Doing Christmas Right

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We stood beside a Christmas tree in the basement of the church.  Jeff and I were talking about the children’s nativity program we had just enjoyed in the sanctuary.  The cast of characters had been the familiar one — “wisemen” in gold foil crowns, “angels” with crepe paper and glitter wings, and “shepherds” donning bathrobes and towel head coverings. And of course a little girl starring as Mary, along with a small boy playing Joseph, and someone’s baby doll as Jesus were the center of attention.

Jeff, with a wistful look on his face, said, “You know, pastor, times like tonight put Christmas and life in the right perspective, don’t they?”

“What do you mean,” I asked.

He turned his face toward me and replied, “That Christmas should remind us of all that is good and innocent about our world as we celebrate the birthday of Jesus.  It is such a wonderful thing for us to do.  It brings out the child in all of us.  God must be happy with that.”

Moments later, at the urging of the director of the nativity program, people in the fellowship hall gushed forth with song: “Happy birthday to you; happy birthday to you; happy birthday, dear Jesus, happy birthday to you.”

As I have remembered that moment across the years, it has become ever clearer to me that such well-intentioned sentimentality, far from putting Christmas “in the right perspective,” actually dilutes the mystery and wonder that Christ’s mass should engender in us.  It misses the profound message of the advent of our Lord and forgets that the meaning of Bethlehem is the beginning of cosmic redemption for all of Creation, but especially God’s human creatures.  Infinitely more wondrous and convicting is its evangel than innocence and the birthday of Jesus.

Our celebration of December 25, ironically, was established quite late in the antiquity of the Church.  For the most part we can say that there is scant evidence to support any claims that marking the birth of Jesus – as a standalone event – was seen as a serious liturgical or theological issue for the early Christians.  Think, for instance, about the focus of the Gospels.  In only two of the four evangelists’ testimonies (Matthew and Luke) is it mentioned at all, and then in quite different ways.  Extensive reference is given to his ministry, his passion, death, and resurrection occurs in all of them.  Even Mark’s cryptic and abbreviated account is such that Jesus’s resurrection is both the pinnacle of the book and the foundation of the journey of faith for the community of disciples.

Furthermore, among the most influential writers who endeavored to explain and defend Christianity in the second century, Irenaeus and Tertullian, there is no mention of birth celebrations for Jesus in the list of Christian feasts. Origen of Alexandria, who lived from 185—264 A.D., mocked the Roman celebrations of birth anniversaries and went so far as to say it would be wrong for Christians to celebrate Christ’s birth the way that earthly kings were remembered, remarking that in Scripture sinners and not saints celebrate their birthdays.

That is, of course, not the whole story of the early Christian theologians.  Clement of Alexandria describes for us an interest among Christians in the late second and early third centuries regarding the date of Jesus’s birth.  According to him, May 20 was first identified by some as the proper day.  He also noted that others had argued for April 18 or 19, as well as May 28.  Hippolytus (c. 170-236 A.D.) favored January 2.  And among others, November 17 or 20, and March 25 had champions.  What is obvious, however, when one reads all the early theologians and fathers is that the reality of his historical existence as a real flesh and blood man who was the Incarnation of the Son of God, along with all the implications his identity had for our salvation was far more important than precision about his actual birth date.

The establishment of December 25 as the official feast day to include twelve feasting days to follow in recognition and celebration of the birth of Jesus is a very interesting story.  It became officially established in Western (Latin) Christian practice only in 336 A.D.  This date coincided with the Roman celebration of the winter solstice and inauguration of the sun god’s beginning to wax strong again.  For this reason, the oft-touted theory that Christmas is an illicit festival for Christian faith has gained traction in many evangelical circles.  Yet, this is simply historically inaccurate. 

 Although Christian authors of the time noted a connection between the solstice an “rebirth” of the sun god and Jesus’s birth, they clearly believed that this was a providential, ironic serendipity.  Their view as that the church simply realized by dating other events in the Gospels that Christ’s birth was a matter of providence superintending his arrival to be a witness that God’s Son is the true God incarnate and a denunciation of the false pagan god (and gods).  They could, therefore, encourage Christians to celebrate this feast at the same time their pagan neighbors were honoring a myth.  The Church was to do it not just as a remembrance, but a reception and announcement to the pagan world, of the reality of God’s true and only Son becoming flesh to redeem the world.

The slowness of the Church to name a specific universal date for the feast can be understood quite readily when one recognizes a few theological issues that dominated the early Church’s thinking.  First, as mentioned above, far more emphasis and interest were placed on the mystery of Christ’s identity as the God-man and the grace offered to the world through his life and saving work.  The earliest Christians, and even those who officially designated Christmas as a late December feast, were less invested in marking his birth than in worshipping Jesus as the incarnate and eternal Son of God.  The second reason follows from the first: orthodox faith was rooted in the conviction that, while Jesus was truly and physically born of Mary and therefore fully human, in the strictest sense he is God’s monogeneis (Only Begotten), as John 1:1-18 declares.  Thus, he is in the final analysis without beginning, while being born into history.

Hence, it is the grace and mystery of the Incarnation that most fully captured the minds of the earliest Christian apologists and theologians. The fact of his birth from the Virgin Mary, for this reason, was not for them a metaphor, because the reality of Jesus’s lack of human paternity testified to the reality that “the Word became flesh and dwelled among us” (John 1:14).  It was in Mary’s virgin womb that the providential grace of God to redeem all our human fallenness began.  His identity as the one and only Person who is fully God and fully man as the Nicene Creed so beautifully declares is the source of what saves us.  Thus, finally establishing a “universal” date to commemorate his human birth was not meant to be a celebration of his birthday but a solemn festival to rejoice that God has united Himself to our world, our human nature, and our need.  In so doing, God redeems all of Creation.

He has, as St. Irenaeus or Lyons declares, “recapitulated” humanity in His own incarnate life.  There is not one aspect of our human journey that he has not embraced, inhabited, dignified, redeemed by healing, as well as glorified.  The Son of God, to utilize the cold, clinical language of biological science became a zygote (first through third day); then a blastocyst (fourth day through second week); then an embryo (third through eighth week); and then a fetus (ninth week until birth). All the while he was utterly reliant upon Mary’s body for nourishment and oxygen for his development. Then he journeyed through the birth canal of his mother to be born a frail, dependent fully human baby, whose life continued to depend upon Mary and Joseph.  And as the Word incarnate, he, nonetheless, as the Incarnate One continued to grow “in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and human beings” (Luke 2:52).

St. Athanasius in his magisterial work On the Incarnation of the Word during the fourth century, about seven years before the Council of Nicaea, captured the wonder of Christ’s whole life given to us to rescue us from our fallenness.  He declares that although humanity was in the process of utterly destroying our nature and our very existence, the Word of God through whom all things were made by God the Father could not but give Himself to redeem the Creation from the inside out, and not by divine fiat from on high.  Athanasius exults with the declaration:

“What—or rather Who was it that was needed for such grace and such recall as we required?  Who, save the Word of God Himself, Who also made all things out of nothing . . . for He alone, being Word of the Father and above all, was in consequence both able to recreate all, and worthy to suffer on behalf of all and to be an ambassador for all with the Father. . . 

For this purpose, then, in incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God entered our world.  In one sense, indeed, He was not fare from it before, for no part of creation had ever been without Him Who, while ever abiding in union with the Father, yet fills all things that are.  But now, He entered the world in a new way, stooping to our level in His love and Self-revealing to us.

Much more, then, the Word of the All-good Father was not unmindful of the human race He had called to be; but, rather, by the offering of His own body He abolished the death which they had incurred, and corrected their neglect by His own teaching.  Thus, by His own power He restored the whole nature of man” (The Incarnation of the Word, ch. 2)

So transcending a birthday celebration; far greater than a reminder of all that is good and innocent in the world; vastly more than bringing out the child in all of us, Christmas beckons us all the plunge our hearts and imaginations and wills into the unfathomable goodness of the mystery of God’s gift to us.  To do this, we must acknowledge the depth of our spiritual need–our own failure to live for and glorify God, our own sinful self-referential way of living, and our own deadness without God’s grace to reclaim us for, redeem us by, and restore us to the life of God in us.  This is why observing an Advent journey for the four weeks prior to the Christmas festival is a critical component for us to engage in self-reflection and prayers for purification and sanctification.  Even more, Christmas is a calling to live actively in the promise we find in I John 3: “when He is revealed we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.  All those who have this hope in Him purify themselves even as He is pure.  

May your Christmas not only be “merry,” but HOLY!

About the Author

G.Stephen Blakemore, Ph.D
G.Stephen Blakemore, Ph.D
Professor of Christian Thought at Wesley Biblical Seminary. As Professor of Christian Thought at Wesley Biblical Seminary he contributes with ranging versatility as a pastor and philosopher.