of us use them daily with never so much as a nod to thoughts of paganism. Many other customs are steeped in a long forgotten past. The handshake originally was based on exposing the weapon hand to prove peaceful intent, yet a modern handshake proves little more than observance of custom. One can become so obsessed with latent paganism as to become a Pharisee preoccupied with cleaning the outsides of cups and straining at gnats. While raging against Christmas, many of the same will celebrate the July 4 declaration that energized Christian Baptists in America to raise their muskets to blow out the brains of, and thrust their bayonets to gore out the guts of, their British Baptist brethren who were guilty of little more than joining the British army (a few even bringing it into church services).

The conscience and motivation of a person has real significance. Notice such texts as 1 Corinthians 6:12; chapter 8; 10:31, Romans chapter 14, etc. Celebrating days such as a birthdays and national holidays may not necessarily be bad, but rather a matter of conscience and preference. Don’t violate your conscience, and don’t help others to violate their consciences. Even if you are free in conscience for your family’s practice, leave that practice at home. Don’t bring them into church. Church is for the worship of God and the practice of what He commanded. Christmas is not commanded.

A piece that might be of interest:
2 Reasons NOT to ‘Keep Christ in Christmas’

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