This post is, in part, a response to a little article by a brother in Christ, Rick Thompson, who has been a pastor for the better portion of my lifespan, and most recently an itinerant pastor for the House Church movement across the country, though particularly here in Massachusetts. In the course of thinking through what I was going to say in reply, I came to an interesting idea: one of the Church’s weapons in the battle to reclaim “the true meaning of Christmas” is a more robust understanding and celebration of Advent. But we’ll get to that.
the issue of origins
He starts off with the assertion that the origins of Christmas are “undeniably pagan.” This is tricky accusation that many people have hurled at most every Christian holiday lately, in seemingly equal vitriol to those who adamantly defend them. The issue here is what origins are being discussed. The idea of Christmas trees may well be co-opted from Germanic pagan beliefs in holy trees, the figure of Santa Claus is an elaborate victim of the classic Telephone game stemming from St. Nicholas and likely other historical and ahistorical figures and events. Specifically, he names Saturnalia as a Roman pagan holiday that Christianity took over once it became the official religion of the empire.
The trouble here is the assumption that Christian holidays weren’t ‘invented’ until the religion was ‘official.’ It is true that our earliest written sources confirming the celebration of Christmas are from the time after Christianity was legalized, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t start earlier – that’s just a point in time at which we know that the Church got her act together and had the time to discuss it and write it down. Furthermore, Christmas was never just some random date – it’s part of a connected meaningful calendar. Christmas leads to the Epiphany, twelve days later (January 6th); and 9 months before Christmas is the Feast of the Annunciation – when Jesus was conceived. Granted, we’ve got no historical reason to believe that December 25th was Jesus’ actual birthday. Part of the reason for that choice, however, was based on an old Jewish & Greek idea that great people were conceived and died on the same day. So look back at the Feast of the Annunciation on March 25th… that’s more or less in the middle of the range of dates that Easter might land on.
So in one sense, December 25th is pretty arbitrary, and it’s curious how it’s so close to the winter solstice and Saturnalia and whatever other pagan holidays one might dredge up from the history books. But we’ve got to remember that it’s part of a year-wide system, a calendar, which was largely (if not entirely) derived from the date of the resurrection – Easter – which we know was connected with the Passover. And keep in mind, the West has changed calendar systems a couple times since Jesus was around, so a lot of date-shifting has taken place as a result. We should neither be dogmatic about the date of Jesus’ birth nor about pagan conspiracies sneaking into the Church.
the issue of biblical mandate
Another point Rick brings out is that the New Testament neither commands that Christmas ought to be celebrated nor disallows such a memorial. I appreciate his balanced recognition of these facts, for there are some who latch on to ‘the Christian freedom’ and take some of of Paul’s words out of context about how no day is holier than another, or the folly of celebrating seasons and weeks and days. These are not prohibitions from having holidays, they are liberations from the Old Covenant mandates on what and how to celebrate. But I’d argue that there remains a strong biblical case for celebrating Christian holidays.
First note that God’s original demand to Pharaoh through Moses was to let Israel go worship God for a few days and then return. Yes, God’s ultimate plan was to get Israel out of Egypt altogether, but he started with the simpler request – to allow them to worship Him – to make a point: worshiping God (especially on the Sabbath, which the Egyptians were disallowing the Israelites from observing) is an essential part of a faith community’s shared life. And, lo and behold, when Israel escaped from Egypt and received the Law and the Covenant through Moses, instructions on how to worship featured prominently. Celebrating the Passover was arguably the central feast – it kept alive the identity-forming events of the Israelite nation. In fact, all the Jewish holidays were instituted to preserve their identity through remembrance of common history: Passover to remember the Exodus, Tabernacles to remember the desert wanderings, Purim to remember what Esther and Mordechai risked to save them, Hannukha to remember the victory of the Maccabees (especially purifying the Temple), and so on.
In the New Covenant, the Church is spiritual Israel, not physical Israel, so although the Old Testament history is still our history, it’s partially overshadowed by the New Covenant that we have in Jesus. Thus we’re freed from the old Law and bound to Christ instead. The only memorial feast commanded of us is the Eucharist – remembering the person and work of Jesus the Messiah. This doesn’t tie to a particular day, though the Passover (Easter) is the most logical single day to identify with this command, though the Church has generally understood that the Paschal sacrifice is our central act of worship every time we meet together, not just once a year.
But if we go back to what God taught his people over the course of Old Testament history, we’ll remember that celebrating holidays help us keep alive our collective memory of events, thus knitting us closer together in community with one another (present and distant). So if an event or person is worth remembering throughout the whole Church, instituting a holiday is one of the best ways to do it. And in the New Testament there are lots of events and people that we can look back to as foundation-laying for our faith and religion today. Of course, Jesus is the most important person, so celebrating him ought to be more prominent than any other person. Christmas – his birthday – is one such opportunity, where we can celebrate the incarnation, the Word made flesh.
This brings us to another obvious issue that Rick also brings up: “For those who choose to celebrate I trust that your focus is on the Lord, rather than celebrating the materialism of an affluent culture.” To this issue, I’ve developed an interesting hypothesis….
the issue of secularism
The problem is obvious: Christmas is becoming more and more about consumerism (buying presents for ourselves and for others) and less and less about the incarnation/birth of Christ. First of all, buying presents for others is not a bad thing – it’s an excellent way to show love. The problem is when it becomes excessive, debt-inducing, obligatory instead of joyful, and favoritist (whatever happened to giving alms to the poor?). For some, the solution is to throw the whole thing out, be a nonconformist, and utterly defy the culture of the day. But there’s a less radical option which, I’ll argue, is more spiritually beneficial.
As I mentioned in the first section of this post, Christmas does not exist in a vacuum; it’s part of an integrated purposeful calendar. For up to four weeks before December 25th, there is this little season called Advent, popularly remembered only in the form of Advent Calendars, giving out little pictures, Bible verses, chocolates, or other mini-goodies leading to The Big Day itself. This is a glimmer of what I’m getting at, for Advent is a season of preparation and anticipation.
Preparation is something we’ve got pretty well covered: put up the Christmas decorations, write the Christmas letter, send cards, buy presents, and so on. But anticipation… that kind of gets lost in the works because preparation makes us so busy. Anticipation, better known as waiting, is counter-cultural! If we can re-capture what Advent means and assimilate it into our spiritual lives, we’ll be 1) much better equipped to celebrate Christmas the way it was meant to be, and 2) living counter-culturally in way that won’t be misread as condescending.
This begs the question, what does Advent actually mean? Adventus means “arrival;” it refers simultaneously to Christ’s first arrival (his birth) and to his glorious return at the end of the age. As Hebrews 9 so helpfully sums it up, the first advent was to deal with sin itself, the second advent will be to save those who are eagerly waiting for him. Part of the Christian life involves ‘active waiting,’ or preparation + anticipation. So insofar as we can send Christmas cards, buy people presents, and decorate our homes in honor of the glory of Christ, these ‘secular’ acts can be transformed into ‘sacred’ acts of devotion.
This is a pretty brief shot at summarizing Advent; plenty more could be said, but I’ll leave that topic to other sources for now. Suffice it to say here that if we give Christmas its proper period of reflection, anticipation, preparation, and spiritual focus, we can transform it in our lives and faith communities into a much holier event than the world makes it out to be.