Why Have Christmas At All?
Why have Christmas at all?
At first blush, that question seems ridiculous, if not a bit sacrilegious. I mean, who could stop the tidal wave of holiday tradition that swoops over us at this time of the year, even if one were of a mind to try? Are not our Christmas customs so firmly fixed that they are beyond question or challenge or even change? Indeed, why would some modern-day Scrooge even think about disputing an observance that has brought happiness to young and old alike?
Well, the fact is that nobody loves Christmas more than I do. However, I feel constrained to remind you that Christmas is not found in the Bible. The celebration of Christmas is nowhere encouraged, nor is the occasion even mentioned on the pages of Holy Scripture. Furthermore, we find not one shred of evidence in Scripture or anywhere else, that the early Christians annually observed the birth of their Saviour, or that they had any interest in the date of that birth. In fact, only two of the twenty-seven New Testament books make any reference to the birth of Jesus at all.
We do know enough to know that Christmas was slow in becoming a part of our Christian tradition. It was, in fact, the last great festival to be adopted because the church tended to work backward from the other end of Jesus’ life. The earliest event to be celebrated, starting in the second century was the resurrection of Christ, together with the circumstances of His suffering and death. During the third century, the Church moved to balance Easter with what they called Epiphany, but that holy day focused on the baptism of Jesus rather than His birth. It was not until late in the fourth century that Christmas came to be added, almost as a footnote, to the Christian tradition.
Of course, when you get right down to it, what is the benefit of contemplating God-in-the-flesh as a baby anyway? After all, the infant Jesus taught no parables, worked no miracles, called no disciples, delivered no sermons. It is not irreverent to admit that in the manger, neither the word of divine revelation nor the work of divine redemption could be heard or seen. And since there is nothing quite as helpless as a baby, why should we use Christmas to spotlight God’s Son in His most limited and vulnerable condition?
Whether we care to face them or not, those kinds of questions about Christmas remain. And I believe that unless we can provide solid answers to the questions, then Christmas will ultimately wither away—or worse, become like cotton candy, a wispy confection without substance, a moment of sweetness that comes and goes quickly. Therefore today, I dare to probe the ultimate justification for the existence of Christmas in hopes of gaining a firmer grip on the reason for the season. Two reasons, to be precise…
First, Christmas is a celebration of birth.
The Bible may have nothing to say about Christmas, but it has a great deal to say about birth and the life cycle. Birth is the emergence of the new into the midst of the old. It is the force for renewal essential to the survival of both nature and humanity. It is the way things not only continue, but also the way that they change. That is why birth always points unmistakably to the presence of God. I have never heard anyone experience the miracle of birth without somehow mentioning God. And God has always used that silent miracle of birth to accomplish His work in the world.
History confirms that. Take, for example, the year 1809. It was a very bleak year all over the world. Napoleon was marching from one bloody victory to another. Statesmen were frightened as war raged in various parts of the world. Hunger and poverty ravaged one society after another. 1809 was a very dark year and hopelessness hung like a heavy pall over the lives of people in the world. Yet, away from public view and the glare of world attention, God was at work. He was sending babies into the world, as usual, but what special babies they were that year of 1809. That year, Cyrus McCormick was born on a farm in West Virginia. He went on to invent the harvester and made it possible for America’s great plains to become the world’s breadbasket. In 1809, William Gladstone was born of Scottish parents, and later he would become the driving force behind the British Empire which opened the door to freedom to hundreds of millions of people. In 1809, Alfred Lord Tennyson was born, together with Frederic Chopin and Felix Mendelssohn, three whose poetry and music would bring joy to the whole world. And perhaps most important of all, in a log cabin in Harden County, Kentucky there were heard the infant cries of a newborn babe named Abraham Lincoln. What seemed to be totally insignificant, the birth of some babies, was in fact, God’s orchestration of a whole new era in human history.
Or go back eighteen centuries before that. The Roman Empire was at its zenith, covering most of the then-known world, powerful beyond description, and holding the destiny of the world’s people in its sway. All eyes were on Caesar Augustus, the cynical, egotistical emperor who called himself “the saviour of the world,” and who demanded a census be taken so he could enlarge the tax base of the empire. At that time, who noticed a couple making an eighty-mile trip south from Nazareth? Who cared about a peasant child born to that couple days later in a place called Bethlehem?
Chuck Swindoll puts it this way: “While Rome was busy making history, God arrived. He pitched His fleshly tent in silence on straw under a star. The world didn’t even notice. Reeling from the wake of Alexander the Great, Herod the Great, and Augustus the Great, the world overlooked Mary’s little Lamb. It still does.”
That is why we have Christmas—to remind us that God works His purpose out through the birth of babies—one baby in particular—and that no matter what happens in our world and in our, lives, God is still in charge and He is working through the power of that baby born in Bethlehem to bring His good to the earth.
But Christmas is also a celebration of re-birth.
Birth, in and of itself, is a mixed blessing. The way in which one is born may leave a bitter legacy. Some babies are born into vicious cycles of poverty from which there seems no escape. Some babies are born black in white societies and thus are condemned to experience the sting of prejudice. Some babies are born into such affluence that they become hopelessly spoiled by the indolent rich before realizing the cost of such coddling. How strange that the same event of birth which is so full of gift and promise is also so full of threat and curse. Some never overcome the way they were born, others spend a lifetime trying to overcome it. Does Christmas mean, then, that Jesus was the one ideal infant with a halo around His head while the rest of us are not so fortunate in the start which we got? Of course not. Incredible as it may seem, the birth of Jesus was nothing less than God becoming human. That is what John meant when he said: “The Word became flesh.”
But notice, please, that he also says that we may experience a spiritual birth exactly like the physical birth of Jesus. He says that we can become those “who were born not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” In other words, the way God came to Mary in the Virgin Birth was a heavenly sign of the way He seeks to come into our hearts, by the power of the Spirit, as a gift of sheer surprise, in order to redeem us from the bitter, sinful heritage of our earthly birth.
We cannot promise that every baby born in poverty will escape its destitution, but anyone may inherit the spiritual riches of being heirs of God with Christ. We cannot eradicate, try as we should, the racial prejudice of this planet, but in Christ we may belong to a loving family where we are all one regardless of culture or color or country. Despite all our noble efforts, we cannot eliminate the aberrations which deform the body and the mind, but in Christ we have the hope of a “house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” Even for those of us favored by our first birth, the opportunity of a second birth means that jaded marriages may be renewed, that tedious jobs may be transformed, that sagging spirits may be rekindled.
You see, the important issue of Christmas is not so much that Jesus came, but why He came. He came to die. Those soft little hands, fashioned by the Holy Spirit in Mary’s womb, were made so that nails might be driven through them. Those tiny pink feet would one day walk a hill called Calvary. That sweet infant’s head would one day wear a crown of thorns. That warm and tender little body, wrapped in swaddling clothes, would one day be pierced by a spear. Jesus was born to die—to die for you and for me. He bore our sin. He purchased our salvation. He destroyed the power of death and evil. He secured for us the gift of eternal life. He came to give His all, even His life, for us. How else can we respond but by giving ourselves to Him completely in return?
That is really why we have Christmas. That is the real reason for the season. To celebrate God’s coming into the world through the birth of Jesus Christ. Yes. But also, to celebrate our coming to God through our own re-birth by the power of the Holy Spirit. There’s a lovely old hymn that says it best:
I know not how that Bethlehem’s babe
Could in the Godhead be,
I only know the Manger Child
Has brought God’s love to me.
I know not how that Calvary’s cross
A world from sin could free,
I only know its matchless love
Has brought God’s love to me.